By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
As a child, Lauren Barnhart was baptized in the historic St. Joseph Catholic Church in Sea Isle City.
In another monumental event in her life, Lauren and her husband, Joe, were married at the old church in 2008.
Christmas morning brought another church-related family milestone for the Barnharts, but this time it was in the new St. Joseph Catholic Church next door to the 137-year-old St. Joseph’s sanctuary.
The Barnharts sat in the front pew as they watched their 12-year-old son, Sebastian, serve as an altar boy to Father Perry Cherubini during the joyful Mass commemorating the birth of Jesus.
“I felt very nervous for him,” Lauren said of her son.
“But also very proud,” Joe added.
After the service, Sebastian admitted that he was a little nervous while playing such an important role during Christmas services.
“It was good. He let me help him out with everything,” Sebastian said of assisting Father Cherubini.
Lauren Barnhart, 41, who grew up in Sea Isle, makes Christmas Mass a family tradition every year.
“It’s nice to be here at Christmas with my family. It just adds that little bit more to Christmas,” she said.
Father Cherubini, pastor of St. Joseph, warmly greeted the congregation at the 10:30 a.m. Mass with a simple, “Merry Christmas, everyone.”
“Merry Christmas, father,” the parishioners responded.
During his sermon, Father Cherubini spoke of the miracle of Christ’s humble birth in the manger some 2,000 years ago.
“The grace of God has appeared,” he said. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. This is the news we have waited for. The news all humanity has been listening for.”
Christmas Mass this year represented a dramatic contrast from the somberness created by the raging coronavirus pandemic in December 2020. Although the recently discovered Omicron variant of the coronavirus has caused a global flare-up of the disease, the mandatory safety protocols that were observed in 2020 were not in place Saturday at St. Joseph’s during Christmas service.
In 2020, every other church pew was closed to create extra space for social distancing between the worshippers. Everyone was required to wear protective masks. But this Christmas, pews were not closed. Masks were optional.
However, steps were still taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Bottles of hand sanitizer were placed throughout the church. During Holy Communion, Father Cherubini placed the wafer in the hands of worshippers instead of in their mouths as a precaution against COVID-19.
Live music filled the church by a group consisting of singers Colleen Pond and her son, Matt, and pianist Andrew Hink.
Father Cherubini spoke from an altar decorated with red, pink and white poinsettia plants, wreaths and three Christmas trees trimmed in white lights. A large manger in the middle of the altar depicted the Nativity.
Outside the church, Sea Isle’s downtown was festively decorated with wreaths, garland, red bows and a towering Christmas tree in Excursion Park.
Also adding to the holiday atmosphere is a Christmas tree placed on the beach by Sea Isle residents Shannon and Nick Giordano as a symbol of hope and inspiration to help people cope with the pandemic. This is the second year the Giordanos and their three children have planted a tree on the beach at 44th Street.
Driving down from their home in Franklinville, N.J., Kerry Trexler and her daughters, Riley, 19, and Addison, 18, paid a special visit to the beach tree in hopes of a fresh start for them in 2022.
“This is a new life change for us. I’m going through a divorce,” Kerry explained. “It is a new chapter and new start.”
Riley saw the tree that the Giordano family had placed at the same spot last year and told her mother about it, which led to their visit this Christmas.
Riley and Addison inscribed personal messages on clam shells that were placed at the base of the tree. Riley’s read, “Every Wave is a Fresh Start,” while Addison’s shell said, “To New Adventures … 2022.”
“These are positive messages to get 2022 off to a good start,” Kerry said while her daughters smiled. “Christmas is a perfect day for doing it.”