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Tuesday, May 05, 2020

How the Dominican Friars in Britain have responded to the Coronavirus Crisis

The closure of all Catholic churches and educational institutions in March 2020 has presented a considerable disruption and challenge to the mission of the Dominican Friars in Britain. 

The response, however, has been heartening, with the friars finding innovative ways to provide pastoral care and continue their preaching and teaching ministries to the people they serve. We spoke to friars at the various Dominican priories, to hear about how they are responding.


St Dominic’s, London: Strange Times for Hospital Chaplaincy

It is Tuesday, 23 April, at the height of the pandemic. Fr Peter Harries OP (pictured), lead chaplain to a major London hospital, has just led a funeral for a baby, an experience which, despite his many years’ experience, was particularly stressful. 

“Life in the hospital has certainly been strange these last few weeks”, he tells us. 

“First, the hospital stopped admitting patients for routine operations in order to repurpose wards. So there were far fewer in-patients, next to no out-patients (all consultations being done remotely), and lots of staff being redeployed to different roles to assist in the care of patients with Covid-19.”

Then, he explains, as the hospitals admitted infected patients and attempted to prevent transmission, the chaplains found themselves attempting to continue their pastoral ministry either remotely or clothed in PPE:

“As chaplains we have been asked not to visit patients unless under extra-ordinary circumstances. There is no Mass and the hospital chapels are physically closed. I am trying to work from the priory, answering phone-calls and emails to co-ordinate pastoral and sacramental response to very ill and dying patients.

“Visiting some Covid patients, I have had to wear hospital scrubs for the first time in my 31 years as a hospital chaplain. I have only been permitted one visit to each dying patient, accompanied by only one (usually) or no family members (if everyone in the family is self-isolating). Bus journeys down to the hospital have been strangely quiet, with only two or three people on the double-decker bus.”

Amid these personal tragedies, Fr Peter sees the positives:

“The staff (non-clinical and clinical) are wonderful and value lots of gentle pastoral support, which I try to give whenever possible. Thank God, things so far are not worse-case scenario.

“People tell me of their sharing on-line worship. Many people tell me that they miss the sacraments and praying in holy places so much. Life is very strange, but there is much goodness to be seen and acknowledged.”


Holy Cross, Leicester: The Strains of Caring for the Flock

Fr Peter’s experience is echoed in Leicester, where the Dominican priory ministers to a large flock in the city including many lower-income families. The emotional demands of attempting to continue to serve them during this time have affected the prior, Fr David Rocks OP (pictured):

“I burst into tears today during a post-cremation rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ with a family I’ve known for years. I’m not usually that unprofessional.”

He is trying nonetheless to see the positives that have come out of this time but, as he says, “I find it so hard. All the good things we usually do with the parish are gone.”

The friars’ pastoral care extends to many patients in the city’s hospitals. Administering the sacraments to the sick and caring for their families has become complicated and difficult, often impossible:

“I went from the funeral to the Intensive Care Unit in Glenfield hospital, where I was allowed in for anointing. The patient’s family had been requesting the visit since 8 days ago. The family liaison nurse, Vicky (who’s fabulous), is on to me nearly every day about someone.

“Today they helped me into full PPE and we Skyped the family to take part in anointing, absolution and apostolic pardon. I then led prayers on Skype outside the wards of Covid-19-positive patients, whom I was not permitted to attend. We have gone from emergency cover chaplaincy in one hospital to cover in all three. I’m sitting in my room in the priory in the afternoons doing FaceTime and Skype prayers and advice with families who are in the most awful circumstances, and nothing is normal.”

The priory community has, all the same, kept up the full daily round of Masses and other liturgies, all relayed to the faithful via Facebook.

“I suppose the bright side is the livestream apostolate and all connected with that. We keep the church going by broadcasting everything at the usual time. The community are behind that and taking it in turns to manage the broadcast.”

Holy Cross parish normally has a busy social life, which they have tried to continue in some form:

“We’re meeting for coffee on Zoom as a parish each Sunday morning, and we have a weekly session on scripture on Crowdcast, plus our groups are meeting on Skype conference call. And we’re supporting our fantastic Catholic schools, who are continuing to look after our vulnerable children and those of key workers – we’re joining them for virtual assemblies.”

Furthermore, they have tried to use this time for consulting with parishioners, recently holding a virtual pastoral planning meeting, to develop a coordinated response to the Coronavirus crisis. A pastoral plan has now been written, which they are returning to every few weeks to check progress.

Fr David concludes:

“Thank God we’re all well and able to minister – but it is very challenging.”


Blackfriars, Cambridge: Continuing the mission to the city

Fr Dominic White OP speaks to us from within the Dominican priory in Cambridge, situated on the city’s only hill. This house, consisting of a modern block built between two suburban villas, serves in most years as the noviciate house, but is also home to some older men, including one currently receiving treatment for cancer.

