Volunteers vow to continue effort to keep Athlone's Friary church open
Nearly a year on from the shock news that the Franciscan friars were leaving Athlone, a group of up to 100 volunteers has vowed to continue working to keep the Friary church open for as long as possible.
While uncertainty remains about the church's future, a major local voluntary effort has kept it open to the public on a daily basis for prayer, reflection, and two weekly Masses.
"It is a special place, and we are committed to keeping it open for as long as we possibly can," said Dermod Foy, a member of the ad hoc committee that's been managing the operation of the church since the friars moved out in January.
Hugh Hanley, another member of the local voluntary group, said the level of goodwill from the Athlone public toward the Friary church remained strong.
"I thought that it would wane after a certain time, when the hurt of the (Friars' departure) healed or diminished, but that hasn't happened," he said.
One recent example of this was seen when a significant leak occurred in the roof of the church following a spell of heavy rainfall.
"There was a major leak after a storm, high up on the roof, and we thought that it was going to be a serious problem," explained Mr Hanley.
"But help came immediately, and the leak was fixed. Then the carpets had to be taken up. They were taken up by a man - I wouldn't say he'd like his name mentioned - and a dehumidifier was used, and all of that. And it was all voluntary."
A number of other examples were given too, including that of a professional cleaner who provided cleaning services at the church free of charge during the first nine months of this year.
Currently, Masses are celebrated in the Friary church at 10am on Tuesdays (St Anthony's Novena Mass) and at 9.30am on Sundays.
The role of celebrating these services is shared by three ex-Athlone friars, Fr Gabriel Kinahan, Fr Kieran Cronin and Fr Ulic Troy, who drive to the town from their current bases in Galway, Multyfarnham, and Merchants Quay, Dublin, respectively.
The costs of insuring and heating the church continue to be paid by the Franciscan order, but the opening and closing of it each day is handled entirely by local volunteers.
Each morning the church is opened at 9am by a volunteer who collects a key from Flynn's Funeral Directors on The Strand, and the key is then signed in again after the locking-up of the church at 6 o'clock each evening.
In the aftermath of the Franciscans' move from Athlone, there was speculation that the incoming Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois might get involved in the effort to keep the Friary church open in the longer term.
However Bishop Paul Connell, who was ordained in June, has informed the volunteers at the Friary that he is not in a position to assist in this regard.
"He has 41 parishes to look after, and he is tight for priests, so he couldn't possibly take on another church. That's more or less what he told us," said Mr Foy.
"That's understandable, but disappointing for us," added Mr Hanley.
The two volunteers were speaking to the Westmeath Independent at the Friary last Wednesday afternoon. The church is being maintained in excellent condition, and people are encouraged to continue using it.
"We would encourage people to come into the church to meditate or pray," said Mr Foy, who added that prayer groups were also taking place there on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays.
It was also pointed out that the church attracts people from beyond Athlone, with some attendees and volunteers coming from other parts of Westmeath, Offaly and Roscommon.
Asked what it was in particular that makes the Friary church special, Mr Foy replied: "There is the tradition of the Franciscans, and there is a lovely aura in this church in particular.
"People who wouldn't necessarily be religious come in to just meditate. There's a lovely ambiance and a lovely peacefulness about the Friary."
The group of volunteers at the Friary is informal, to the extent that it doesn't even have a fixed name. Paul Blackie acts as the "de-facto chairperson" of its ten-member organising committee.
"We meet whenever there's a problem, which is about every week, or every two weeks. We meet here, deal with the problem, and that's it," said Mr Hanley.
He said the impetus for the voluntary effort arose from the shock and sadness which greeted last October's announcement that the friars were leaving Athlone.
"One woman said to me, you don't miss something until it's gone," he said.
"We took the friars, and their centuries of service, for granted. The clergy had been speaking about the (vocations) problem for years but we just sort of felt, well, it's not going to happen here."
Mr Hanley and Mr Foy said there were up to 100 volunteers who were involved in some way with the Friary, and they expressed their gratitude to everyone who has helped out and continues to do so.
These include the church cleaners, flower arrangers, organist, choir, readers, Eucharistic minsters, finance group, and many others, including professionals who have donated their services to the Friary church.
They also expressed their gratitude to "the people who encourage us by their presence" in the church.
"There is a certain amount of uncertainty about the future, but we have 100% goodwill behind us, which is so important," concluded Mr Foy.