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Volunteers as important as churchgoers when beach town churches fill up

St. Mary Star of the Sea in Ocean City, Md.

The ushers wore shorts at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church on the southern end of Ocean City, Md., and people stood along the walls and filled the gathering space at St. Andrew Church on northern end of the 10-mile-long city for Memorial Day weekend Sunday Mass.

Both illustrate something that motorists and businesses along the Atlantic coast of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Delaware already knew.

Beach season has begun.

At its height, some 350,000 people will crowd into Ocean City, which has a year-round population of about 7,000. To help meet the spiritual needs of those people, the city’s two parishes increase the number of Masses by 60 percent, and increase the number of sites where Mass is celebrated from two to five – including a Methodist church.

Mass is celebrated year-round at Holy Savior and St. Luke churches, but come Memorial Day weekend Mass expands to St. Mary Star of the Sea, St. Luke, and Bethany UMC. Beach Season’s traditional close is Labor Day weekend, when most parishes along the coastal resort communities return to normal off-season Mass schedules.

Sean Coughlin exemplified beach season at St. Mary Star of the Sea, clad in shorts, an orange t-shirt and sandals as he greeted people arriving for 7 a.m. Mass.

Besides helping reach out to visitors, Coughlin said his ushering fits nicely into his schedule. Soon after Mass he went to work at Talbot’s Inn, a few blocks from the church. “The time frame is great for me.”

The intimate church, which seats about 200, is one of the oldest structures in Ocean City, and according to Coughlin, one of the prettiest churches. “This is a beautiful church,” he said.

About 125 people attended the Mass, with about 50 being parishioners who otherwise would attend Holy Savior Church. “We get a lot of parishioners and a lot of visitors,” said sacristan Frank Gatley, who ensured that St. Mary had all the things needed for Mass, such as hosts, chalices and the book of the Gospels. Afterward he scurried the mile-and-a-half from St. Mary to Holy Savior, where he made sure the church was ready for 8:30 a.m. Mass.

At St. Andrew, Father Paul Jennings of St. Luke-St. Andrew Parish reminded the overflowing congregation that while being at the beach is a festive time, “Memorial Day is more than the unofficial start of summer. Memorial Day is very serious, as it should be; it is very important, as it ought to be” when America takes time to remember those who died fighting for their country.

Rose Knight of Elkridge, Md., was in the foyer with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson. She has a house where she stays off and on year-round, and knows well when beach season hits.

“You can’t get a seat,” she said. “We usually have no trouble finding a place to sit in the off-season at St. Luke.”

Ryan Breitenbach of Silver Spring, Md., and his family had seats inside the church but had a little help getting them. His parents saved some seats for them.

So why attend church on vacation?

“It’s an obligation for Catholics of all ages to make Sunday Mass … and of course, the Eucharist,” he said.