“The members of the Priory observe quarantine conditions as infection would have serious consequences for a number of us”, Fr Dominic tells us. However, enforced physical isolation has not deprived them of contact with the outside world:

“Between us, we have a wide range of contacts, so we have kept in touch with our congregation and friends through phone and video calls. We have not yet been overwhelmed with deaths, but a number of people have needed support, including those in poor mental and physical shape.”

It has, however, also been an occasion for them to learn new digital skills, in order to keep the preaching mission going:

“We have increased our use of our website and of Facebook in order to diffuse our teaching and preaching material, and to keep up conversations around our faith. Technology has also ensured that we have continued the scholarly exchanges that a number of us are involved in.”

Moreover, the priory has even ventured into broadcast radio:

“We are one of the few communities offering Lauds, Vespers and conventual Mass on digital radio, courtesy of Radio Maria. The fact that all seven of us are able to form a strong presence in choir and provide a fresh homily daily has allowed us not only to continue our ministry in Cambridge, but to extend this, even reaching new people abroad and in prisons.”

Keeping up all of this daily routine means that sometimes life is even busier than normal.

Another member of the community, Fr Bob Eccles OP, serves as assistant priest in the Cambridge parish of St Lawrence. As well as building up the parish’s existing livestreaming of liturgies, Fr Bob has worked with Fr Simon, the diocesan parish priest, to keep abreast of people on the home Communion lists, and also those who benefit from the visits of the St Vincent de Paul society (SVP). St. Lawrence’s is a collection point for the local foodbank and for the camp at Calais, and also assists the local homeless service that provides meals and access to accommodation during the crisis.

So even while the Catholic schools and the nursing homes of Cambridge are closed, and pastoral visits impossible, care for the people of God nevertheless continues here.


St Albert’s, Edinburgh: Taking a Busy Weekly Events Programme Online

St Albert’s is a Dominican community with a parish and university Catholic Chaplaincy, situated right in the heart of university life in Edinburgh, on George Square, so the congregation includes many students and academics. The priory community of five friars normally has a very busy weekly programme in term time, and is assisted by a Lay Chaplain, Lilian Lee. The challenge here has been to attempt to keep up something of this at a time when the community has been forced to close the chapel, the meeting rooms, and the popular student common room, that are normally places of constant activity.

Fr John O’Connor OP (pictured at top of page) is superior here:

“The centre of the outreach from St Albert’s Catholic Chaplaincy is our daily 5:15pm Mass, which is live-streamed on the parish Facebook page, and is available online afterwards. It allows the friars based in Edinburgh – Fr Fergus, Fr Aelred, Fr Dermot, Fr John, and Br Samuel [pictured above] – to continue our daily preaching. This is a resource not only for our parishioners and chaplaincy students, but also for those from nearby parishes and whoever happens to join us online.”

Setting up this streaming has required the innovative use of a laptop and a stepladder, not usually seen in the chapel!

Fr Dermot and Fr John also send out a daily email to over 240 people with items of news, information about resources on the web and in the local community, and usually a link to something amusing to help lift the spirits during lockdown. And the friars, along with the Lay Chaplain, are in regular contact with parishioners and students, to help them throughout this difficult time.

“We’ve been busy reaching out to university students. Some students are still in Edinburgh and are unable to travel home because of travel restrictions, but most of the students are continuing their studies and exam preparations from home. The Dominican Community has been joined for Morning and Evening Prayer by a regular group of students on Zoom, who have found that the structure of prayer has helped give order to their day.”

Fr John says that video conferencing has given continuity for many of the regular groups:

“Many of the St Albert’s events continue to take place online. The parish book group and prayer group continue to function, and there are regular online meetings of the Lay Dominicans.

“The weekly ‘Faith and Reason’ talks for students have continued. Whether stranded in Edinburgh or at home in some corner of the world, students have logged in to reconnect and to hear talks on scripture, Confession, environmental issues, and this week, there’ll be one about the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Frassati Fraternity for young men has continued its regular meetings online, including international speakers, reading the Christian classics, prayer, and fellowship – if not, sadly, their outdoors activities!”

As well as her involvement in these, Lay Chaplain, Lilian Lee, has managed to keep up one of her initiatives, The Young Women’s Fellowship – a community that involves 36 young women in small group discussions. This has allowed for fellowship to continue and support to be given. The fellowship also has a dedicated WhatsApp chat, allowing the fellowship to stay connected and to share uplifting messages, memes or videos.

At a time of so much worry, it is good to hear that the students can continue to have fun: the Catholic Students’ Union (CSU) has had to cancel its annual May Ball, but plans are already afoot to have an event on social media on the day. They may not be able to eat and dance together, but at least the friendship, support, and prayer can continue!


