About one in every five new residents in the growing town of Gilbert is Catholic, and St. Anne’s Catholic parish can barely keep up.
"Help!!!" was the one-word headline the Rev. Doug Lorig put atop his most recent St. Anne’s newsletter column, as he appealed to his massive parish to help bring order to the crush of folks expected to attend Easter Masses today and Sunday at 440 E. Elliot Road.
Lorig divided the alphabet into five letter groupings and has assigned, by last name, which Masses parishioners are "encouraged" to attend to try to spread out the crowds.
His goal is to divert many from the most popular times — the 8 and 10 a.m. Easter Masses — to ones at 7 and 10 p.m. today, another starting at midnight, and others at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday. Masses in Spanish will be noon and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Nine Masses are common for the weekend at St. Anne’s, but Easter weekend draws thousands of Catholics who don’t frequently attend Masses, including the so-called "Christmas and Easter" churchgoers.
Lucking out this year for 10 a.m. Mass are those whose names begin with letters N through S. In the 8 a.m. bracket are parishioners in the H-through-M group. The A-to-C crowd is asked to show up at 10 p.m. today, the D-to-G group at 6 a.m. Sunday and the T-to-Z group at 4 p.m. Sunday.
"Are we desperate or not?" Lorig asked in the newsletter. "We will rotate the Masses each year so your suggested time will always be changing." Some 8,000 to 9,000 Catholics typically show up for weekend Masses, but Lorig said "several thousand more than that" come at Easter, and they most often come to those "prime time" Masses in the morning.
Being assigned when to go to church may seem too structured, but few people are grumbling.
"We have to do something, and I trust Father Doug to do what he thinks we need to do," said parishioner Jill Klein.
The sanctuary seats 1,400 comfortably — or 1,500 when parishioners are encouraged to suck it up and move toward the center of their rows so latecomers can find seats. But the church’s parking lot cannot accommodate the crowds, even with efforts to get many parishioners to park elsewhere and walk to the campus.
"When I came to celebrate a Sunday Mass at Easter last year," Lorig said, "I was stuck in the center turn lane and sat there for 45 minutes. I couldn’t get into the lot." Someone came to the street, Lorig got out and let that person park his car while he went in and started the next Mass.
"I think everyone agrees something needs to be done," said parishioner Loretta Winn. Though her last name means her family should go to the 4 p.m. Sunday Mass, they will be at the 8 a.m. service because her children were assigned to be altar servers then. Still, she applauded Lorig for coming up with a plan.
"I think he is doing the best that he can in trying to make everybody happy, both parishioners and neighbors," she said.
On regular weekends, St. Anne’s parishioners may attend Saturday Masses at 4 and 7 p.m. (a vigil) and a children’s Mass at 6 p.m., but Catholic canon laws don’t allow that during Holy Week. "Catholics have their first Mass of Easter just after sundown on Saturday evening," said Lorig, who has served St. Anne’s for 13 years.
"At other times, we can have it at four o’clock Saturday to anticipate Sunday, but never on Easter because the canon laws of the church required that the first Mass be after dark. The reason for that is the Resurrection is the bursting of the light of Christ resurrecting into the world -- the symbol of light in the darkness is big for the Easter Vigil."
Over the years, he said, "we have tried everything" to alleviate problems. "The first year when we had so many, I went to the high school, and we had the first Mass on Easter Sunday outdoors on the football field, with about 5,000 people," he said. "That took a lot of the pressure off the church building and parking lot on Sunday."
Lorig said he hopes the first-time midnight Mass at St. Anne’s will be attractive to parishioners. "All the music is in Latin," he said. "We have a classical choir, and they will sing all the liturgy parts in Latin, which will be beautiful." The Mass itself will be in English, but "all the liturgy parts will be the traditional Latin that people remember from years ago, and I am hoping the nostalgia will bring enough people to fill the church at midnight."
Lorig vowed that all nine Masses would be "full music and full everything" and "there is nothing slighted no matter what time of the day or evening it is."
"The proof of the pudding will be on Easter Monday when I sit down to think it over and see if Sunday morning wasn’t so bad," Lorig said.