At the Cathedral of St. Philip, Easter morning starts with a Boy Scout bonfire.
Members of the big stone Episcopal church towering above Peachtree Road in the heart of Buckhead begin their Easter celebrations around a fire lit long before dawn and tended by scouts from Troop 74, which is based at the church.
During that first service of the day, clergy, choir members and parishioners light candles from the fire and carry the flames into the
dark church. As they sing and pray and offer praise, the sun rises outside and shines through the Cathedral’s stained glass windows, coloring the flower-filled church with morning light, said Rev. Wallace Marsh, St. Philip’s canon for worship and parish life.
“It’s beautiful,” Marsh said.
Other Christian churches, large and small, also host special Easter services, including ones designed to greet the Easter sunrise, the start of the day that marks the most important moment in Christianity. For large churches, the crowd of worshippers expected to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ means extra services and extra effort from clergy and church members alike.
At St. Philip, 2,500 to 3,000 worshipers are expected on Easter, Marsh said. Other large churches also expect the faithful to flock to church that morning. Peachtree United Methodist Church in Buckhead, for instance, expects about 4,500 to 5,000 worshippers on Easter – compared to about 1,700 attending on a typical
Sunday – and has added an extra service, a fourth to be held that day, to accommodate the crowds, said Senior Minister Bill Britt.
St. Philip adds two extra services on Easter Day. But Marsh, who calls himself the cathedral’s “offensive coordinator” for Easter services, says that’s just the beginning.
Marsh counts Easter services as the ones staged during Easter week, which starts the Sunday before, known as Palm Sunday, and continues through the five services scheduled on Easter Day. During the week, the cathedral hosts 22 separate services, he said, including special ones on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. “It’s a wonderful week,” he said. “We call it Holy Week. It’s the holiest week of the year.”
It’s also one of the busiest. Staging the various services will require contributions from hundreds of volunteers and support staff, who arrange flowers, perform music and polish silver. To keep track of everything that needs to be done, Marsh carries a clipboard, refers to stacks of notes in folders and checks a computer spreadsheet. Easter means “I pull out my clipboard and I go into coach mode,” he said.
His fellow canon, Dale Adelmann, has his own spreadsheet. He plans and oversees music for the cathedral’s services. This year marks his seventh Easter, he said. “I look forward to it,” he said.
Still, he admits, the demands of the day can be exhausting. The cathedral has three adult choirs and a children’s choir to rehearse. Come Easter morning, the first rehearsal arrives at 5:30 a.m. Still, Patrick Scott, the cathedral’s assistant organist and choirmaster, had no complaints. “It’s kind of what we live for,” he said. “It’s what we went to school for. It’s kind of why we do what we do.”
About 80 adults and children will sing in the church’s choirs during Easter services, Adelmann said. During Holy Week, he said, more than 100 separate pieces of music will be performed at St. Philip. At some services, a brass quintet and a percussion player join the choir. One piece of music Adelmann has scheduled for Easter is a new one making its southeastern U.S. premiere.
For many involved in staging the cathedral’s Easter Week services, the work actually begins long before Easter Sunday. Laura Iarocci, co-chair of the flower guild, began ordering flowers weeks in advance of the service. Some flowers will arrive early in Holy Week, she said, and must be tended so they’ll open properly by Easter Sunday. The scouts start preparing the fire pit Friday afternoon, said Wade Hooper, a volunteer who’s worked with them for the past seven years.
Come Saturday, the cathedral is alive with volunteers as the church sheds the somber tones of Lent, the period of reflection leading to Good Friday, and is remade with bright colors for Easter. “The vigor and energy of the people preparing on the Saturday before Easter feels just as much like Easter Sunday to me,” the Very Rev. Samuel Candler, dean of the cathedral, said in an email.
Scouts chop wood for the bonfire. Choirs rehearse. Dozens of members of the flower guild build floral displays. Because choirs are rehearsing at the same time, “we actually cannot talk,” Iarocci said.” We cannot yell across the room or we get the evil eye.”
Iarocci is preparing for her 16th Easter. This year, she said, a total of 1,439 flowers will be used to build 48 floral arrangements. A flower-covered cross will be placed on each of the cathedral’s 22 doors, she said. She’s used to coordinating large events, such as weddings, in her floral business, she said. But Easter is a bigger challenge because decorations have to be placed in just a few hours. “This is really amazing that we can pull this off,” she said.
About 5:30 a.m. Easter morning, the scouts arrive. By 6 a.m., the fire is burning, Hooper said, and the first of the day’s services can begin.
“It is a beautifully surreal experience that evokes the powerful history and tradition of the church,” Hooper said in an email. “You feel you have been transported in time, moved by the historic importance of fire and the symbolism of reincarnation as we exit Lent and celebrate Easter.”
Marsh and Adelmann and others on the cathedral staff get to work. “It’s a beautiful day,” Marsh said.
And Monday? “You’re not going to find anybody in here on Monday,” Marsh said.