Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Standoff between Dublin community and local priest over access to parish hall

 Standoff between Dublin community and local priest over access to parish  hall – The Irish Times

A Montessori school with 45 pupils has been forced to shut, a girl’s national school has lost its PE facility and a number of community groups are without a venue due to a standoff with a local priest over access to the parish hall in Drumcondra, north Dublin.

Public representatives, including Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Senator Mary Fitzpatrick are among those who have unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Fr Martin O’Shea about reopening the Corpus Christi hall on Home Farm Road in Drumcondra, which has been closed since March 2020.

The Corpus Christi hall was built in 1967/68 – funded largely by a bequest. It has been school hall for the adjacent Corpus Christi girls’ national school and provided space to Irish dancing, Zumba and older people’s groups. The hall had been home to the Montessori Children’s Academy (MCA) since 1993.

In March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, the hall closed. In July 2020, Fr O’Shea wrote to MCA’s management advising occupation of the hall would be terminated due to fire safety concerns.

Manager Christina O’Riordan told The Irish Times: “We immediately engaged fire engineers who inspected the premises and found that while some remedial works were necessary, the building was perfectly safe for occupation and that any works could be done at a relatively modest cost and with minimal disruption.”

The MCA obtained a court injunction and sought production of the church’s fire-safety report. “The church said necessary works would cost in excess of €150,000. Our report found the needed works would cost about €25,000 and we offered to pay for them,” said Ms O’Riordan. “We also offered to take a long-term lease on the entire building, complete the works, and reopen the hall for the community. This offer was also rejected. At every step the only response from the church has been to insist that they want the building clear and unoccupied.”

There followed numerous Dublin District Court hearings between August 2020 and September 2021. “In the end the judge ruled that because we were a licensee in the hall rather than a full tenant we did not have the rights of a tenant,” says Ms O’Riordan. “And it was within the church’s gift to say what risk they considered ‘too risky’.”

MCA closed in December 2021 and the hall remains idle. Ms O’Riordan describes the stress and anxiety of that year as one of the “worst” times in her life.

Among affected parents is Angela Shafer, whose daughter attended the after-school. “It’s a great parish hall and it’s just lying there empty. The galling thing is the church won’t even allow the kids to do their PE there.”

Ms Shafer is among dozens of parents campaigning for the hall’s reopening. They plan to hand a petition in to the Department of Education this week calling on it to intervene.

Senator Fitzpatrick described as “really, really, desperately disappointing that requests to the priest and the archbishop, even for just a conversation [about the hall], have had no response. “It is parish property but the whole community feels a very strong sense of ownership based on the community’s use for over 50 years. We haven’t been able to get them to engage at all.”

Fr O’Shea did not reply to phone and email messages from The Irish Times.

In a statement the archdiocese said: “The principal concern has always been, and remains, the safety of the users of the property. The property was reviewed on behalf of the parish by two separate fire safety experts who found it presented a fire-safety risk and was unsuitable for childcare. This matter was before the courts on the 17th September 2021 and... the court determined the Montessori vacate the property. While the parish appreciates the great distress this has caused, the property was closed due to safety concerns.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education said: “Where a property is in the ownership of a third party, its use is a matter for the property-owner in the first instance”.

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