“You could sense the atmosphere at our Masses today was very different.”

That is what Sancta Maria (Addington Beckenham) parish priest Fr Peter Head, SM, told NZ Catholic two days after the terror attack at two mosques in Christchurch. 

The Addington church and school are only about two to three kilometres from the Al Noor mosque at which 41 people were killed.

Fr Head said everyone at the Sunday Masses in the parish had been affected by the terrible events in their neighbourhood and in their city.

“Some of our parishioners knew some of those who were in the mosque,” he said.

At a Mass Fr Head celebrated at the Carmelite monastery in Christchurch the day after the shootings, two of the altar servers, who attend Cashmere High School, told him that “three from their school are among the list of those who are missing”.

At the five Sunday and vigil Masses celebrated in the parish that weekend, the liturgy was directed to what had happened in many respects, Fr Head noted.

There were was more silence during the Mass than usual, the penitential rite took longer, with pauses between each invocation, and the homily was directed towards what happened. At the end of the homily, everyone prayed the prayer of St Francis of Assisi.

There were special prayers of intercession, and the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation was used. At the point in Eucharistic Prayer when there is prayer for those who had died, there was another period of silence. After Communion, “Eternal rest . . . ” was sung.

“And after the Masses,” Fr Head said, “some people were just expressing appreciation that we could focus on what happened in our Eucharist . . . together.

“One of the things I emphasised at the end of the Mass was, whatever you are doing today or over the next few days, it is to be aware of each other and the support we can be to each other.

“We will all deal with it in different ways.”

On that same Sunday, a planned picnic organised by the PTA at St Peter’s School at Beckenham was called off out of respect for those who died and for the Muslim
community.

As the carnage at the mosque unfolded, Fr Head, who was doing some gardening outside, heard sirens blaring and then a call came over the Sacred Heart School PA system that the school was going into lockdown and children should not leave their classrooms.

The lockdown for schools throughout Christchurch city lasted some three hours.

Fr Head said that both he, and Fr Phil Bennenbroek, SM, went to the school to support the children and teachers. A bus carrying senior students back from a school camp was stopped about 300 metres from the school and the students had to stay on the bus for two hours until they were brought by police back to Sacred Heart School.

Parents had started arriving and had to wait. The Marist priests moved around them to thank them for being so patient.

“Everyone realised that it was for the safety of the children,” Fr Head added.

“All of us, once the news started to break about what had happened, everyone was sort of stunned by it — we couldn’t believe that something like this had happened.

“The main mosque is not far from here.”

Fr Head, a former national police chaplain, said he admired both schools in his parish for how they handled the situation.

Like many thousands of others in Christchurch, he laid some flowers near the mosque, flowers which he had grown himself.

He told parishioners he was very moved by people’s reactions at such tributes, with many in tears and some in prayer or just standing in silent reflection.

Guidelines for schools after attacks

In the wake of the Friday terror attacks, the Christchurch Catholic Education Office sent out guidelines to help schools as children and young adults returned on the Monday.

The guidelines were compiled on behalf of the office by Michael Hempseed.

While the bulk of the advice focused on children and their different possible reactions and on their welfare, it was noted that schools should be aware that many adults and teachers will be struggling.

“Schools should emphasise that everyone in our schools can access help and support if they need it,” the guidelines stated.

Class remembrance services and prayer services were described as “safe”.

But under no circumstances, it was stated, “should an entire class all talk about their grief as a whole class, this can be triggering for those who are not affected”.

“These conversations are best had either one to one or in small and carefully controlled groups.”

Among the signs that a child may need more help are, according to the guidelines, waking up crying (and having nightmares) for weeks and weeks, struggling to eat or sleep after five days, not eating anything at all, deliberately hurting themselves or others or threatening to harm themselves.

“If you are not sure it is best to get it checked out with a GP,” the guidelines stated.

Adults, teenagers and children can all experience grief and shock in different ways, it was noted.

Some children will not be impacted at all by grief, but other children may feel the loss very strongly.

“When some children hear about a death they will cry and cry. Some adults worry about this, in most cases crying is a positive sign. It will usually end fairly shortly after a few days to a week.”

If an adult cries, there is no need to hide a few tears from children.

“An incident such as this can be an important time to learn about grief.”

The guidelines added that “it can feel difficult reaching out for help; if you need help for your family please reach out”.

“Some people feel as though only those closest to the person should need help. Grief can affect everyone, those who knew the person very well and those who may not have known the person as well. If you need help, you need help.”

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