By Judy Wakefield
---- — Churchgoers on Sunday will be able to focus their attention on hunting for Easter eggs — not parking spaces — as Free Christian Church relocates from its home on Elm Street to larger quarters.
The church at 31 Elm St., which has been encountering standing-room-only crowds on Easter in recent years, will be closed for the holiday this year for the first time in 168 years.
Free Christian is following in the footsteps of nearby St. Augustine Church on Essex Street, and will host two Easter services at the Collins Center, the performing arts venue adjacent to Andover High School. The Collins Center can seat four times as many people as the 300-seat church can. And, there is plenty of parking.
St. Augustine’s has held additional Christmas services at the Collins Center when it needed the extra seats. This Easter morning, St. Augustine’s is moving its Masses to Merrimack College’s church to accommodate its traditionally large holiday crowds. That church building will be open and offering services on Easter morning.
As it is with St. Augustine’s, it’s a space issue for Free Christian as hundreds of extra worshipers are expected to go to church on Easter morning.
The Collins Center seats 1,200, according to Scott Worthley, manager at the Collins Center, while Free Christian Church seats about 300 people, according to Senior Pastor Jon Paul. The cost to rent the Collins Center is $2,000, Worthley said.
Free Christian Church also has a second location at Osgood Landing in North Andover that is also closed on Easter morning.
“I’ve heard from some that there is a sense of loss. For some it’s traditional, the family goes to the actual church and then spends the day together but we don’t have enough room for the large crowds,” Pastor Jon Paul said. “I heard St. Augustine’s was successful (with the Collins Center) so we looked into this.”
Standing room only Easter crowds precipitated the move, he said, and now he is rejoicing as there will be so much more space for Easter worshipers.
“In the past, many were squeezed into an overflow space to watch Easter on a TV screen ... everyone who wants to come should have a seat and room for their friends, family and neighbors,” he said.
Easter services will be held at 9 and 10:45 a.m. at the Collins Center, located at 80 Shawsheen Road. Easter egg hunts and brunch can easily follow, said Pastor Paul. He is well aware of Easter excitement as he and his wife, Clancey, have two young children. The family lives on High Street in Andover.
This year, the church will make an Easter donation of $10,000 to Lazarus House of Lawrence as generosity is expected to be as high among the crowds. There will be an opportunity to participate in giving toward that goal at the service.