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belfast church reopining  St Mary's on Chapel Lane 1 banner.jpg
Niall Carson/PA Wire
Niall Carson/PA Wire
UK News

Historic Belfast church re-opens

by Press Association

A historic Belfast city centre church has re-opened for private prayer.

The outside grotto at St Mary's on Chapel Lane opened on Saturday morning while the church itself will open on Monday.

However social distancing rules have reduced capacity from 400-500 to just 30.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill announced earlier in the week that churches may reopen for private prayer as part of a series of lockdown relaxations.

While getting the church ready, Fr Tim Bartlett told the PA news agency he is thrilled at the prospect of having people back inside the church.

St Mary's dates back to 1783 and was the first Catholic church in Belfast city centre.

"We are absolutely thrilled about the prospect of opening and we have been inundated with phone calls about when will we be reopening because we are city centre and people come from all over and indeed from many different denominations to this church to prayer," Fr Tim said.

"Our biggest challenge was getting enough sanitiser, gloves and wipes, figuring out the one-way system and the seating. We were shocked to discover when we put in the social distancing measures that a church that could maybe hold 400 to 500 will only be able to seat approximately 30 people safely for prayer.

"We have taken the obligation to keep a safe environment very, very seriously so between staff and volunteers, we are going to clean the seats every 15 minutes, if not every time someone uses them."

Fr Tim said they have also separated the prayer candles to reduce risk of cross-infection.

"People normally have to put their hand into a box of candles but we have now socially distanced our candles on long tables so people can safely lift a single candle without having to touch any more," he explained.

"The lighting of candles is a huge tradition that many people from Belfast and beyond will know is associated with St Mary's. Many people while in shopping will call into St Mary's to light a candle as a prayer for a friend or a member of their family.

"I would also encourage people particularly to light candles in prayer for our NHS workers, our key workers and carers at this time."

While some churches within the Protestant denominations are planning drive-in services, Fr Tim said he hopes to potentially introduce an outdoor initiative.

"Because we have an altar and a grotto outside which is very popular, we would love to look at the possibility of doing something safe in the outside area of the church in due course," he said.

"But we have always taken very seriously the direction from the scientists and medical advisers of the Executive so we will follow absolutely what they direct."

He added: "We established a food bank here in the parish, and distribute 45 food boxes every week, we bring five cooked meals to older and disabled people in their homes every day, and we have had lots and lots of prayer requests, and the funerals.

"We have been keeping our masses going on the webcam, we have mass at 9am every morning and prayers at 5.30pm every evening.

"What I expected to be a quiet more reflective time because of the pandemic has actually been just as busy if not busier."

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