Alex Fraser and Philip Pullella
Seriate, Italy - On the wall of St. Joseph's Church hangs a black-and-white photograph with a caption remembering when the Italian parish of Seriate gave 270 people emergency "hospitality" last year - coffins of the dead from Covid-19, sometimes up to 40 at a time.
The hosts were Father Mario Carminati, 65, and Marcello Crotti, 46, who opened up the church to give the deceased a dignified temporary place of rest so they would not have to wait in a warehouse for burial or cremation.
"For me it was a nightmare, but I didn't have the opportunity to think about it a lot because when you find yourself in the middle of an emergency you have to rush and act according to your instinct," Carminati, the senior priest in Seriate, said.
A year ago, the Covid-19 pandemic in northern Italy was spiralling and the province of Bergamo, where Seriate is located, was one of the hardest hit.
Hundreds of people were dying each day, most funerals were banned, burials and cremations were backed up and the dead had nowhere to go but into storage.
"The pandemic was devastating for the community because the town became a place of silence, with (only) the noise of the ambulance sirens passing by. It became a place of death, sadness, mourning," he said.
The coffins arrived one by one in hearses or pickup trucks from homes or hospitals and were lined up on the marble floor. A family member brought in an occasional rose and whispered a hasty farewell.
The caption of the photo on the wall reads: "The parish community of Seriate remembers the hospitality given to 270 deceased people from all over Bergamo province ... Our welcoming in the house of the Lord was intended to be a caress of prayer in the name of the families."
When about 30 or 40 coffins had accumulated, Carminati and Crotti blessed them with holy water. Then soldiers using fork lifts loaded them onto army trucks and military convoys took them away as residents cried from windows.
It was death on an industrial scale, something which only war chaplains can expect in their pastoral work.
"Consoling so many families created a great sadness in my heart," Carminati said, after celebrating Mass recently in one of Seriate's other churches.
A year on, nearly 3 500 people have died of the disease in Bergamo province so far, several hundred in Seriate.
"The wound will heal only slowly," said Carminati, who lost two nephews aged 34 and 36 to Covid-19. "It will take time for this pain to become a memory."