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Delaware, Maryland resort-area pastors say their churches still have room as summer beach season revs into high gear

Parishioners attend Mass on Memorial Day at Holy Savior Church in Ocean City, Md. Dialog file photo

Despite reports of heavy crowds in Delaware’s resort towns and Ocean City, Md., priests in the Ocean Deanery say there’s still room in their pews for Catholics who want to attend Mass. Whether that’s the case this weekend, however, with the Fourth of July holiday remains to be seen.

Father Paul Jennings said his parish, St. Luke’s in Ocean City, has seen an increase in attendance in each of the five weeks since public Masses resumed in late May. Cumulative attendance has increased from 419 to 854 last weekend. St. Luke’s can accommodate about 244 for Mass based on the diocesan directive restricting attendance to 30 percent capacity.

“We are getting darn close, but fortunately, that’s over six Masses,” Father Jennings said. “The two heavy Masses are the 8 and 10 on Sunday morning. Those are in the 200s.”

Unlike many other parishes where church officials can guess with some certainty how many people will attend and which ones are singles, couples or families, the beach parishes never really know the composition of their congregations. That can affect how many people will be able to attend since there needs to be six feet between parties, he said.

A few miles south at Holy Savior Church, Father John Solomon said he can accommodate about 250 people for Mass. With work being accomplished at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, only the larger Holy Savior is being used this summer. Any overflow can attend Mass in the parish hall and watch a live-stream, but that has not been an issue yet.

“The issue is spacing, not total numbers,” Father Solomon said.

“We have had some guests, but there aren’t as many guests as normal,” he said.

The coronavirus doesn’t appear to have hit Ocean City as hard as some other areas, and the vacation crowd is still strong, he said. But with Bishop Malooly still dispensing with the Sunday Mass obligation, many of Holy Savior’s regular parishioners have stayed home.

In Delaware, the resumption of Mass in person has not led to overcrowding, according to two parishes. Father John Klevence, pastor of St. Ann in Bethany Beach, said attendance last weekend was lighter than what the church normally has. He said “a fair number” of his parishioners and visitors are senior citizens who are more susceptible to the virus.

“The numbers of those coming to Mass are down tremendously,” he said.

St. Ann could hold about 170 for Mass, but they haven’t been above 125. Father Klevence said the number of visitors to Bethany Beach has been heavy on the weekends, but during the week it hasn’t been too bad.

The lack of attendance has taken a toll on St. Ann’s bottom line. The parish usually relies on a bump in its offertory during the summer, but that hasn’t been the case this year.

“My regular parishioners have been very good in maintaining their support of the church,” he said.

An employee at St. Edmond’s in Rehoboth Beach said the church has not hit its maximum number of attendees at any Mass yet, and they have not had any issues with social distancing or the requirement to wear a mask. Attendance at most weekend Masses has been in the 80s. Coronavirus testing has shown Rehoboth Beach to be one of the hot spots in Delaware.

Mask-wearing has not been an issue for any of the parishes contacted. Having gone months without the Mass and the Eucharist, Catholics are willing to abide by that requirement, Father Solomon said.

“People have been cooperative. They are willing to put up with the hassles and the restrictions,” he said.

The one church that has been pushing the upper limits of its capacity, St. Luke’s, will open its mission, St. Andrew’s, beginning this weekend for one Mass per week, at 7 a.m. on Sundays. Father Jennings said in his travels around Ocean City, he sees the normal summer traffic and families waiting at intersections waiting to cross Coastal Highway to get to the beach.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “If you’d never been here before and you saw the number of cars on the road and the groups, it looks to the casual observer like nothing’s going on.”

Whether that and the holiday weekend affect anyone’s ability to go to Mass remains to be seen, he continued. “Up to this point, we haven’t had to shut the doors in anybody’s face, but with the Fourth of July coming up, I can’t wait to see where that’s going to go.”