To what extent can weather impact the size of weekly church gatherings? At St. Gabriel Church in Hammondsport, the numbers speak for themselves.
For nearly nine months out of the year, St. Gabriel’s lone weekend liturgy is on Sunday at 11 a.m. The average number of worshipers ranges between 70 and 85, according to Deacon Dave LaFortune, pastoral administrator of St. John Vianney Parish (St. Gabriel/St. Mary, Bath.)
Yet as temperatures warm up, so does attendance — in a big way, thanks to summer residents and vacationers flocking to the south end of Keuka Lake in northern Steuben County. Two additional weekly Masses, at 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. Sunday, are offered at St. Gabriel between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Deacon LaFortune said that combined weekend attendance on these weekends is 250 or more — about triple the average for the rest of the year.
Approximately 10 miles to the southeast, St. Stanislaus Church in Bradford adds an 8 a.m. Sunday Mass between late May and early September, supplementing its 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday liturgies. Peter Olausson, business manager of Ss. Isidore and Maria Torribia Parish (St. Stanislaus/St. Catherine of Siena, Addison/St. Joseph, Campbell), noted that St. Stanislaus’ attendance rises by 40 percent to 60 percent during the summer, with numbers topping out at approximately 1,000 people per month, or 200 to 250 per weekend. Many attendees are water enthusiasts who are visiting not only Keuka Lake, but also Lamoka and Waneta lakes near the Steuben-Schuyler county border.
Summer worshipers come from as close by as Corning, Elmira and Rochester, and as far away as Florida. All are readily welcomed, as evidenced by a greeting included in St. John Vianney bulletins during the warm-weather months: "It’s always great to have you back with us since you bring the warmth of the sun, the energy of your presence and the good times of the summer to our parish."
Dr. Al and Joyce Walig kneel to pray during Mass at St. Gabriel Church in Hammondsport July 23.
"We affectionately — and I emphasize affectionately — refer to them as ‘the lake people,’" added Father Pat Connor, pastor of Ss. Isidore and Maria Torribia. He noted that conscious efforts are made by Catholics who attend St. Stanislaus year-round to make the part-time or occasional worshipers not feel like outsiders.
"They’re very much a part of our community," he said.
The same holds true at St. John Vianney: "We strive very hard to be a very welcoming community, and the people in the pews feel that," Deacon LaFortune remarked.
Father Connor and Deacon LaFortune observed that the summer crowds’ appreciation is reflected by their often significant financial contributions.
"We depend on the generosity of these people. Some are extremely generous," Deacon LaFortune said.
Meanwhile, attendance spikes do not occur at another summer hot spot — St. Mary of the Lake in Watkins Glen, at the south end of Seneca Lake. Thus, St. Mary does not add any extra Masses to its 8 and 10 a.m. Sunday liturgies.
"We have a few more people, but not a noticeable rise," said Father Steve Lape, pastor of Schuyler Catholic Community (St. Mary of the Lake/St. Benedict, Odessa.)
Watkins Glen attracts summer visitors due to the waterfront along with Watkins Glen International Speedway, area wineries, Watkins Glen State Park and the annual Italian Festival. However, Father Lape explained that many year-round residents opt to vacation elsewhere in the summer — so congregation sizes remain fairly stable, although not all the faces are familiar ones.
"A lot of people introduce themselves — ‘Hey, Father, we’re visiting from Philadelphia, California, Michigan, Ontario," he said.
Father Lape added that such folks are recipients of the same type of hospitality found at St. Gabriel and St. Stanislaus. He noted that St. Mary of the Lake offers coffee hours from early July through early September after its Masses, adding that visiting worshipers also enjoy the church’s custom of greeting each other in the pews right before Mass begins.
"I think that sets a wonderful tone," Father Lape said.