Blackfriars, Oxford: Equipping our students and staff for remote tutorials and lectures

Our Oxford priory is unique in this Province, having attached to it a dual educational institution that serves both Oxford University students and future priests training for ministry in our ‘Studium’. Personal contact is very much the normal teaching mode here, never more so than in the one-to-one tutorial or in a doctoral supervision, and this has been heavily disrupted during the crisis.

Nonetheless, the Acting Regent, Fr David Goodill OP, has been pleased to see the staff rise to the challenge:

“We are very grateful for the dedication shown by our teachers, and indeed by all those involved in administration and student welfare. Through technology, Blackfriars Hall and Studium are continuing to provide high-level teaching and support for students. Lectures, classes and tutorials are being taught online, with students participating from the UK and abroad. We do, however, really look forward to being able to have our students back with us again.”

The academic life of Blackfriars has managed to continue, largely without interruption, even though some academic seminars and public lectures have had to be postponed or held in cyberspace. Fr Richard Conrad OP directs the Aquinas Institute at Blackfriars:

“The two reading groups/seminars due to take place this term, we have postponed until Michaelmas. The Aquinas Institute is continuing to cooperate with the Thomistic Evolution Project, which is reflecting on evolutionary theory with the help of Aquinas’ concepts, and the workshop due in July will go ahead via Zoom. We hope to hold a further workshop in November, with a public lecture.

“Work on academic papers continues, including a series of papers on Conscience – and indeed the lockdown might allow us to catch up on such work!”

The Aquinas Institute has also been producing a series of Lockdown Podcasts, including ones featuring Fr Simon Gaine OP and Fr Richard Conrad OP.

Blackfriars’ partnership with the Thomistic Institute in Washington DC has been a successful collaboration in recent years, providing students and young adults with a Catholic intellectual response to many of the challenges to faith encountered in their daily lives. These public lectures have now been replaced by live webinars, including ones featuring Fr Simon Gaine OP (pictured above) – details are at

On the priory side, the Oxford community has found isolation challenging, not least because of the repeated incursion of the Coronavirus into the cloister, despite rigorous hygiene measures, causing several lockdowns and sadly resulting in the death of one friar, Fr David Sanders OP.

Concerns have continued for the older men in the community, but the prior, Fr Robert Gay OP, has engaged the energies of the younger members, who are student brothers in their initial pre-ordination period of studies, to ensure that the external mission of the priory has nevertheless continued. First and foremost, the brothers have worked to livestream the liturgy from the church, buying in equipment with the generous assistance of a congregation member, to ensure a polished broadcast with multiple camera angles and even downloadable orders of service. The numbers joining the community for this have far exceeded the usual numbers of Mass-goers, with many alumni and other members of the public tuning in from around the world. At the time of writing, the next goal for this newly formed media team is to create a viral fundraising video!


A Final Word from the Prior Provincial, Fr Martin Ganeri OP

“Recent weeks have been a time of great stress and sadness for many, but at the same time it has been a ray of hope to see each of our priories, and indeed the individual friars, rise to the challenge. Just a few weeks ago, in our Provincial Chapter held on the eve of the lockdown, we had begun to think about new ways that we might be able to develop our communications, to advance our online mission – and now, just a short time later, circumstances have compelled us to become digital entrepreneurs!

“While so much uncertainty continues both for the friars and for the people we serve, nonetheless I thank God for the dedication being shown by so many brothers, and for the generous support being offered to us by many of our friends at a financially difficult time. I hope you will take advantage during this time of isolation of the many resources we are now offering for worship, for studying and for understanding our faith, and, of course, for staying in touch. And please, pray for us as we pray for you.”


Some Useful Links


For a full schedule of daily and Sunday Mass and other liturgies, see: which also has links to other online resources.

Priory websites


Peter Davies commented on 05-May-2020 06:21 PM
(I am an Old Howardian - Laxton 1953-58 and a nephew of Fr Hildebrand James OP, long deceased) Congratulations are due to Oxford on the professional streaming of services (save lack of sound during the one month anniversary Requiem for Fr David Sanders!). It is my live stream of choice. The presence of the community and therefore responses and singing, as well as the differing camera angles and close-ups makes it much more akin to being present than watching a lone celebrant in a single view who also makes the responses.
Peter Robinson (Member of Oxford Fraternity and Fraternal Group of the North West commented on 08-May-2020 11:47 AM
I am grateful to Fr Martin and his brothers for keeping us informed of how they have all reponded so positively to the very serious healh crisis in which we all engulfed. It is gratifying to read about so much Dominican life being carried on despite the problems, and sometimes in an enhanced from through the use of social media. Sr Maria Magdalena from the Cambridge Sisters is leading a series of weekly seminars via Zoom on St Thomas's treatise on the passions. The lockdown has stopped us attending Sr Valery's St Thomas weekends at Stone, but these seminars are an excellent way of keeping that flame alive.

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