In recognition of the significant impact of COVID-19 on families and the local community, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli will celebrate a memorial Mass on Sunday 22 May at St Patrick’s Cathedral for all those who have died during the COVID pandemic and could not be mourned properly due to pandemic restrictions. For the family and friends of Patricia and Joseph Iles, who both died during COVID, the Mass will bring some comfort in knowing that their loved ones are being remembered and prayed for.

Patricia ‘Pat’ Iles was 87 years old when she died on 26 March 2020 from pancreatic cancer, just as COVID restrictions were coming into full force across Australia. Her husband, Joseph Iles, was 93 when he died the following year on 27 October 2021. They’d been married 67 years and had lived the last 30 years of their lives in Blairgowrie, actively involved in St Mary’s Star of the Sea parish in Sorrento. Before that, they’d been in St Peter’s parish, Clayton. Their daughter, Liz Winston, says it was a particularly difficult time for the family, given the quick succession of the deaths, and COVID lockdowns restricting their ability to spend time with their dying parents and to hold funerals that would ‘properly honour’ their parents.

Liz explains that her father became ill just before Christmas in 2019 and was admitted to hospital for tests. Soon after, her mother had a fall and was also admitted to the same hospital. While scanning for broken ribs, medical staff discovered that Pat had pancreatic cancer. By this time, Joseph had also been diagnosed with dementia. ‘They were both in the same hospital, two rooms apart, at the same time, so we were running from one room to the other,’ says Liz. ‘In one way, it worked out well having them so close together and in the same hospital, but it was a particularly difficult time for us.

We’d gone into that strict COVID lockdown just as Mum was dying—she went downhill very quickly and died.’

When Pat died, only seven family members were allowed to attend the funeral. This meant that only Liz, her two siblings Cathy and Paul, her father and three of her closest grandchildren could attend. Sadly, her eldest brother, Peter, was unable to fly from the United States to Australia to attend the funeral service due to travel restrictions. The remaining family members (partners and grandchildren) waited outside during the service to attend the burial at Sorrento Cemetery. Sadly, a Catholic funeral Mass was unable to be held due to the restrictions.

‘I’d say Mum would have rolled over in her grave because she couldn’t have Mass,’ Liz says.

Mum was very Catholic, and she’d already prepared her whole Mass booklet; she’d given it to me to organise. So it was horrible knowing that we couldn’t actually give her a Mass. Mum was very much a family person, though, so at least we could have the family around her.’

Liz says it was also ‘really sad’ to return their father to the aged-care home after her mum’s funeral, especially since they weren’t allowed to visit following this due to strict COVID restrictions. ‘Here was a man who’d just lost his wife and we couldn’t go in and visit,’ she said. ‘It was a really hard time, and the guilt you felt with that was terrible. I felt really sad for him, but what could we do? That was the world we were living in at the time.’

Both Pat and Joseph were active members of their parish communities throughout their lives. At St Mary’s in Sorrento, Joseph was a special minister; he regularly drove people to Mass—even at 90-years old—and he’d been part of the Knights of the Southern Cross for 70 years. ‘If there was an event, Dad was running it,’ says Liz. ‘He was one of those people who was involved in everything. He ran the parish golf days, was part of PROBUS, was president or secretary of one group or another, and on any church committee. And Mum was probably in the kitchen making food for all of them!’

In the year following her mother’s death, Joseph had dementia and was in bed a lot of the time. Liz and family members would ring and visit as often as possible, but the fluctuating COVID restrictions and metro–regional divide made visits very difficult—Liz lives in Drouin, which is outside the metro area. ‘It was a crazy time, and really terrible at times because I couldn’t cross the border. We tried to get there as much as we could,’ she says.

Joseph’s dementia declined to the point where family members couldn’t talk to him on the phone. ‘When Dad finally started to go downhill, we were contacted, and because we were in full lockdown again at that stage, the few of us that were able to visit had to wear full PPE (personal protective equipment),’ Liz explains.

For six days, we were fully gowned up in PPE to say goodbye to Dad. Thankfully the place he was in was lovely and they supported us really well through that time. And though we couldn’t have a Mass for Mum, both times we were able to have the priest come in and do the last rites.’

Fortunately, the family were able to have a funeral Mass for Joseph at St Mary’s, though vaccination restrictions meant there was a limit of 30 people. ‘I’d initially been excited that we’d be able to have a full funeral for Dad,’ says Liz. ‘He’s “Mr Up-front” and was so social, and loved being centre of attention, so I was looking forward to having everyone attend, but the funeral director said we could have only 30 people because someone hadn’t yet been fully vaccinated.

‘So we made the decision to only have immediate family attend the funeral because who would we pick and exclude out of all the relatives and friends? It just wasn’t going to be fair,’ says Liz. Joseph’s service, like Pat’s, was live streamed for people to watch. ‘I felt bad for my dad because he’d been involved in so many things and he couldn’t be honoured in a way that we’d have liked. There were a lot of people that would have liked to attend the funeral, and they called to ask, but we had to say no. That was really difficult.’ Joseph was buried in Sorrento Cemetery alongside Pat.

Reflecting on that time, Liz says she felt fortunate to be in a close-knit family who could mourn together and support each other, but she felt particularly sorry that her older brother Peter was not able to attend both funerals due to travel restrictions. ‘I really felt sad for him,’ she says. ‘Also, funerals help you get through that difficult time because you have lots of people around you, lots of family and friends supporting you.

But it was very different for us because we were in lockdown most of the time, especially with Mum’s funeral, so you’d receive flowers and phone calls, but it’s not the same as getting hugs from people or having that closer connection. It was tough.’

Liz will treasure many memories of her mother and father, particularly her mother’s desire to ‘feed everyone’ and her ‘acceptance and all-encompassing love’ of her family. And of her dad, she’ll always remember his ‘heart of gold’. ‘He would do anything for anyone,’ she says.

Liz is grateful that there is a memorial Mass to commemorate those who died during COVID and will be among those submitting their loved ones’ names for inclusion in the prayers. ‘My parents would be ecstatic to know that a commemoration Mass is happening, and that people are praying for them,’ she says. ‘It can be the Mass that my mum didn’t have.’

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli will celebrate a special Mass to commemorate those who died during the COVID pandemic at 11am on Sunday 22 May at St Patrick's Cathedral. In the lead-up to this Sunday’s memorial Mass, individuals and parishes are invited to submit the name(s) of those they would like remembered during the Mass via this online portal. The names will then be prayed for during all Masses at St Patrick’s Cathedral over the weekend of 21–22 May.

Parishes are also encouraged to mark the occasion at their local Masses across the weekend, focussing prayerfully on those who have died during the COVID pandemic. A number of resources, including prayers and liturgical inclusions, have been prepared to assist parishes and can be found here.

All are welcome to attend Sunday's Mass, which will also be streamed live on the Archdiocesan YouTube channel and broadcast on Community Channel C31 (channel 44 on digital TV).