It’s a typical wintry Melbourne morning – skies grey and threatening with rain – as Fr Anthony (Tony) Doran opens the church doors at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ringwood. Already there is a line of parishioners waiting to enter the building for morning Mass.
He greets each of them by name as they walk into the narthex – a space that's probably hosted countless parish gatherings over the years but sadly now requires a ticket to access.
Once everyone’s in Fr Tony walks behind his welcome desk and begins checking off names using a QR code scanner on his iPhone.
“Bet you didn’t think this would be part of your job when you signed up for it, did you?” an elderly parishioner quips to Fr Tony.
“Oh well, we’ve all got to learn new things at this time, haven’t we?” he replies.
This is simply the reality of public worship during this time of the coronavirus pandemic. When COVID-19 hit earlier this year and the community went into lockdown, it threw all manner of things into disarray—whole industries shut down, unemployment rates spiked and, inevitably, what was 'normal life’ slowly began to disappear.
For people of faith, regular parish life – at the heart of which lies the Eucharistic celebration – came to an unceremonious halt, necessitating parish priests and leadership teams to think differently about how they would engage members of their local community.
For Fr Tony and his congregation, the realities of coronavirus also meant pressing pause on what would have been the Parish’s year-long centenary celebrations.
“We’re turning 100 this year. The Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is this Saturday (27 June) and as a Parish, we normally celebrate on the closest Sunday. Recent government and health restrictions have meant that we’ve had to postpone most of these centenary gatherings. We’ll still celebrate with the community that’s able to gather in the church and with those who can join us online on Facebook and YouTube.”
The parish’s online presence has been a welcome development for locals and has enabled Fr Tony to keep the community together.
“The Archbishop encouraged us to celebrate Mass for the people but it’s not quite the same in an empty church and when you look out across the expanse of empty seats. It’s a really challenging thing to get your head around. Knowing that people are connected at home to the live stream has been good and we’ve been getting really great feedback about that.”
While it may have taken some time for Fr Tony to adapt to Mass in an empty church, it’s a gesture that’s been widely appreciated by locals. As one parishioner shared, “We know we can see Mass at the Cathedral but we want to see our priest in our church.”
Fr Tony says it’s a myth that the elderly don’t have computers. “Most of them do because they interact with their grandkids all over the planet. People of that vintage have lived through more change than many of us have so they’re actually really good at adapting to change.”
This time of coronavirus has enabled Fr Tony and his parish pastoral council the chance to think creatively about what parish life could look like into the future. “I’ve been really clear and said to my Parish Pastoral Council, ‘We can’t waste this time. We’ve got to be open and challenged to new ways of doing things.’”
Scripture study sessions and parish meetings have moved online but there are other things that have also needed to change. The printed Sunday bulletin for instance – a longtime staple at many parishes – has been one of the pivot points for the parish.
“The printed Sunday bulletin is a bit of legacy thing. It’s partly financial, but a significant shift in our thinking as a parish. If we use the bulletin boards in the church maybe we put QR codes that take people to a registration site.
“Before the lockdown started we had around 70 people receiving the parish bulletin via email. And that was after five years of me encouraging people to receive it electronically,” Fr Tony says.
“We now send it to about 170 each week and that’s more than we were actually printing (pre-coronavirus)! We’ve also moved to MailChimp (an email marketing service) which allows us to get more creative and colourful, and see the statistics on how we’re doing.
“It’s about trying to work smarter, not harder. We’ve got to find new ways of living the gospel."
While some of Fr Tony’s regular work commitments have been able to move online, he does acknowledge that not everything can be solved with a screen. His pastoral ministry to the sick and dying has continued – something he is grateful for. “They are always precious moments, but these are a bit more precious now because they’re rarer these days.”
Being able to have 20 people present for Mass is also something Fr Tony is grateful for.
"It’s been really great to have people back at Mass. And because of the smaller number of people allowed in, it’s meant that people can actually sit relatively near to where they normally sit, which is good. It’s still not quite the same as having a church full of people with children running around and older people and everyone in between.
"But the Italians have a lovely phrase, ‘piano, piano’ – softly, softly – we’ll get there. A lot of people have a lot more challenges to deal with than we have here in suburban Melbourne.”
In preparation for the Parish's centenary, Fr Tony commissioned a new icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to be written by local iconographer Geoffrey Horgan.
“We blessed it last year and we now use it as our profile picture on all our socials. The community was happy to contribute to the payment of the icon too and I’ve sort if named it ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help of Ringwood’ since it was done for us and no one else.
The coronavirus pandemic may have interrupted the Parish's planned centenary celebrations, but Fr Tony doesn't seem too fazed.
"It’s a shame that our centenary celebrations will be a bit muted, but it just gives us an excuse to have a longer party later on in the year.”
Icon: Our Lady of Perpetual Help
by Geoffrey Horgan