RUSO The altar and chairs are set up in the back of the Butte Rural Fire District building at Strawberry Lake and are ready for Mass. It's shortly after noon on Sunday and people are making their way to the site in all-terrain vehicles, cars and pickups.
They don't have to cut their time at the lake short to drive to attend Mass in a church miles away. A priest comes to them to say Mass at the lake, which is about 20 miles south and a couple of miles east of Velva.
The Rev. James Gross, pastor of St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Velva, offers Mass in what he joking calls St. James by the Sea Chapel on Sundays at 12:15 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Richard Wobbema and his wife, Tina, have been attending Mass at the lake for 23 years. The couple lives in Velva but spends weekends at the lake. They drove to Mass in their “churchmobile,” an all-terrain vehicle, on July 1.
The Rev. James Gross, pastor of St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Velva, gives his sermon during Mass in what he jokingly calls St. James by the Sea Chapel at Strawberry Lake south of Velva.
A sign directs people to various locations at Strawberry Lake.
MyKia Green, left, and CamBrey Green stand with the Rev. James Gross at the entrance to the Butte Rural Fire District building at Strawberry Lake after Mass on July 1.
The altar, a donation from the church Gross serves in Velva, is a fixture at the building. Candles and missalettes, a shortened form of a missal published periodically for congregational use, remain in the building from week to week throughout the summer. Gross brings a Mass kit with him.
There is no central air but "natural air conditioning" is offered when the east and west doors to the building are opened.
"Father Ryan used to say Mass in his cabin," Jim Abernathy said. "As more and more people attended services in his cabin, the location was changed to the bingo stand on the public beach at the lake to accommodate the growing number of worshippers. From there the Mass location was moved to the fire department building," Abernathy said.
"There were times that there were probably 90 to 100 people at the bingo stand," he added.
The Rev. Dan Mrnarevic, who was pastor of St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Velva at that time, continued saying Mass at the lake after Father Ryan was transferred to a parish in the western part of the state. Priests from St. Cecilia's have continued the lakeside ministry.
Mary and Michael Littler, who used to live in Minot, now call Strawberry Lake their home. They live at the lake during the summer; winter finds them in Mesa, Ariz.
"It's definitely a blessing to have Mass at the lake," Mary Littler said. "Years ago when we had Mass at the bingo stand it was just beautiful to sit out in nature."
The chairs in the loosely formed semi-circles weren't filled on July 1. There were about 40 to 45 people in attendance.
"There weren't that many people here today," Richard Wobbema said. "Usually it's packed."
"We love father," Sheila Green-Gerding, of Minot, said. "He takes care of us."
Dave and Sheila's daughters, CamBrey, who will be 4 in September, and MyKia, who will turn 6 this month, were both baptized by Gross in the Strawberry Lake "church."
"I enjoy saying Mass for the people out here. I see it as a service not only to them, but for the church in the area. I am the closest resident priest to this location," Gross said. He has been pastor of St. Cecilia's in Velva and Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Karlsruhe for seven years.
"I am grateful to be able to serve the people who are primarily parishioners of other parishes during the rest of the year with this lakeside ministry."