Priest praises Sunderland's lockdown resilience as his church prepares to reopen for private prayers
A priest has praised Sunderland’s resilience during the coronavirus lockdown as he prepares to open his church’s doors to worshippers for the first time in nearly three months.
St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, in Bridge Street, Sunderland city centre, will initially reopen on weekdays from Monday, June 15, between 10am-1pm for private prayers.
Among the differences parishioners will notice is the arrival of hand sanitiser stations with every second row of seats now taped off to ensure social distancing is maintained.
Stewards will man its doors to ensure that no more than 30 people enter the landmark church at any one time.
Parish priest Father Marc Lyden-Smith, who is also chaplain to Sunderland football club, just across the Wearmouth Bridge, said: “We have had a health and safety check and lots of advice, we have had a deep clean, even though the church has been closed for 12 weeks, and we have volunteers and health care workers on hand so it is one of the safest places to be.
“Unfortunately there is no chance of masses at this stage. It purely is for private prayer and I think the city needs that.
“St Mary’s is a church which is open all day every day and always has been, even during the war we did not close, so I am delighted that the doors can be opened again.”
Father Marc also praised city residents for how they have observed the lockdown measures since they were introduced on March 23.
He added: “It has been very strange because I have felt in a kind of zombieland on an evening because I have seemed to be the only person out when I have gone for a walk because there has been no restaurants or bars open.
“So I am very encouraged by the way people have responded in the city. They’ve definitely socially distanced and stayed at home for the bulk of it, protecting the hard working staff at the Sunderland Royal Hospital. It has been fantastic.”
With city charities having to temporarily close their offices during the lockdown, however, the number of needy people requiring weekly Thursday meals from the church has increased from around 50 to 70 and Father Marc has thanked Sunderland butcher John Stirk for donating food.
While public services cannot take place until nationwide restrictions are eased further, he said the church’s attendance for its Sunday morning services, which have continued behind closed doors, have actually increased during the lockdown thanks to Facebook streamings.
He explained: “Normally we would get 650 people at mass on a Sunday. By streaming our masses we have had a couple of thousand with people with Sunderland links watching from as far away as Africa and Australia.”
Father Marc, who is originally from Hebburn, also has double cause to celebrate as he prepares for next Monday’s reopening.
Friday, June 12, marks a decade since his ordination as a priest and he said: “I have spent six of my happiest year here in Sunderland and that is thanks to the people here.”