St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, will reopen its doors to visitors on Friday August 14, and the Dean and his team are hoping lots of people on ‘staycation’ will take the opportunity to discover more about this historic place of worship.
The impact of lockdown on the Cathedral has been ‘catastrophic,’ Dean Stephen Forde said. It is hoped the return of visitors, along with the reintroduction of services and some events, will help the Cathedral begin to recoup some of the £250,000 operating loss projected for the end of 2020.
“Our last service was on St Patrick’s Day. By Mothering Sunday we had closed down. We immediately went to online services. The first services were recorded in the Deanery dining room,” said Dean Forde.
Later, the online services were recorded in the Cathedral to include music and different readers and preachers. Cathedral parishioners have also been able to listen to services via their telephone.
Dean Forde said the online services, shared through the Cathedral website, Facebook and YouTube channels, received between 800 and 1,000 hits a week, with viewers as far away as Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Nepal.
As lockdown restrictions eased, St Anne’s held its first open service on August 2, and this was also live-streamed. Seventy five parishioners attended in person.
“People were really pleased to be back and there was a real joy in being together, even if everyone was wearing face coverings and had to adhere to social distancing,” the Dean said.
Next Sunday’s service, on August 16, which will mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, will be broadcast live on BBC Radio Ulster. Evensong will return, with a socially-distanced choir, in September.
“All contracted Cathedral employees were placed on furlough at the start of lockdown,” Dean Forde said. “Our finances are now in a very precarious position because of Covid-19. All our sources of income were impacted. Income from car parking is down 50 per cent. At a stroke, we lost all our tourism and events revenue. Although we encouraged people to set up standing orders, congregation collections are down, as is our investment income.”
Events that were cancelled including concerts, dinners, a VE Day event and cruise ship tours.
“The Cathedral Board has had to work out how to keep the Cathedral sustained with such a catastrophic loss of income,” the Dean said. This means short-time working for staff in the months ahead, and Dean Forde said some posts are at risk of redundancy.
In the wake of Covid-19, the Representative Church Body (RCB) has offered support to cathedrals and collegiate churches with choral foundation across Ireland, and a grant from Heritage Lottery Fund is allowing St Anne’s to prepare to open again to tourists.
A one-way system will be in operation, there will be hand sanitising stations and clear guidance on what route to follow. Although some of the side chapels will be closed, these can still be viewed from the main body of the Cathedral. Masks should be worn by those who are not exempt.
Visitors can enjoy the Cathedral’s full audio tour, as earbuds and booklets are new when given out and should be taken away afterwards
Holly Wilson, Belfast Cathedral’s Commercial Business Manager, said she is delighted that the Cathedral doors will be open once again. “Now, more than ever, the city needs hope and the Cathedral is a symbol of that,” Holly said.
“We look forward to welcoming local visitors as they enjoy their ‘staycations.’ Many local people have never been inside this magnificent building and we are now encouraging them to do so. The Cathedral has so many interesting stories behind its big doors.”
Dean Forde said: “This is an opportunity to discover a treasure that you have never visited before. Our doors are open to visitors from across the island. The Cathedral is safe for visitors to explore the beauty and spirituality of this special place. Space is our gift, so a long as people maintain social distancing, we welcome everyone.”
As a gesture of thanks to key worker, NHS staff will have free entry to St Anne’s until September 25. Opening hours are Monday to Thursday from 11am to 3pm and Friday and Saturday from 11am to 4pm. These hours may be subject to change, so please check at www.belfastcathedral.org before planning your visit.