Holy Week offers a sign of hope for parish priests
By Kyle Greenham
Two cantors sang high at the Easter Vigil, their voices reverberating throughout St. Paul Catholic Church in High Prairie. Rev. Lawrence Odoemena looked up from the altar at the more than 50 parishioners gathered there to celebrate the most sacred time of year in the Catholic faith.
The sight and sounds should delight any priest, but this year they were particularly joyous.
“This gives us a little hope,” said Odoemena. “If we can come from zero people in the church at Holy Week last year to what we have now, it shows God is still involved with the Church and with each one of us.”
That spark of hope was felt among High Prairie’s faithful as well.
“I spoke with people after the Mass and they were so happy that we could have Easter Mass again,” Odoemena recalled. “Even if we were only allowed to have two voices singing, it was so nice to have music again. A complete change from what we had last year.”
While some COVID restrictions were still in place, the celebrations were much different from Holy Week of 2020, when lockdowns were enforced and Odoemena had to celebrate the Easter Tridium alone within a dark, empty church.
“I never, ever imagined – from the whole of my days in seminary, in my entire vision of the priesthood – that Holy Week would come and there would be no public celebration,” said Odoemena. “It was odd. After celebrating the Easter Vigil alone, I was a little bit depressed. I was thinking to myself, ‘How could this be? Is this really an Easter liturgy when I’m alone like this?’
“Fast forward to this year and there is a big turn around.”
It was a much smaller turn around for Rev. Antony Iruthayam and the Catholic community of St. Martin’s Church in Wabasca.
The small hamlet in northern Alberta has a population of around 1,500 people, but Wabasca and surrounding communities have seen nearly 500 cases of COVID-19, and more than 80 are still active. Because of the outbreak, their municipal government has issued its own lockdown and restrictions, which have been in place since January.
To find a way to overcome the limitations of only 30 people allowed at Mass, Iruthayam met with Wabasca’s municipal government to get permission for an outdoor Good Friday Mass and Stations of the Cross procession, where people could gather within their cars and celebrate. It was held in the parking lot of the Kekinow Native Housing Society.
“Having this Mass outside brought a few more people,” said Iruthayam. “It went really well. People felt it was great. For many it had been one year since they had the chance to celebrate Mass.”
More than 30 people were able to participate on Good Friday. The church saw only eight parishioners on Holy Thursday, 12 for the Easter Vigil and 20 people for two Easter Sunday Masses. On a typical year, the church would see around 60-100 people at each of their Easter masses.
“We have many seniors in our parish who are particularly worried about the virus,” Iruthayam said. “But there are some who have been fully vaccinated and come to Mass now.”
For a priest in a community that is dealing with a major outbreak, it can be a time of great anxiety.
“There’s much frustration, much uncertainty,” said Iruthayam. “Seeing how the cases are rising again, it certainly feels like lockdowns are still a possibility for the future.”
Despite this uncertainty, Odoemena remains hopeful that by Holy Week of 2022, much of the stress and limitations of the pandemic will be nothing more than a memory of the past.
“With vaccinations and the pandemic under better control, I think we are going to have bigger and better celebrations next year,” he said. “There is hope. I’m excited about this prospect of a full church, and of seeing our people without masks.”