By Donald Wittkowski
As Easter services began Sunday morning inside the United Methodist Church in Sea Isle City, a bare, wooden cross stood at the foot of the altar.
United Methodist Pastor Melissa Doyle-Waid noted that the starkness of the cross represented the “ugly, horrible death” suffered by Christ during his crucifixion.
But soon after, Doyle-Waid invited the parishioners to decorate the cross with white, pink, yellow, purple and orange roses, slowing transforming it into a beautiful object symbolizing Christ’s resurrection.
“That flowering cross is beautiful. I imagine that Christ is smiling,” said parishioner Barbara McGrath, who served as a scripture reader during the Easter service.
The worshippers at United Methodist Church began their celebration of one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar with sunrise services on Sea Isle’s oceanfront Promenade. They gathered inside the church at 10 a.m. to continue to reflect on the miracle of Christ’s resurrection.
Overlooking the church sanctuary is a towering, stained-glass mural of Christ. Standing just in front of the mural, Doyle-Waid welcomed the parishioners with the words, “Good morning. The Lord is risen.”
The parishioners responded by saying, “The Lord is risen indeed.”
Easter Mass was also held in Sea Isle at St. Joseph Catholic Church. Monsignor Thomas Fitzsimmons, who presided over the 11:30 a.m. service, told the parishioners that Christ “conquered death” and in doing so “unlocked the path for us to eternity.”
Emphasizing the sacrifices that Christ made for others, Fitzsimmons reminded the worshippers to celebrate the blessings of Easter by “putting other people first, the poor, the sick, the marginalized – for everybody.”
The service included Christian hymns and a Eucharist ceremony, in which parishioners accepted Holy Communion symbolizing the body of Christ.
In all, an estimated 1,000 people filled the sanctuary at St. Joseph for the 11:30 a.m. service. Joseph Murphy, a deacon at St. Joseph, said Easter Mass usually draws between 1,000 and 2,000 worshippers, compared to a crowd of 600 to 800 for traditional Sunday services.
Murphy noted that Sea Isle is a popular retreat for Christians during Easter weekend. Many of them stop in to celebrate the holiday at St. Joseph while spending time at their shore vacation homes, he said.
Alexa Stefan, who grew up in Sea Isle but now lives in Gladwyn, Pa., said Easter allows her a chance to return home to visit her parents, Barbara and Jim Iannone.
“I always love coming back to Sea Isle for Easter. We’re making it a tradition,” Stefan said.
Alexa Stefan was accompanied by her husband, Jerry Sr., their 12-year-old son, Jerry Jr., and daughters Blake, 13, Maren, 8, and Greta, 5. They reflected on the religious significance of Easter while attending services at St. Joseph.
“It makes you even more excited to come to Sea Isle,” Blake Stefan said of the family’s time together at Easter Mass.
Meanwhile, at United Methodist Church, 95-year-old Sara Roberts has made Easter services a tradition since 1956. Roberts, who lives in Sea Isle, said she began attending United Methodist when the church was still at its former location on Landis Avenue.
Roberts described herself as a “devout believer.” She explained that Easter is particularly important to her in a spiritual sense.
“It is a glorious day, because my Savior has risen,” she said.
Roberts was joined Sunday by dozens of other worshippers in the quaint United Methodist Church sanctuary for prayers, hymns and communion.
Tulips decorated the altar. Roses were handed out to the parishioners, allowing them to beautify the unadorned, wooden cross.
“When Christ died on the cross, it was an ugly, horrible death,” Doyle-Waid told the worshippers.
But after it was covered in flowers, Doyle-Waid took another look at the cross and spoke of how its transformation symbolized Christ’s resurrection.
“It is a chance for us to reflect on the beauty, because Christ has risen,” she said.