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 CNS Story:

FRAGRANCE Dec-15-2004 (860 words) xxxn

Parishioners breathe easier in Seattle church's 'fragrance-free' zone

By Terry McGuire
Catholic News Service

SEATTLE (CNS) -- Until Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle established a "fragrance-free section" at select Masses on Sundays, Wendy Lindmark would stand by the door throughout the Mass in case she needed to duck outside for a breath of fresh air.

Now she's able to sit through the liturgy from beginning to end, comforted in the knowledge that she'll depart in the same shape as when she arrived.

Last August, Blessed Sacrament created a "fragrance-free" seating area in the church's south transept for the 7:30, 9 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday Masses. The special section enables parishioners such as Lindmark to attend Mass without fear of being exposed to fragrances such as perfume or hairspray that can make them ill.

"It surprised me a couple of weeks ago when I realized I no longer expect to get sick from going to Mass," Lindmark said.

Her situation reflects what other Catholics who are asthmatic or suffer from a disorder known as multiple chemical sensitivities face each time they walk into their church for Mass: the possibility of spending days or even weeks in bed after becoming ill from fragrances that their respiratory systems cannot tolerate.

Innocuous-seeming products such as perfumes, deodorants, hair sprays, soaps, incense, candles, holy oils, dryer sheets, carpeting and flowers can affect them without warning. They are forced to leave Mass early. And in some cases they do not return to the church.

Joan Reid, a member of another Seattle parish, cannot remember the last time she attended Mass at her church, where she said the incense regularly triggered her asthma.

"To ask me when the last time I was at Mass is like asking when was the last time I took poison," she told The Catholic Northwest Progress, newspaper of the Seattle Archdiocese.

Virginia Barber, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Vancouver, used to don a carbon-filtered mask so she could last through the Sunday liturgy without suffering an asthma attack. Sunday Mass became more of a penance than a celebration, she said.

She would avoid the handshake during the sign of peace, knowing that the scent of hand lotion would stay with her until she was able to get home and wash with her own special soap.

Even the sight of students lined up in the hallway at the parish school became a cause for concern for Barber -- the children's clothes often carried a buildup of the scent of fabric-softener sheets used in clothes dryers.

Today, Barber said her condition is much improved. She has no more need for a respirator mask at Sunday liturgies. And she can now handle the soap in the church's restroom to wash off hand-lotion fragrance. "But if somebody comes in (to Mass) who's really fragrant and sits near me," she added, "I will move to another part of the church."

That's why sufferers such as Barber, Reid and Lindmark are heartened to see Blessed Sacrament address the issue. It's a simple step, they say, and one that also helps educate others in the parish.

While their numbers may be relatively small, "there's more of us than you realize," Barber said. "And it's a genuine physical problem, it's not in the person's mind."

At Blessed Sacrament, the decision to establish the fragrance-free section was not a big issue, said office assistant Shirley Hendrix. Someone requested it and Blessed Sacrament's parish administrator, Dominican Father Daniel Syverstad, followed through. So far, they know of five parishioners who are adversely affected by fragrances, Hendrix said.

To accommodate them, no incense is burned at the three Sunday morning Masses, although it can be used in later Masses.

The parish bulletin, in announcing the special section, urged fellow parishioners to "respect the sensitivities of those who are allergic to perfume, cologne, smoke and other odors and fragrances when they sit in this section."

"This will allow some of our parishioners the ability to join us for the Eucharist," the bulletin said, "when they would otherwise be unable to do so."

Lindmark said she was initially apprehensive about the new section "because it's so hard to know what personal care products are going to affect you and which aren't; it's such a unique problem to each person."

"But it has worked out very well," she said, "and I'm very appreciative."

She added that she and others who suffer adverse reactions to fragrances want to be a part of the community -- not isolated from it.

Barber said she felt like a leper for a while because people would say to her: "I won't come close to you because I'm wearing a fragrance."

But like Lindmark, she also is appreciative of her parish's sensitivities to her condition. She said Our Lady of Lourdes is in the process of getting new carpeting for the church, and parish officials are being careful to make sure it will be low in volatile organic compounds.

A high content of such compounds would force her to go to Mass at another church until the fumes had dissipated -- a course of action she had to take for approximately eight weeks when the church's interior was painted.


Copyright (c) 2004 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
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