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Our Lady of Lebanon Church's novel approach to Palm Sunday Mass

Our Lady of Lebanon Church's novel approach to Palm Sunday Mass

Clergy from Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral in Sydney’s west have had enough of preaching to an empty crowd and pinned parishioners’ family photographs to the pews. While members of St Mary’s Cathedral’s choir have been forced to rehearse online because of social distancing rules.

A fortnight after places of worship went into lockdown in response to the coronavirus crisis, clergy from a Maronite Catholic Church in Harris Park finally had enough of preaching to an empty crowd and pinned photographs of parishioners to the pews.

Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral priest Tony Sarkis spent yesterday decorating the church with photographs of everyone forced to worship from home.

Father Tony Sarkis at Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral in Harris Park where priests have placed pictures of parishioners on all the pews.

The idea came from priest Giuseppe Corbari whose church is at the epicentre of the global coronavirus outbreak near Milan in northern Italy’s Lombardy region, who asked his flock to send in selfies.

Today will mark Palm Sunday, when Christians commemorate the arrival of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, days before he was crucified and a week before he rose from the dead on the first Easter.

“It has broken our hearts to pray with just the wooden pews,” Father Sarkis said.

“Palm Sunday and Holy Week celebrations are a time of great prayer and normally bring together thousands of people in celebration.

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“The current social distancing laws in place for our protection should not stop us from participating in the joy of these celebrations, albeit in a slightly different way.

“The photos are a strong reminder the church still has a strong presence, even though the doors are closed.”

Since posting a video to Facebook requesting photographs on Wednesday, more than 650 families have answered the call and the church printer has been running non-stop to print them all.

Our Lady of Lebanon parishioner Cindy El-Sabbagh, 44, hopes her family photograph of husband Joe and five children Gabriella, 18, Jake, 15, Mary-Jo, 12, Anthony, 6, and Joseph, 4, will alleviate the priests’ loneliness.

Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral’s priests Father Danny Nough, Father Tony Sarkis and Deakin Charbel Dib preparing for today’s Palm Sunday mass which will be live streamed on social media.

"To see the pain and anguish in our priests’s faces breaks our hearts and we don’t want them to feel like they’re alone when they preach to an empty church,” Mrs El-Sabbagh said.

“The photo is as much a thank you to the priests, so they can see the church community that relies on them.”

Mrs El-Sabbagh, from Oatlands, felt having her photograph stuck to a pew in the church connected her closer to God, even though she has been joining daily masses streamed online through Facebook and YouTube.

Thouands would normally pack the Maronite Church to celebrate Palm Sunday Mass.

There will be five masses broadcast into homes today, where worshippers have been asked to erect makeshift alters complete with Bibles, candles and palm fronds.

Catholics typically carry palms in a ritual procession into church on Palm Sunday, which western Sydney Maronites have been asked to re-enact at home.

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Benajamin Hanna’s bedroom doesn’t quite match the acoustics of St Mary’s Cathedral.

But, for the first time in the cathedral choir’s 202-year history, COVID-19 has forced 12-year-old Benjamin and 23 other choirboys to hit the high notes from home and rehearse online.

“It’s not like singing in St Mary’s Cathedral, it’s like singing in your living room and into a sock,” the choir’s director of music Thomas Wilson said.

“For so many things, not just for the cathedral choir, but for all of us at different aspects of our lives, anything that enables us to at least keep routines going is important, particularly for children.”

With coronavirus putting a stop to rehearsals at the cathedral, the members of Australia’s oldest musical institution are logging on for lessons with Mr Wilson.

St Mary’s Cathedral’s choir has been forced to rehearse online.

“They’re very enthusiastic about this,” Mr Wilson said of the choristers, ranging in age from eight to 12, who receive a scholarship to study at St Mary’s Cathedral College.

“It really is like ducks to water.”

Year 6 student Benjamin, a member of the choir for the past three years, said a time delay when the boys sang together during an online session on Friday made them laugh.

“We were hearing each other at different times,” he said.

Mr Wilson said the pandemic has been tough on all choirs.

Benjamin Hanna.
Adrian Nguyen.

“Something like the cathedral choir is very rare and precious — it’s like an organism — and it does sort of get its oxygen by the daily rehearsals and the daily singing as a choir in the cathedral as part of the church services,” he said.

“I won’t say it’s killing the choir but it’s very, very serious and we’re not the only ones in that situation.”

Santiago Zurita Honig.
Matthew Lichaa

COVID-19 has also prevented the boys from performing at this week’s Easter ceremonies at St Mary’s with Good Friday and Easter Sunday services to be broadcast live on Channel 7.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said priests were still providing confession during the crisis but appointments must be made in advance and couldn’t be conducted in churches.

Instead, parishioners must confess in church presbyteries, at home or in the outdoors and abide by health advice on hygiene and social distancing.