Chai Brady, Jason Osborne and Ruadhán Jones
Three times as many priests have died in Ireland at the height of the coronavirus pandemic compared to the same period over the last three years, The Irish Catholic can reveal.
The figures were most stark when comparing April to previous years, with 36 deaths this year compared to 12 in 2019, eight in 2018 and 14 in 2017. Not all of the priests died of Covid-19, but the sharp increase in deaths shows the tragic effects of the virus on elderly priests and religious.
During March and April combined this year 65 priests died compared to 19 last year, 20 in 2018 and 24 in 2017, according to figures collated by this newspaper.
Although the number of deaths reduced in subsequent months, the overall figures from March to August 2020 still reflect a significant increase. In that timeframe 135 priests died, more than double the total figure from 2017 and 2018. Overall, 79 priests died in 2019 in the same six-month period.
The deaths have hit missionary orders hard, with some affected more than others. The Oblate community in Dublin described the last six months as a “very difficult” and “painful” time.
Fr William Fitzpatrick OMI, who is based with the Oblate community in Inchicore, said they had an outbreak of Covid-19 in the early days of the arrival of the virus in Ireland.
There were a number of retired priests who he said “had given their lives working in a missionary situation, certainly with the poor in the likes of South Africa, in England with Irish emigrants.
“Over Easter would have been a very challenging time for us. Most of the men, it would be fair to say, in the community contracted the virus, including quite a number of our staff,” he said.
“We had four men who died as a result of the virus around that time. We would sort of see ourselves as being very similar to many of the nursing homes up and down the country, who had big numbers of deaths at that time as well,” he said.
Fr Fitzpatrick said they were fortunate to have good staff who “couldn’t have done more” and did “way, way over what was expected of them”. Currently everyone in Inchicore community is working hard to ensure they remain ‘Covid free’ into the future.
He said: “For quite a time we didn’t have Mass in the house, in the community, but we are celebrating Mass now, keeping the social distances. I think that means an awful lot to the men.
“The men would certainly have this fatigue that people are talking about, and the tiredness. Many of them would speak of their confidence being shattered because of being isolated for so long, and the lack of social interaction, you know, that would be an effect as well.”
Not being able to celebrate the lives of the men who died in a normal way was another “one of the painful things” as the Oblates would normally come together, but funeral numbers were very limited at the time
“That was very, very painful. I mean, men who had lived in all sorts of situations in the course of their lives; in missionary situations, in difficult situations, in challenging situations, would find it hard to get their head around that,” Fr Fitzpatrick added.
Provincial of the Spiritans Fr Martin Kelly CSSp – who have lost several of their community to Covid-19 – said: “The decline of the numbers of Spiritans for the last 20 to 30 years has been in tandem with the ageing profile of the Church in Ireland. Both are a source of sadness and disappointment to our members.
“But when seven of our members passed away in the first half of April, three of them confirmed Covid-19 cases, it was particularly frightening.
“Not being able to visit confrères as they were dying, or to participate in any of the final rituals of saying farewell at the open coffin, of celebrating the funeral Mass or attending at the burial, all of these impacted further on us, as they did on all families, who lost loved ones.”