A Belfast girl making her First CommunionPA

With first Holy Communion season upon us, recession-hit Irish Catholic parents are struggling to cover costs for Communion outfits and celebrations.

From dresses, to veils, to suits, to shoes, to gloves, to purses, to keepsake Bibles, to parties, the expenses rack up for parents of a child making their First Communion.

Now, as Ireland and the U.S. sink further into recession, Catholic parents in both countries are shifting their focus from fancy dresses and parties to the spiritual and more meaningful side of a child’s First Communion.

In two weeks, Marion Minogue’s fourth child, eight-year-old Fionan, will make his Communion – without the glitz and glam that’s typically associated with the occasion.

Minogue, who lives in County Tipperary, is “absolutely cutting down” on Communion costs, saying: “I’m probably more sensible at this stage in my life, but certainly the global economic situation is making everybody cautious.”

The Irish mother admits that, “Years ago, when my oldest girl, who’s now 20, was making her Communion, I would have been more conscious of everybody having new clothes, but now I don’t see the need to throw money around. And I don’t want to throw money around because it’s such a fleeting experience.”

The Minogues are focusing on the spiritual experience of Fionan’s First Communion, rather than the materialistic side of it, and luckily Fionan’s school gives the children the choice of wearing the school uniform to the Communion ceremony, which most of them end up doing.

“This whole climate makes people decide what do you really need and what you really want,” Minogue said. “And it’s down to only what’s necessary.”

The Minogue family will celebrate Fionan’s Communion with a small family get together and a walk in the mountains – Fionan’s choice.

Similarly, Irish Catholic families in the U.S. are feeling less pressure to “show off” with nice clothes and big parties, and are keeping things low key.

Ciaran Staunton, a County Mayo native, will celebrate his daughter Kathleen’s First Communion on May 10. Luckily for her father, Kathleen picked an inexpensive dress out of a catalogue and chose her family’s Midtown restaurant  for her party location. “We offered Kathleen to have a party at any venue, and she on her own chose O’Neills – she picked it herself.”

Staunton, owner of O’Neill’s pub in New York City, hears from other venue owners that this year, Communion parties have noticeably scaled down. “I know from talking to people in the stores that they have noticed that parties were certainly trimmed back,” he said.

Kathleen Vesey Fee, another parent of a child making his First Communion, found ways to cut down on Communion costs as well, saying: “Instead of having a party catered or in a hall, we opted to instead do a more casual backyard barbeque.”

Her son, Ciaran Fee, will make his Communion on May 16 in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

“Fortunately, Ciaran has an older brother who made his Communion two years ago. His brother's blue blazer, dress pants and shirt fit perfectly, so we don't have to purchase any new clothes,” Fee said.

But not all Irish families are acting quite as sensibly when it comes to digging in their wallets on their child’s Communion day.

“It has been insane the past couple of years,” photographer Andy Spearman of County Louth said. “Just last year, a couple asked the priest if he would clear the car park so the helicopter could land.

“The couple couldn't understand why the other families would be put out if they couldn’t park.”

A member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SVP), the Roman Catholic charity, in Ireland is calling for schools and parishes to press for reform in Communion spending.

Anne Keane, administrator of the SVP Resource Centre in Ballina, County Mayo, said Irish families “in dire straits” are going in debt just to cover Communion costs.

Keane, who spoke with Total Catholic newspaper, said that parents have gone as far as borrowing from money lenders in order to allow their sons and daughters to “look the part” on their big day, with fancy clothes and lavish parties.

In Ireland, according to a 2008 Ulster Bank survey, the average price of a Communion dress costs about €200 ($262), and accessories such as shoes and veils can cost up to €150 ($197). Communion parties, complete with entertainment and food, can amount to €354 ($464), totaling Communion costs for an individual family to €748 ($980).

Keane, a volunteer for over 25 years with the SVP family visitations section, said visitors to the SVP have been increasing regularly in the past year in the wake of the Irish economic crisis.

She criticized the financial burden placed on families during the Communion season, and urged parishes to encourage a more economical approach to celebrating a child’s First Holy Communion.

Keane points to Germany’s Communion customs as a prime example, where children make their Communion in borrowed robes provided by the parish.

“I have attended two Communions in Germany and there is much more of an emphasis on the religious side of it,” she said.