In Canada faith overcomes fears of lethal SARS at one Toronto church

Faith overcame fear for worshippers at a Roman Catholic church here at the start of Easter weekend after SARS claimed 13 lives in Canada and the church warned anyone with suspect symptoms to stay away.

Attendance was "slightly down," said Father Michael Kerrigan of St Peter's Catholic Church, where about 100 people gathered for early afternoon mass on Good Friday.

He said he did not see the reduced numbers as a response to warnings issued by the diocese earlier in the week.

Tuesday, Toronto's archbishopric asked parishioners experiencing shortness of breath, fever or fatigue to stay away from church during holy week, in case they inadvertently spread the lethal Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The appeal came after 29 cases of SARS sprang up in a 500-member Filipino-Catholic community, which is now entirely quarantined.

"Some people may feel a stress or tension between what they would regard is their religious duty and their public health duty," Toronto Bishop John Boissonneau said.

"Let me tell you: their public health duty is their religious duty. They're responsible before their God and within their community to safeguard the common good."

Mass has been modified during Easter at Catholic churches in the Toronto diocese. There are no handshakes; communion wafers are placed in the hands, not the mouths, of worshippers and priests are not sharing the chalice of wine.

Anglican churches are permitting members to drink from a common wine cup, but recommending that it be wiped and that hands are washed.

Friday afternoon at St Peters, Father Kerrigan was not worried to see fewer worshippers than usual at the first of three afternoon masses celebrated at his parish, adding that he thought they would attend in greater numbers later.

"I'm not personally afraid to come here. I've not seen much change," said one church-goer, John Anthony, 25.

Most of those in attendance had picked up an orange flier on their way into church outlining how to guard against contracting or spreading SARS.

"It's better not to go to crowded places," said Debbie Ongcol, 29, another worshipper who said she was not afraid to come to church.

"News creates a state of anxiety that takes us further away from God," said a lay person who helped Kerrigan celebrate mass. It was not clear whether he was referring to SARS or the war on Iraq.

It made no difference to an elderly parishioner who gave only her first name, Rose.

"God will take me where he wants. I'm not afraid of anything," she said.