VIRTUAL CROWD Fr Charlie McDonnell preaching online during the spring lockdown in St Mary’s Church, Westport. He’s asking parishioners to tune in online where possible for Christmas masses due to restrictions of 50 people attending. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
He should be out on the circuit these days, dropping in to enjoy school plays, visiting homes throughout the parish and having the craic in the midst of a town teeming with office parties and revelry.
Instead, Fr Charlie McDonnell is getting ready for a Christmas like no other. Downtown Westport is quieter than The North Pole when the elves went on strike, St Mary’s Church hasn’t been anywhere near full for months and the amiable priest is preparing for virtual celebrations of Christ’s birth.
However, there’s not even a smidgeon of negativity in the welcoming presbytery on the banks of the Carrowbeg River. Fr Charlie is well aware of the challenges facing his flock, but he says there’s a resilience, a spirit of hope by Clew Bay.
“It’s important not to live in fear. Christmas is usually a time of happiness and light in the darkest part of the year and we want to do our best to spread that joy again this year. We need to show everyone that we’re keeping her lit here in Westport,” he stated.
The worldwide Covid 19 pandemic has changed every aspect of life over the past few months and now Fr Charlie and his parishioners are readying themselves for a very unusual Christmas.
“We’ve been working towards this for quite a while, but to be honest, I’m very anxious, very nervous about it. We’re restricted to just 10 percent of our usual Christmas capacity and hoping most people use our online service because otherwise with the restricted numbers we’d have to hold 60 masses in 24 hours to cater for the amount of people wanting to attend.
“Instead, we’re encouraging as many as possible towards the online celebrations and we’ve put a lot of planning into making that as interactive as possible. On Christmas Eve we’ll have our first mass at 6pm and it will be totally online and interactive, no public allowed, and we’re hoping to reach most of our parishioners with this.
“We have put together 2,000 family packs for this particular mass, so that people can take part from their own homes. The packs contain a piece of blessed straw from the manger, a candle which can be lit during the mass, balloons which will be used as part of the homily and some sweets for the children of the house.”
Adapting and responding
This will be completely different to any previous Christmas Eve celebration, but Charlie is confident his parishioners will rise to the challenge.
“The pandemic has challenged all of us to interact in a different way at social/pastoral level, but the spirit and hospitality of the people remains unchanged. Last week, we needed the family-packs put together. The word went out and within minutes we were swamped with help. That’s the spirit we’re blessed with here in Westport,” he added.
Of course, those who cannot follow the celebrations virtually will have the opportunity to attend mass in person, as long as they’re in the first 50 people at the door for the various services.
“We’re only allowed 50 at a time, so anyone who cannot get in can return to the warmth of their cars and follow proceedings on church radio at 104.8FM. They can then return after mass to receive communion if they like. We’re trying to accommodate everyone, but it will undoubtedly be different than anything ever experienced before.”
Fr Charlie and his pastoral team have put in place a plan suitable for Westport while other churches have different approaches. Louisburgh’s celebrations will be all online, Islandeady and Glenisland have divided the area into sections and will hold masses for each particular area, parishioners in Aughagower and Cushlough will utilise both church and community centres, while mass can also be followed on radio from Lecanvey on 92.4FM.
It promises to be a very different Christmas in and around Westport, but the message emanating from the presbytery on The Mall is one of hope and anticipation. As Fr Charlie likes to say ‘keep her lit’.