This story was reported by Vera Chinese, Rachel O'Brien, and Michael O'Keeffe. It was written by O'Brien.
At dawn on Jones Beach, almost 200 people huddled under umbrellas, wrapped in blankets, towels and coats, to begin their Easter with a church service in the sand.
The 6 a.m. event, hosted by the Long Island Council of Churches, always occurs at the beach, with the waves in the background and, on clear days, a beautiful sunrise.
Sunday’s rain and overcast skies obscured the sun, but the worshippers didn’t seem to notice. Soggy, but happy to be there, the group sang hymns, listened to Scripture and donated to the organization’s food pantry.
It was the first of the Christian holiday's celebrations across Long Island, offering a chance for solidarity in the church, rocked by the Sri Lanka church bombings hours before and the Notre Dame Cathedral fire last week.
At the beach, the Rev. Moira Ahearne, of the Presbyterian Churches of Freeport and Merrick, read the story of the resurrection of Jesus from the book of Luke, chapter 24.
“It was an early dawn day, just like today perhaps, a couple thousand years ago that those women … Jesus loved and treated with respect and in turn, these women loved Jesus and they stayed faithful to him to the end,” she said. “On the third day, they came to the tomb at dawn.”
The small group led the crowd in singing hymns in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Korean. A wooden cross stood in the sand as seagulls squawked and people dotted the beach behind them, enjoying the early morning waves.
“Dawn symbolizes for us not only darkness giving way to light, but the old making way for the new, fresh beginnings,” Ahearne said.
Brothers Kirk, Glenn and Richie Greubel have been coming to the beach service for decades, since when their parents brought them as children.
“Our family’s been coming down to the beach for about 40 years for this,” said Glenn Greubel, of Merrick. “My parents, this was a big deal to them; we kind of carry on their legacy.”
The brothers recalled attending the service when it was in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow years ago.
Now they bring their own children and spouses every year, whether in rain, wind or 26-degree temperatures.
“In the grand scheme of things, this is not so bad,” said Richie Greubel, of Bellmore.
The next stop? A nearby warm diner for Easter breakfast.
In Rockville Centre, there was a festive mood at St. Agnes Cathedral, where Bishop John Barres walked down the center aisle of the 84-year-old church, greeting worshippers. The cathedral was standing room only, with dozens in the diverse crowd standing in the back and sides.
Barres spoke about the Notre Dame fire and the building's significance in the history of the Catholic Church and the world, thinking the blaze may have set a spiritual fire in believers and nonbelievers alike.
“Even hardened and dogmatic atheists recognize the greatness and creativity of humanity expressed in the art, the architecture and the soaring towers and spires of Notre Dame," he said. "They wept with everyone else in the streets of Paris.”
At the end of the homily, he read a letter from Pope Francis asking for an end to violence in Syria and the rest of the Middle East, Africa and the Americas, especially in Venezuela.
Joe Caban, of Rockville Centre, was at the Mass with his family.
“I find Easter is an opportunity to revisit my Catholic teachings and upbringing and it is an opportunity to get closer to God and Jesus,” Caban said. “We all sin, nobody is perfect and that is why he died on the cross. It means, even with all my imperfections, I still got a shot.”
In Bay Shore, about 100 worshippers gathered at the historic United Methodist Church, including Gene Ufer, 95, who was baptized there.
Ufer, of Bay Shore, a retired customer service representative for the former Long Island Lighting Company, said it saddened him to see the church pews about half full, as Easter Sunday once drew a full crowd. Still, the more than 150-year-old building is home to Ufer, who celebrated his birthday on Thursday.
“I love it and I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” he said.
The altar was festooned with spring plants, such as lilies, forsythia and a weeping cherry tree, and their aroma permeated the church.
Members of the choir, which included a horn section and showstopping soloists, performed hymns such as “The Stone Is Rolled Away” and “Ave Maria.”
“It’s crazy how good they are and all the time they put in,” said McKinley Seyda, 41, of Bay Shore, who attended the service with his wife Kerry, 40, and their four children, ages 6 to 10.
Pastor Wendy Modeste was sure to hug everyone who entered the church and she posed for selfies with them after the service
If there is one message she hopes worshippers take away from Sunday service, Modeste said, it is “that God loves them and there’s nothing we can do to change to that.”
With Vera Chinese and Michael O'Keeffe