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Archdiocesan parishes enjoy challenge of Christmas crowds

Father David Reeson was a little surprised at the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass last year as nearly 1,000 people sat – and stood – in St. Columbkille Church in Papillion.

"It was an eye-popper to see all those people," said Father Reeson, whose most recent assignment until going to St. Columbkille in July 2015 was chaplain for the Omaha VA Hospital and nearly 31 years as an Air Force chaplain. St. Columbkille Parish serves 3,200 families and nearly 10,000 people.

But Father Reeson took the large Christmas Eve congregation in stride.

"Now, it’s a little tight in here today," Father Reeson said at the time. So at his invitation, a number of young people gathered on the floor toward the front of church, freeing space for more adults to have a seat. Still, standing-room only prevailed.

This year, Father Reeson is taking it one step beyond children toward the front and offering the usual early Christmas Eve Masses – 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. This year, those Masses will be simulcast to the church’s social hall.

Other Masses – 7:30 p.m., midnight, and four Christmas Day Masses – also could be simulcast as needed, Father Reeson said.



Other large parishes, including St. Stephen the Martyr, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Robert Bellarmine, all in Omaha, also adjust for increased attendance during Christmas, as out-of-towners visit parishioners, early Christmas Eve Masses geared toward children draw more people, and people who might not attend every Sunday Mass make an effort to celebrate the birth of Christ, several pastors said.

"We want the baby Jesus, there is an innocence to that, a desire for hope and healing, peace and joy in the midst of a stressful world," said Father James Tiegs, pastor of St. Stephen the Martyr Parish, which accommodates about 4,000 people at one time on Christmas Eve – at 4, 4:15 and 4:30 p.m. Masses in the church, gymnasium and dining room.

The parish of 3,200 families and about 13,000 people also offers 6 p.m. and midnight Masses on Christmas Eve, and three Masses Christmas Day, Father Tiegs said.

All of the Masses are full, or nearly full, a sign that people are longing for Christ, for community and family, Father Tiegs said. And the invitation to community includes those who might not come every week to Mass, he said.

"It’d be nice to have them come every Sunday," he said. "There is a deep longing in a lot of people who want to feel that sense of belonging. It’s not ‘who am I,’ but ‘to whom do I belong?’"



A 40-member children’s choir – called Awesome Angels – attracts many of the 1,100 people who attend the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Church, which like St. Columbkille serves about 3,000 families and 10,000 people.

"It’s the joy of the songs, when little ones are singing," said Father Daniel Kampschneider, pastor.

A second 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass in the gym draws about 800 people, and that Mass is broadcast into the cafeteria for about 200 people, Father Kampschneider said.

The parish also offers 6 and 8 p.m. and midnight Masses, and two Masses Christmas Day, Father Kampschneider said.

St. Robert Bellarmine Parish offers three Christmas Eve Masses – 5 and 7 p.m. and midnight – and usually there is standing room only, said Deacon Michael Fletcher. Eight extraordinary ministers of holy Communion serve at those Masses – up from the usual four, he said. The parish serves more than 2,800 families, or nearly 8,000 people.

"It’s always kind of fun," Deacon Fletcher said. "Families come from out of town."



And St. Margaret Mary Church in Omaha – which serves a parish of about 4,600 people in 1,500 families – draws a large congregation to the 5 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass, including those seated and listening to the liturgy from the chapel at the east side of the church, said Father Gregory Baxter, pastor.

"We ask them to arrive early, because we have limited space," he said.

St. Margaret Mary Church is full at the midnight Mass, and nearly full at four Masses offered Christmas Day, he said.

"We certainly have more people on Christmas Day than a typical day," Father Baxter said.



Large, metropolitan area parishes are not the only ones responding to increased attendance at Christmas Masses. St. Mary Church at Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk has extra room in its choir practice room, and that space is used at the 4:30 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass, which includes a youth and adult choir.

The celebration begins with a 4:15 p.m. Christmas pageant put on by young children of the parish, said Sheryl Cahoy, director of stewardship and evangelization at the parish of about 2,400 families and 7,500 people.

"We’re seeing a good, steady number of young families with young children that come," Cahoy said.

The parish also has a 6:30 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass at St. Mary, as well as a 7:30 p.m. Mass in Spanish and a midnight Mass at its Sacred Heart Church, which attract many people, she said. Three Masses are offered between the two churches on Christmas Day.

St. Patrick Parish in O’Neill, which serves about 750 families and 1,520 people, fills the church at its 5 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass geared toward children. The church is all but full at the midnight Mass and Christmas Day Masses at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.

"You have families visiting, coming home to see mom and dad, grandma and grandpa," said Father Bernard Starman, pastor of St. Patrick Parish and St. Joseph Parish in Amelia, which also has a 10 a.m. Christmas Day Mass.

And there are those who might attend Mass only at Christmas and Easter, and they are welcome, Father Starman said. Some might be inspired to return to regularly practicing the faith, impacted by the liturgy, or a line out of the homily, he said.

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