WASHINGTON — If, as the bromide says, everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, what if there’s no sign of St. Patrick’s anywhere to be seen on March 17?
That’s the conundrum many Catholics face as U.S. churches named for the patron saint of Ireland had to either cancel public Masses and events or do a quick jig of a workaround as health officials restrict gatherings of just about any size to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.
At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City — probably the most famous edifice in the United States named after the saint — Mass went on, but it went on just online.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, was the principal concelebrant of a Mass with Auxiliary Bishop Edmund J. Whalen concelebrating, according to Joseph Zwilling, archdiocesan spokesman. Besides the viewing audience of the Catholic Faith Network and anyone who looks at it on the cathedral’s website, “there was a handful of people there, like ushers, the staff of the cathedral, the chancellor of the diocese and myself present,” he said.
“It was certainly a different St. Patrick’s Day, to put it mildly. The term I keep hearing people use is ‘eerie.'”
Zwilling said, “To have no parade outside, marching along Fifth Avenue, with the bagpipes and the horses and the marching bands, the police officers and firefighter and Army units — the most famous of which is the Fighting 69th — marching outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the archbishop of New York greeting the people outside the cathedral and giving them his blessing … it is eerily quiet.”
St. Patrick’s is open daily for prayers until 4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, and after the end of the 10:15 a.m. Mass Sundays, Zwilling told Catholic News Service, “But to not have the throngs of people coming together to celebrate the patron saint of the archdiocese and the patron saint of our cathedral is disquieting.”
Another St. Patrick’s, this one a parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts, had planned a big dinner for March 14 after Mass. But that was, er, scotched after the Archdiocese of Boston canceled all public Masses effective that day, according to Father Paul O’Brien, the pastor.
There was going to be a weeklong celebration at the parish school, Lawrence Catholic Academy, but “that was all lost because schools were suspended across the archdiocese beginning Monday, and across the state for three weeks” starting March 17, Father O’Brien said. “Nobody is losing tears over a social event, and with our school, people are focused on the details of keeping our kids safe and educating them at home from a distance.”
Of perhaps greater concern was the parish’s Cor Unum Meal Center, a restaurant serving the heavily Hispanic city’s poor. Talk-show host Conan O’Brien — no relation to the pastor — helped found Cor Unum and raises funds for it. “After the sacraments, it’s the most important thing that we’re doing,” Father O’Brien said. “School can be suspended. Meetings can be suspended. You can’t suspend people’s nutrition without a quite harmful impact, so we’re grateful that we are able to continue.”
But carrying this out was dicey at first, after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all of the state’s restaurants to offer only take-out or drive-through meals. “That was Sunday evening (March 15). Monday morning, yesterday, we had successfully shifted our operations to to-go meals,” Father O’Brien told CNS March 17.
Most Holy Trinity Parish, established for the Irish diaspora in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, had to cancel its annual March 17 “Sharin’ of the Green” Mass and luncheon, the parish’s single largest fundraiser, according to Renee Izzard, the parish secretary and outreach manager who was born in the parish and, except for five years, has lived in the parish her entire life.
“We’ve been planning this since November. We’ve got a booklet, a Mass booklet. If you donate a certain amount, you get into this honor roll of patrons. If you donate $20 or more, you can have your loved ones’ names remembered in the booklet,” Izzard said. “Everybody who donated is going to have to get one in the mail now.”
The Mass attracts a full church of 1,000. “Sometimes, the sound guys have to set up speakers outside so the people who can’t get in can hear it,” Izzard said. The luncheon has likewise drawn a full house the last five or six years, she said.
Izzard had to interrupt her interview with CNS. “I got a client here,” she said. Later, she explained: “They are coming in looking for help. However, our outreach is closed. All of our volunteers are older, one of them’s in quarantine.” Formally, outreach is closed until April 5. But that doesn’t stop people from needing help. “I gave her a turkey,” Izzard said.
There had been a St. Patrick Parish in Detroit, serving the poor and elderly in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. The parish closed, but the St. Patrick’s Senior Center remains to do outreach in what is now a gentrified section renamed Midtown.
“We’re making sandwiches for lunch,” said Jeremy Johnson from inside the center. “We’re closed for events, following the strictures of the governor and whoever’s making the rules out there: limited contact. Apparently, the buses are not going to be running. So a lot of people are not going to get transportation to here.”
In the nation’s capital, St. Patrick Church traditionally does St. Patrick’s Day Mass up big. To hear Father Charles Antonicelli, the pastor for just two months, the parish was looking forward to it.
“We invite the cardinal or archbishop or a visiting archbishop to celebrate the Mass, and invite all the priests of the archdiocese to come. They would invite people from the Irish Embassy to come,” Father Antonicelli said.
“The ambassador was ready to do one of the readings. We had dancers from the O’Neill James School in Virginia; they would dance outside in front of the church before and after the Mass,” he continued. “The Hibernians were ushers. We had a bagpiper, Mike Scott, who was going to play.” Following all that, there would be lunch in the rectory for all the priests.
“Sadly, my first St. Patrick’s Day as pastor is very quiet,” he said.
The church is open for people to pray. On hand is the statue of St. Patrick and the flowers that had been delivered for the now-canceled Mass, Father Antonicelli said, “and we’re encouraging people to pray where they are for St. Patrick and for the people in this health crisis.”
In the Washington suburb of Rockville, Maryland, St. Patrick Parish on this particular March 17 is “kind of dead, like most places,” said office manager Susan Colona with a chuckle. “Nothing happening. Like everybody, we’re hoping it will be over sooner than they say it will.”
The feast isn’t done up a big as elsewhere. “Usually, we just really celebrate it with Mass, unless it’s on a weekend. Then it’s more so because we have more people,” Colona told CNS. “Then comes the (parish) school. We have a gala every year, and sometimes it falls on St. Patrick’s Day, and that’s the theme. Of course, nothing is being done.”
Colona said “one person” has kidded her about having “the Colona virus.”
But at St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, things carried on mostly as usual, according to Father Joseph Oriol, the pastor.
The parish held a St. Patrick’s dinner March 15 for about 70 parishioners. By then, the advisories were growing more alarming.
“We were thinking about it, but the whole thing (about small gatherings) it came on Friday, so we thought ‘Let’s go ahead, it’s only one day,” Father Oriol said. “That worked for us.”
After the dinner, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued its advisory limiting gatherings to no more than 50 people. “Before, we were OK!” Father Oriol laughed.