The administrators of three of the largest churches in the midlands have kept their doors closed to Sunday mass goers this weekend, despite churches being reopened after closing due to the pandemic.

Under Phase 3 of the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, churches and places of worship have reopened, but attendance has been limited to just 50 people.

The administrators defended their decision to keep the churches closed, saying that restricting the attendance in each building would have "offended" their parishioners.

Every weekend, more than 3,000 people attend Sunday mass ceremonies at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Our Lady Queen of Peace and nearby St Mary's church in Athlone.

Even though 50 people could have attended ceremonies in each church today, all three buildings are closed for mass. Instead, the mass was broadcast on the internet and local radio.

Fr Declan Shannon, administrator of St Mary's parish, defended the move, saying the Church is an inclusive body and he fears many people may have been excluded if they had gone ahead with just 50 people.

"You must remember that the priest and our stewards are also included among that 50 total," said Fr Shannon.

"So we were not prepared to exclude people who may have been offended if they were not allowed to attend, especially if it was an occasion when they were celebrating mass to mark the anniversary of a loved one."

The Cabinet Committee on Ireland's Covid-19 response issued new guidance on indoor gatherings on Friday, allowing for a capacity of greater than 50 where certain criteria are met - including separating people into zones with a limit of 50.

This weekend, church leaders and parishes all over the country are considering these proposals but many feel the new arrangements are very complex and will pose problems in the area of access to and from the buildings, and place a demand for even more stewards.

"We had the building ready to open under the present guidelines," Fr John Deignan, parish priest at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Athlone, pointed out.

"Now we will have to go back and look at the new restrictions, which are going to mean setting up different zones within the building and of course this will lead to the need for more volunteers to help people come in and leave the building safely."

Dozens of churches all over the country decided to remain closed because of the present restrictions and individual assessments will now have to be carried out in the week ahead to see if zones of 50 people can be accommodated safely within the new guidelines in different parts of each building.

Some parishes have taken a more innovative approach to the problem, with 'drive-in' mass ceremonies taking place around the country today, including one in the parish of Kilgefin, Co Roscommon where mass is taking place outdoors at the nearby St Faithleachs GAA club car parks.