Nearly 2,000 people went to the 9 a.m. Palm Sunday Mass at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood, an unprecedented number that forced the church to hold two separate Spanish-language services and left some without even standing room.
This was the first time, to anyone's recollection, they performed two Masses in Spanish simultaneously, one on the main level and another in the basement, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Stephen Pietrowski.
"We've been preparing for this since way before Lent began," Pietrowski said. "We had to make sure we had enough resources and ushers and lectors and Masses to fulfill the needs here."
The Rev. Janusz Mocarski, a priest from Our Lady of Assumption in Copiague, was brought in to conduct Mass upstairs in Spanish while the Rev. Gonzalo Lopez, an in-house priest, presided over the one in the basement.
"It's very difficult to get a Spanish-speaking priest around here," Pietrowski said. "We were lucky Father Mocarski could join us, but then he had to go right back to his own church."
The "Pan-Hispanic" parish, as Pietrowski calls it, is home to a mix of ethnicities, including Salvadoran, Dominican, Ecuadorean, Colombian and Puerto Rican. The congregation is about 75 percent Hispanic, Pietrowski said. Brentwood, which has more than 60,000 residents, is 68.5 percent Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.
The main floor seats about 1,200 people, while the basement seats another 500, Pietrowski said. Both levels were standing room only for the 9 a.m. Mass, with overflow packing the stairs between the two floors.
Lopez, who was born in Guatemala and raised in Spain, said the opportunity to say Mass to local Spanish speakers is "a great blessing, especially because of the need of the people here. I feel I fulfill what God wants . . .," Lopez said after the Mass.
The Spanish-speaking crowd normally tops 1,000 parishioners each Sunday, compared with about 600 in the morning English-language Mass, Lopez said. But the numbers double for Palm Sunday and Easter.
Wilmer Valencia, 53, a Colombian taxi driver who lives in Brentwood, attended Mass with his wife, Fatima Ulloa, 50, from Ecuador, and their daughter and 4-year-old grandson.
"The priest spoke about Jesus and why he's dead. . . . We're here to show our love and faith in God," Valencia said.
Keyry Reyes, 27, born and raised in Bay Shore and whose family is originally from El Salvador, came to Mass with her boyfriend and his family, who hail from the Dominican Republic.
"I don't know how to pray in English," Reyes said, laughing. "I should learn, but it's nice to come to these Masses and be able to pray with my family."
The 11:30 a.m. English-language Mass drew hundreds of faithful, although pews on the main level were not at capacity.
"It's a special time for all Catholics to come to church and pray," Paula Alvarez, 43, said after the English service. "I think it's wonderful with the Haitian community, Spanish community we have here in Brentwood. We all come together."
On Easter Sunday, St. Anne's is expecting just as large a crowd, Pietrowski said. Msgr. Richard Henning, who is not regularly with St. Anne's, will help with a second Spanish Mass.