Not long after Father Paul Bonacci arrived in the Schuyler Catholic Community in 2001, he asked a parishioner why some faithful Mass-goers seemed to drop out of sight once spring rolled around.
“She said, ‘Father, they’re involved in the winery trade and it’s tourist season. So they can’t come on Sunday,'” recalled Father Bonacci, the cluster’s pastor.
Thanks to a monthly liturgy he began four years ago in light of this dilemma, fewer people are making Mass participation a strictly seasonal practice.
“Mass in the Vineyards” is offered from late spring to late autumn at several wineries along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. In 2006 it has taken place on the first Thursday of each month at 7 p.m., the most recent having occurred Sept. 7 at Lakewood Vineyards.
Most Masses are held at wineries near Watkins Glen, at Seneca Lake’s southern tip. Remaining dates for the season are Oct. 5 at Glenora Wine Cellars; Nov. 2 at Chateau LaFayette Reneau; and Dec. 7 at Castel Grisch. The other sites this year have been Atwater Estate Vineyards and Arcadian Estate Winery.
Tom Malina, co-owner of Castel Grisch along with his wife, Barb, coordinates the schedule with fellow winery proprietors who wish to participate. He noted that the event, initially called a “Winery Mass,” is now known as “Mass in the Vineyards” so people don’t think it’s exclusive to the wine trade.
“We incorporate all the people of the tourism industry that might be missing (Sunday) Mass,” Malina said.
This can mean a substantial amount of folks in an area such as Watkins Glen, where thick, warm-weather crowds set proprietors on a grueling pace that makes weekend Mass attendance a huge challenge. For example, at Castel Grisch, Malina noted that “we have a restaurant as well as a winery. The restaurant closes at 9 p.m. and you’re not out until 11 on a Saturday. Then your business begins with a brunch first thing Sunday morning.”
Working hours for the Malinas aren’t much different than those of Liz and Chris Stamp, fellow parishioners in Schuyler Catholic Community, who operate Lakewood Vineyards.
“You can’t physically be in two places. Evening Mass on Saturday is too early for us to peel out of here,” Liz Stamp said, adding that “we’re family owned and operated, so weekends we have to be here. Even though we have other staff, we unlock the place. And with serving wine, we have a degree of responsibility.”
She added that “it’s kind of frustrating, a little hard to have a family life, support your kids’ activities and practice your faith. But we have to be open when those people who work 9 to 5 Monday through Friday are not at work.”
Her husband noted that harvest season in the fall adds to the busyness.
“Grapes don’t give a darn — I guess it’s by God’s design — whether it’s Sunday or not,” Chris Stamp remarked. “We need every second we have.”
Liz Stamp said big weekend crowds continue into the autumn, and Malina pointed to the shortage of staff during this time as well.
“It gets a little worse than in the summer, when you have a lot of additional help. Everybody’s doing double duty, especially when the harvest is in bloom also,” he said.
Therefore, Mass in the Vineyard is appreciated by Liz Stamp, for one.
“It’s a tremendous way for our parish to reach out,” she said.
“We really have to go to where the people are,” Father Bonacci said. “It really seems to imitate the action of Christ, that he went out to where they were.”
Although he acknowledged that a Thursday-evening Mass doesn’t count for a Sunday obligation, he understands the need for proprietors to work weekends based on the sharp drop-off in tourism the rest of the year.
“They are good, faithful parishioners who feel the tension of loving God and church, but also having to put food on the table for their families,” he remarked. “We at church recognize the tension, and want to support them the best we can. Once the season is over we go back to being the second-poorest county in New York state.”
Yet Mass in the Vineyards offers more than simply convenience. Malina noted the high levels of hospitality and camaraderie that exist among the 20 or so people who normally attend. They constitute a mix of proprietors from wineries and other tourism-related businesses; regular parishioners; and visitors who simply appreciate the unique setting.
The liturgies also connect with wineries thanks to numerous biblical references to wine, vines and vineyards.
“Our Lord was speaking to the agricultural people of the day. So many times, the readings will be able to tie in with that,” Father Bonacci remarked.
“It kind of fits real nice,” Malina agreed.
“It’s just very focused on harvest and bounty and all the wonderful things about our lives in the Finger Lakes,” Liz Stamp added. “It makes us all step back and say ‘this is good, we’re blessed.'”
When weather permits, Masses are held outdoors, adding that much more to the allure.
“You have the shores of a gorgeous Finger Lake, and you’re looking past the altar into a blue sky,” Father Bonacci said.
Malina noted the stirring sunsets and chirping birds, saying, “Summer Masses are almost more spiritual than being in the church. And to see Father Paul hold the host up, and all you see is the blue sky there — it’s some tremendous spiritual emotion that goes on.”