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Beach season in Diocese of Wilmington: The ins and outs of church parking lots

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Second generation seaside “parking usher” Joe Burke points out the “Parking Commandment” sign at St. Ann, Bethany Beach. “That’s been here forever,” he said. Dialog photo/Gary Morton/.

St. Ann’s takes the ministry of ushering a step further than most parishes. It has a parking lot usher, Joe Burke.

Every weekend finds Burke at the Bethany Beach church, assisting attendees onto the parish’s 250-vehicle parking lot before Mass and out of the parking lot onto busy Delaware 26 (Garfield Parkway) afterward.

The patience that requires is summed up by the “Parking Commandment” as listed on a St. Ann’s traffic sign: “1st in-1st out/Their strength is to sit still/Slow down/Find peace.” Dialog photo/Gary Morton

“It’s organized chaos, that’s what it is,” the jovial Burke said. “We fill it for every Mass, especially during the summer.”

St. Ann utilizes ferry-style parking with cars parked closely one-behind-another in straight, marked lanes; chains at the far end, at an exit street, are removed by the “ushers” to control traffic flow. The lot clears within 10 to 15 minutes of the close of Mass, Burke said.

The set-up means most churchgoers aren’t tempted to leave Mass early. “If you’re stuck in the middle [of a row of cars] you have to wait to get out,” Burke said.

The patience that requires is summed up by the “Parking Commandment” as listed on a St. Ann’s traffic sign: “1st in-1st out/Their strength is to sit still/Slow down/Find peace.”

Burke helps with the traffic year-round, but his workload intensifies with the Memorial Day weekend opening of beach season. The 7:30 a.m. Father’s Day Mass, for example, had people standing in the entry space and along the back walls inside the church, with a crammed parking lot outside.

This weekend St. Ann goes into peak beach season, doubling the number of Sunday Masses from three (a 4 p.m. Saturday vigil and 7:30 and 10 a.m. Sunday Masses) to six (4 and 6 p.m. Saturday vigils and 7:30, 9, 10:30 and 11 on Sunday morning).
“We’re back-to-back,” Burke said. “When we let them out (after one Mass) the next Mass is ready to come in.”

Father John Klevence, pastor, called for patience both during Mass and afterward in a note on the parish website.

“[M]any of these Masses are quite crowded. Also, the parking lot is very crowded,” he said.

“Please exercise patience, a wonderful virtue, and follow the promptings of the parking lot attendants. They help every car to get out of the parking lot in a timely fashion without any fender benders. I know that it takes a little longer than we might like but everyone does get out and does so safely.”

Given the increased volume of cars during the summer season, the parish asked for a volunteer to assist Burke. “You definitely need two people in the summertime,” he said. “I had a longtime helper, but he got too old.”

Rick Volkman answered the call. Asked the worst aspect of the duty, Volkman cited the summer heat. “Otherwise, it really goes smoothly.”

Burke, who moved from southern New Jersey eight years ago, inherited the parking lot duty from his father about five years ago, when the elder Burke became gravely ill and later died. “My father did it for about 15 years. He loved St. Ann’s and the parking lot duty.”

Like his father, Joe Burke seems to relish the job. But he’s not so sure about being labeled a “parking lot usher.”

“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “I’m the parking lot guy.”

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