Franciscan Friary Athlone (Credit: YouTube)

Former Franciscan Friary in Athlone to be used to house Ukrainian refugees

The Irish Franciscan Friary in Athlone, which announced its closure in October after serving the community for 800 years, will be used to house Ukrainian refugees, it has been confirmed.

The Westmeath Examiner reports that the Franciscan Province of Ireland has confirmed the new use of the friary’s accommodation facilities.

“The first of the Ukrainian residents have started moving into the town centre facility, and this process is expected to continue over the coming days,” the regional paper reports.

“It is understood that adaptation works were carried out on the premises recently in order to prepare it for its new use,” it adds.

The friary accommodation is separate from the Franciscan friary church, which has been kept open at a reduced schedule of religious services and with the help of volunteers since the Friars left Athlone in early January.

The Irish Franciscans in Athlone confirmed that they would be leaving Athlone after 800 years in the town last October. The difficult decision came after the religious community struggled with an ageing and reducing membership.

The shock news brought an end to a Franciscan presence in the town which had endured for an incredible 800 years.

In a statement explaining the decision at the time, Fr Aidan McGrath, Minister Provincial of the Irish Franciscans, said the announcement of the Friars’ exit from Athlone was “very difficult and sad”. Fr McGrath confirmed the order would leave Athlone on the 6th January 2023, and at present, with concern expressed for the Friars and staff who would be impacted.

“We have given this decision much consideration in recent years, but regretfully we must now face our present-day reality and leave a town where we have enjoyed and valued such support and friendship for close to 800 years. Like so many religious bodies, we must make these difficult decisions as we deal with and respond to our ageing and reducing membership,” a statement at the time read, saddening locals.

Dominican friar and editor of Alive magazine, Fr Brian McKevitt, was among those to reflect on the closure, stating that the loss of the friars was reflective of a “wider loss of faith” in Ireland.

In January, following a farewell mass, the Franciscans said that agreements were being finalised over the future use of the friary in Athlone, and the friary in Clonmel, which also closed its doors in January. Neither was to be sold, the Franciscans said.

It is believed the church was initially due to be kept open until June of this year, to await the appointment of the new Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois. Fr Paul Connell will be ordained as bishop on June 18, and the current arrangement at the friary church will now continue until August, the Westmeath Examiner says.

“The Franciscan order previously indicated that the views of the new bishop will ultimately determine whether or not the continued use of the friary church for religious services is possible,” the paper reports.

In a statement issued to the Westmeath Independent on Tuesday, the Franciscan Province of Ireland said the use of its Athlone facility to house people displaced by war was in accordance with its tradition of “providing services for people who are experiencing present-day challenges”.

“In recent months we announced the closure of our Friaries in Clonmel and Athlone. Since then, we have been contacted by various organisations who wished to discuss the ongoing occupation and use of both friaries,” the statement read.

“In keeping with our tradition, we were keen to explore the possibility of both properties being used to provide services for people who were experiencing present day challenges.

“We are pleased to confirm that, in the short term, the Friary in Athlone is being used to provide much-needed accommodation to Ukrainian nationals who have been displaced by the ongoing war.

“As we have done so many times in the past, we ask the local community to support us and all those involved in this project,” the statement concluded.

The Westmeath Examiner said there are presently no details available on the timeframe for the use of the accommodation, or the number of people expected to be accommodated at the friary.

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