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Overwhelmed by the Masses

With Christmas falling on a Monday, weary priests at San Gabriel Mission endure two-day, 18-service marathon.

December 26, 2006|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

Father Ralph Berg had just finished celebrating his fifth Mass in two days at the historic San Gabriel Mission. A little weary, trying to beat back a cold, the Roman Catholic priest was nearing the end of the Sunday-Monday Christmas marathon.

By the time Monday afternoon rolled around, the San Gabriel Mission had offered 18 Masses and services in two days in English, Spanish and Vietnamese between its two adjacent sanctuaries. The reason? Because Christmas fell on a Monday this year, regular Sunday Masses, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day observances were jammed together.

"It's exhilarating," said Berg, greeting parishioners and posing for photos with them at the conclusion of Monday's 11:15 a.m. service. "And the tiredness comes afterward."

The compressed schedule created a lot of logistical issues at the multicultural parish in downtown San Gabriel, and at other churches around California and the nation.

Take decorations, for example. The Nativity scene, Christmas banners, altar trees and poinsettias typically are not put up until after the last Sunday before the holiday. Because there was not enough time this year for even a quick turnaround, volunteers had to beautify the churches before the weekend.

Large numbers of programs had to be printed. Enough Communion wafers and wine had to be readied. Ushers had to be scheduled. Bathrooms were more frequently cleaned in the complex, which includes its landmark 1805 Mission Church with room for about 300 people beneath its wood-beam ceilings and, down a stone colonnade, the 1958 Chapel of Annunciation with about twice as many seats.

That it all got taken care of was "kind of a miracle," said Berg, 71, who has been pastor at the mission for the last five years. He heads a staff of six fellow Claretian missionaries, half of whom are too old or ill to work full time, and a small cadre of lay volunteers.

"We just try to make this a good experience," said Chuck Lyons, public relations director at the parish, which serves more than 3,500 households.

And then there was music. Organist and pianist Paul Puccinelli played seven Masses in two days at San Gabriel. He got home from the midnight Mass at 2:30 a.m. and was up at 6 a.m. Monday for the round of morning services. He played a lot of "Away in a Manger" and "Joy to the World" and held quick consultations with soloist singers.

He was so tired that at one point, he joked about grabbing a catnap on the keyboard. But he finished his last service with a melodious "Silent Night" and was about to head off to a final assignment at a Pasadena church before joining his family.

"It's exhausting; it's hard. But I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way," Puccinelli said. "As tired as I am, it's all worthwhile."

Roman Catholics were obliged to attend both regular Sunday Mass and a service for the holiday, either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The exception is when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday.

But the crunched timing had a downside: It cut attendance somewhat Monday, parish leaders said. Some people asked the priests if they could meet the requirements by coming just to, for example, the vigil Mass at 5 p.m. Sunday. The answer was no, although that advice was not always followed.

Anticipating that some people were reluctant to attend church twice in two days, some other churches, particularly Protestant ones, reduced their Sunday morning schedules. And some Christian denominations hold Christmas Eve worship but traditionally don't conduct Christmas Day services as long as it is not a Sunday.

Nothing was reduced at the San Gabriel Mission. Father Arnold Gonzalez, who serves there, said the hectic nature of this year's extended holiday triggered a "grin and bear it" attitude.

"We don't want to cut down on the traditions. So we enjoy it as much as we can," said Gonzalez, who expected to celebrate three Masses in two days.

Becky Woolery, a Sierra Madre resident who is a volunteer at the mission, came to both Sunday and Christmas morning Masses. "A lot of churchgoing in the weekend," she said.

Woolery said some relatives and friends had discussed attending only once over the two days. But she said there was no excuse for that because "there are so many Masses in so many languages."

Rachel Castro of the Seattle area agreed. She, her husband and daughter were visiting relatives in the San Gabriel area. They went to 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday at a Pomona church and the 9:30 Christmas Day service led by Berg at the mission. "I see it as a wonderful opportunity and a blessing," she said.

In his sermons, nearly identical at the 9:30 and 11:15 services, Berg discussed the meaning of Christmas: "It's about God becoming one of us and showing the human race how much the creator loves us."

He urged parishioners to look in on the sick, elderly and lonely.

Wearing a white vestment with a colorful Nativity scene on its back, he offered holiday greetings in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Chinese. Both times, that multilingual Merry Christmas elicited congregants' applause.

After it was all over, Berg said he was going to rest a bit and nurse his cold, then dine with relatives and visit his hospitalized sister. The 18 Masses, he said, fly by because "people are really in a nice spirit, in the Christmas spirit. That helps a lot."

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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