IRELAND’S first open-air Drive-In Mass was held yesterday evening in a Midland’s parish at a church dedicated to the patron saint of astronomers.
Dozens of devout Catholics flocked to a car park in the grounds of St Dominic’s church in Keenagh, Co. Longford, to watch and hear their first Mass in over three months.
To many, it must have seemed they were on a different planet to the one they enjoyed pre-Covid 19 times – as the Mass was celebrated under a gazebo erected in the church car park to shelter an altar.
Eagle-eyed parishioners peaked at Fr Tom Barden, as he celebrated Mass and along with three ministers brought Holy Communion to the congregation in their cars. The car park Mass is the first known ‘Drive-in Mass’ in the country, although others were held today in several other parishes.
The ‘Drive-In Mass’ follows a pattern of ‘Drive-In’ events in other activities in the past weeks, including Drive-In cinema, music concerts and comedy gigs.
While churches have recently been allowed open their doors to a maximum of 50 people – which will rise to 100 from July 20 – the parish in Keenagh did not believe it to be feasible, with a difficult decision of picking and choosing who to attend.
“We wouldn’t find putting in forty or fifty in the church every weekend was the best way of dealing with it, as we would usually have two hundred at Mass,” St Dominic’s Parish Priest Fr Tom Barden told the Sunday World.
“The space in the car park is big and hopefully people will avail of it but it’s the best we can do at the moment.”
“It was mentioned by a number of different people and then there was a parish council meeting and one or two
of the people mentioned it and we decided it was the best thing for us at the moment, with the limited numbers that could be put in the church,” he explains.
Rather than a Father Ted-style altar on a truck – which took place in one episode of the hit TV series – the parish opted for a more subtle alternative.
“We are putting a gazebo up to keep the thing dry and set up the altar outside the church and people will be able to park and face towards that in the car park, which is right beside us,” he explains.
Last night was the first time many of the parishioners got to see Fr Barden in the flesh, and to receive the Holy Eucharist.
“We don’t do masses online but even looking at them online is not the same thing,” he said. “What we like about this is that people can come as families, and older people can come, and they will all be safe. They won’t be mixing and they will remain in the car.
“It will be as close as possible to what we were doing but won’t be in the church at the minute.”
He believes St Dominic’s will be one of just a few parishes to try the procedure.
“A lot of the car parks are small and they are not as close to the church as we are,” he said. “We are lucky we have a good-sized car park that will hold the normal crowd.”
Fr Barden, who hails from Clonguish, Co. Longford, has been in Keenagh for 24 years and is the only priest in the parish. Life has been strange for him in his work practices, like priests up and down the country.
“You couldn’t do the normal things you used to as you couldn’t go to people,” he said. “Even the house calls – we couldn’t do those, and everything was different. Funerals were difficult.
“All I’ve been doing is washing my hands and keeping my distance, always worn a mask and we will at Mass and for the Holy Communion.”
The parish has prepared well for the kickstarting of ‘Drive-In’ Masses.
“We have three ministers and myself will go around to the cars and we get around fairly quickly,” he reflects.
“The altar will be a table and cloth, just as you would at a house Mass or whatever. It’s like bringing a house Mass outside. The gazebo isn’t ideal but you have to do the best you can.
“It will be more difficult in bad weather, it’s the thing. Otherwise it would be fine and we could have the light in the car park and the cars have lights. It’s just a little bit different.”
Martin Long, Communications Director with the Catholic Press Office, points out that while the ‘Drive In Mass’ is indeed novel, the Catholic church is used to holding open air masses, ranging from the ‘Mass rock’ of penal times to the mass gatherings for the Papal visits.
“Catholic priests have always been innovative in bringing the sacrament of Holy Communion to the people.”
He concludes that “as long as public health guidelines are respected, that’s the bottom line”.