For The Dialog
Summer traffic at the beach re-routes some Ocean City, Md., parishioners to Bethany Methodist UMC
BERLIN, Md. – At first glance it appeared to be a typical Sunday vigil Mass here as some 200 people gathered May 23 to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.
But the setting was different. Instead of a Catholic church, Father Stanislao Esposito was at the altar of Bethany United Methodist Church. The timing marked an annual ritual not only for Catholic churches but for coastal communities along the Atlantic Ocean in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“Welcome back,” Father Esposito said at the beginning of the 5 p.m. Mass. “We’re back at Bethany United Methodist Church, which means summer is here.”
Memorial Day Weekend marks the unofficial start of summer beach season, which draws hundreds of thousands of summer visitors to communities such as Ocean City, Md., and Bethany Beach, Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, Del.
During the season, which runs through September, many parishes expand their Mass schedules to meet the spiritual needs of visitors. Most are held on the church campus, at additional times or with “overflow” Masses in the parish hall at the same time as a regularly scheduled Mass. St. Luke in Ocean City opens a second church, St. Andrew’s, which is not used in the offseason. St. Edmond’s in Rehoboth Beach offers a 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at Rehoboth Elementary School.
Welcomed at Bethany
St. Mary Star of the Sea-Holy Savior in Ocean City went a step further about 15 years ago. Parish leaders wanted a Mass somewhere near campgrounds around Assateague Island for visitors there.
Bethany United Methodist agreed to let the Ocean City Catholic parish celebrate Mass in its church and the seasonal Saturday evening liturgy began.
Father Esposito, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea-Holy Savior, said that despite the relatively short distance (about six miles) between the two churches, most of those who attend Mass at Bethany UMC would not travel into Ocean City for Mass during the tourist season.
“It would not happen,” he said, noting that what normally is a 20-minute drive can take up to two hours during the summer.
A core group of year-round parishioners who live in the area take advantage of the summer Mass as well, Father Esposito said. But the Mass is designed for people like Kim and Troy Elser of Parkton, Md., who with their three children bicycled about five minutes from their summer home to Mass last Saturday.
“It’s a nice convenience,” Troy Elser said.
“It seems like a Catholic community here even though it isn’t a Catholic church,” said Kim Elser.
The Elsers are beginning their third summer in the Ocean City-Berlin area. They noticed a sign advertising the Catholic Mass on their first visit. When they decided to purchase a summer home, they purposely looked for one close to the Methodist church so they could attend Mass.
Linda Glorioso, who chairs St. Mary star of the Sea’s liturgy committee, and her husband John transform the altar at Bethany UMC each week. Before Mass they place a crucifix (a cross with the body of Christ) on the altar. Parish altar linens and Mass objects, along with vestments for Father Esposito, are kept at the Methodist church.
“My husband and I have been doing it so long we have it down pat now,” she said.
“They’ve been wonderful to us, always willing to help us,” she said of the Bethany UMC community.
Two pews, one marriage
Dennis and Amy Curry are a symbol of the relationship between the two churches. He is a member of St. Mary Star of the Sea-Holy Savior; she is a member of Bethany UMC and its liaison to the Catholic community.
When the agreement began, Amy Curry recalls, the Bethany community was split. Some members “didn’t want them (Catholics) here.”
Now friendships have developed as religious misgivings have been overcome.
Shared youth ministry
The two churches share not only a place of worship but a ministry to international students who come to Ocean City for seasonal work. The ministry, which began at Holy Savior in 2002, has grown into an ecumenical and community effort. Holy Savior continues to host weekly dinners for the students; the men’s group at Bethany UMC helps cook and serve those meals.
The meals are one sign of how far relations between members of the two churches have come since the Saturday evening Mass agreement started, Amy Curry said. “It’s really developed friendship among the people.”