By Jasmynn Innis
GALWAY, Ireland – Church attendance here has not returned to pre-pandemic numbers despite nearly all of the mandates and restrictions being lifted, according to religious leaders in Galway.
Combined with a fundamental realignment for many Irish in their relationship to the Catholic church following a series of scandals within the church, pandemic is seen as a catalyst for declining church attendance throughout Ireland. (See “Galway’s houses of worship” story here.)
When the pandemic hit, churches all over Galway were forced to shut down and pivot. They adapted by streaming their services online through Zoom and Facebook live. Now, with the restrictions on attendance gone, churches still are streaming services right into people’s living rooms.
“It’s been two years since people’s habits changed,”’ said Rev. Alistair Doyle, a deacon at Saint Nicholas’ Collegiate Church. “The habit’s broken. Church attendance was a habit, and we have to accept” that that habit has been altered.
Churches here recognized a trend among those who have not returned to in-person services. The aged are more at risk of becoming severely ill if contracting Covid, so many have benefitted from being able to watch from the comfort and safety of their homes, clerics said here.
Father Des Forde, a curate in nearby Ennistymon, told the Connacht Tribune newspaper, that his Catholic church reversed declines in traditional mass attendance by attracting an online congregation of 15,000 from across the globe during Covid, despite the fact that his church, like all others in Ireland, was closed at the time due to lockdown.
A native of Galway, Forde told the newspaper that he began broadcasting mass from his home in when he was forced to self-isolate after being diagnosed with leukemia. During Covid, he recorded mass twice a day during the week and three times on a Sunday, then posted the recordings on the cathedral’s Facebook page.
Some religious leaders are grateful for the opportunity to reach people at home because “a lot of the older people aren’t able to go out, they feel like there is less pressure on them,” said Father Anthony Finn, parish priest at St. Augustine Catholic Church. It’s “like watching a sporting match; it’s more exciting when you’re at the match, it’s better when you get to share the experience, but it’s still good to engage and see it.”
While not to pre-pandemic levels, church attendance has bounced back, however.
“The numbers have slowly been improving,” Doyle said. “Some of the older and more vulnerable people are more scared to return. It’s not going be like a switch. You have to grow again.”
Drop in donations
Church finances also took a hit when the pandemic forced people to stay at home, and those financial pressures are still being felt in mid-2022.
Saint Nicholas’ Collegiate Church has been able to stay above water because of Galway’s vibrant tourism industry and its location in the middle of the city center. The church charges five euros to tour.
“A lot of our revenue comes from tourists,” said Michelle Moore-Temple, tourism manager for the church. “The only way we can maintain this church is through tourism and the revenue that’s generated from it. It’s something that we are so incredibly grateful for when people are willing to come in and pay the five euros, because it’s the only way we could keep it going. We are incredibly reliant on tourism.”
Built in 1320, Saint Nicholas’ is the largest medieval parish in Ireland, according to its website, and Christopher Columbus visited the church during his time in Galway.
Using money generated by tourism, Moore-Temple said the church plans to refurbish its walls and possibly buy a new organ.