By Judy Wakefield
---- — Move over Clara and the rest of “The Nutcracker” troupe who typically perform on the Collins Center stage at this time of year. An altar is coming on Christmas Eve.
For the very first time, the town’s largest Catholic parish holding a Christmas Eve Mass at the Collins Performing Arts Center at Andover High School.
Traditionally, the Christmas Eve Masses around 4 p.m. have been very crowded at St. Augustine Church on Essex Street. The church has held Christmas Eve Masses at four locations over the years — upstairs and downstairs at the church, at the smaller satellite church in Ballardvale (St. Joseph’s) and at the Collegiate Church at Merrimack College. But church officials are worried about crowd safety.
“This church can hold 558 people safely,” said church pastor the Rev. Peter Gori. “We are very concerned about safety and decided to change things this year.”
Christmas Eve Mass attendance swells to about 1,900 people, he said, and adding another location was a priority after someone had a medical emergency at a Christmas Eve Mass last year.
“It could have been a tragedy given the overcrowding,” Father Gori said.
“We cannot continue to take that kind of risk. After careful study and planning we have decided to have the one and only 4 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve at the Collins Center, where there is room for 1,200 of us and plenty of parking,” Father Gori wrote in last Sunday’s church bulletin.
“This Mass time, 4 p.m., is especially attractive for families with young children, which is great! I look forward to being there with you.”
A sort of altar on wheels, made by a parishioner, will be set up on the Collins stage and Christmas decorations will adorn the stage. Father Gori said the 4 p.m. time slot typically attracts families with young children.
He is encouraging children to dress as figures associated with Christmas Day, such as a shepherd or one of the Magi.
“This is a good problem to have,” Father Gori said of the huge crowds on Christmas Eve. “But it’s not safe. That’s our reason for using the Collins Center.”
The Merrimack College church will again host a Christmas Eve Mass this year, at 4:30 p.m.
Christmas Eve Masses have become so popular that most churches offer more Masses on the eve than Christmas Day.
St. Augustine follows that trend, as it hosts four Masses on Christmas Eve and three on Christmas Day.
Father Gori said a Christmas Eve celebration seems to suit local families best. The bottom line for him, and one that thrills him, is that people are coming to church.