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Coffins of Covid victims were lined up in his church. A year on, Italian priest remembers the “nightmare”

Father Mario Carminati has been a priest for 41 years, but when his small town was suddenly in the epicentre of Europe’s worst Covid outbreak last year, he saw death on an industrial scale that no-one could have foreseen.

In March of 2020, the chilling image of dozens of coffins of coronavirus victims laid across the cold marble floor of a local church became a symbol of the health emergency in Italy.

The outbreak was at its peak, hundreds were dying every day, and Carminati opened the church so that victims would have a dignified temporary place of rest instead of waiting in a warehouse before burial. 270 bodies passed through the church.

One year on, the 65 year-old senior priest and his community are still recovering from the shock and the pain of so much loss.

A black and white framed photograph of the church full of coffins is hung on its walls as a sombre reminder, a way to honour the dead.

“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 and not according to your heart,” he told Reuters, remembering how clusters of coffins would arrive every day and be laid on the floor of St. Joseph’s Church.

When enough coffins had been accumulated, he and other priests gave them a hasty blessing before a forklift vehicle loaded them on to army trucks to cemeteries and crematoria.

Seriate is a tranquil, middle-class riverside town of 25,000 people in the Bergamo province of northern Italy. But like much of the surrounding region of Lombardy, this time last year it was plunged into silence, with only the sound of constant ambulance sirens filling the air.

“It became a place of death, sadness, mourning and this was the experience we have lived for at least three months. It was a truly devastating experience,” Carminati said, adding that 200 people from the town had died of the virus.

The priest said the saddest thing for him was that many of his parishioners died alone, without loved ones, because restrictions in place to stem the spread of the virus do not allow family members into hospitals.

“Saying the last goodbye to people you know, losing your loved ones and consoling so many families created a great sadness in my heart,” he said.

Now, Carminati still leads mass in a local church to a congregation wearing masks, sitting at a social distance from one another on the pews. But the dark memories hang over him and the congregation.

He warned that the wound of so much death and sadness would take a long time to heal – a year was not enough, it was still raw. He felt the loss first-hand. He lost two nephews in their 30s, after they had battled Covid for five months.

“The wound opens up, it bleeds on many occasions. It will take some time for this pain to become nostalgia, it is not an immediate healing,” he said.

“Those who think they can erase the pain of what happened are wrong because they will have to deal with the mourning,” he said.

On March 18, Prime Minister Mario Draghi will attend commemorations in Bergamo for a National Day in memory of Covid victims, exactly one year after convoys of army trucks first carried away the coronavirus dead in the city and shocked the world.

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