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When a Hurricane Ruined Their Church, This Parish Saw an Evangelization Opportunity
By Patty Knap
All summer long, Catholics on Long Island had the beautiful experience of Mass on the beach, with the sand, sea, and sky their church.
For the second year in a row, Father Brian Barr, pastor of St. Mary's of the Isle in Long Beach, arranged for a Sunday 6:30pm outdoor Mass. Each week, as word traveled about the beautiful beach liturgy, the number of congregants grew, with over 1,000 people in attendance at the last outdoor Mass over Labor Day weekend.
Father Brian wanted a way to bring the Mass to the people. He hoped especially to reach people who hadn't been to church in a long time and who, for whatever reason, were unlikely to walk back into a church. "We're a beach community; our parish is blocks from the ocean, so a beach Mass was a natural idea, but I wanted to keep it reverent. It's a casual atmosphere, but what we're doing isn't casual, it's sacred." He sought out the best music and musicians, and there's something special about live music on the beach. "There's an awesome power in nature and in celebrating the Mass in such a public way," said Father Brian.
The parish considered having one beach Mass in July and one in August, but decided a weekly Mass from Memorial Day to Labor Day was a better plan to gradually get the word out that the beach Mass was a regular event.
The atmosphere at each Mass was deeply prayerful. Everyone knelt in the sand at the appropriate time, without any verbal prompting. Several hundred up on the boardwalk were completely silent, whether they came purposely for the evening's Mass or just happened to be walking or biking by or sitting on a bench to enjoy the view. Surely not all were practicing Catholics. Several people in wheelchairs were in attendance each week.
The beach Mass calls to mind Matthew 22:9: "Go to the main crossroads and invite everyone you can find to come to the wedding," and of the New Evangelization Pope St. John Paul II called for, bringing Christ to the people.
Beach Mass coordinator Eva Paprocki was 'volunteered' this past winter to handle all the details of setting up a weekly public Mass. The beach Mass schedule grew out of needing an alternative place because the church had been destroyed. "We'd been having meetings ever since the hurricane (Sandy) about how to encourage people to start coming back to church. Fr. Brian had only been with our parish two weeks when the hurricane devastated the church and parish hall. He got a small group of us together in someone's home once a week to talk about ways to support people and show them the church was still there for them. I couldn't make a meeting one night and somehow I was appointed the 'beach Mass coordinator' - something that has turned out to be an enormous blessing for me. It started out as a list of chores, stuff I had to do to coordinate the beach Mass. But I just so love it now, it's a joy to work on. I just can't express the impact it's had on me. I get a zillion times more out of it than what I put into it. And it's interesting because I had been thinking before I got involved in this, that I wanted to find some kind of way to help make the world a better place but I wasn't sure where I should be. Fr. Brian's vision has just been a life-changing experience for me and it's definitely brought me closer to God."
About an hour before Mass time a truck would arrive with a group of young men, including some seminarians, who drove over from the rectory a few blocks away to set up the altar, crucifix, speakers, music center, a table for bulletins, and baskets for collection. City approval for a large public gathering had already been secured. Father Brian arrived by bike from the rectory a few blocks over and chat with the altar servers, musicians, and Mass-goers before vesting and processing up to the altar.
Numerous reports of hearts touched by the beach Mass have come in. A woman who lives in a building overlooking the beach Mass site has been having Holy Communion brought to her for some time now because she cannot get out to Mass. Now she can be at Mass just by opening her window. Two women who had been coming to the parish's outreach program were invited to come to the beach Masses. As a result of attending several times, both have decided to become Catholic.
Kevin Kline and his wife Kerri didn't miss a single beach Mass all summer. "It's hard to describe. It's just beautiful, the sea of humanity before you there to celebrate the Mass. It's just part of our weekend routine now. Pretty much every weekend we bring someone else with us, and then we have a nice barbecue back at the house after." Kerri hadn't been going to Mass regularly for a number of years, and as a result of attending the beach Masses last summer, Kerri now goes regularly throughout the year. The Klines, along with many other local residents, put beach Mass yard signs in front of their homes announcing the beach Mass day and time. "A couple weeks ago, I'd just come home from the beach Mass and was out watering in front of my house when a neighbor walked by with her dog. She goes, 'That was so beautiful.' She went on to tell me that she hadn't been to Mass in a long time, and that seeing the yard sign about the beach Mass prompted her to come. That was so great to hear, and it's been kind of a new connection between this neighbor of mine and me."
"I just can't describe it. It's a very different feeling, a very holy experience. I love the beach, and I love the Mass. The combination is spectacular," offered Diane Reynolds of Garden City.
Lifeguards normally went off duty at 6pm, but groups of them would stay for the 6:30 Mass. One evening four teen surfers pulled their boards up out of the water, sat down at the Mass site, and prayed and sang along with everyone else, kneeling by their boards in the sand.
Recently Mass-goers had a stunning backdrop just beyond the altar of a gorgeous ocean and waves with an oncoming sunset, when a paraglider appeared. Gracefully ascending and descending, the paraglider appeared to hover above the Mass. Betty McPartland of Stewart Manor found it only added to the Mass. "It wasn't a distraction. I saw him as glorifying God in another way."
The beach Mass in Long Beach is already planned for next summer.
Photos by Tom Upshur
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