Ash Wednesday For Those on the Go

Dan Hayes (left) receives ashes from the Rev. Alexander McCurdy at the Wayne train station. Several area churches participated in the Ashes to Go initiative.
Dan Hayes (left) receives ashes from the Rev. Alexander McCurdy at the Wayne train station. Several area churches participated in the Ashes to Go initiative. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 15, 2013

Barbara Todd was so rushed to catch the train that she spilled her coffee and dropped her parking-meter quarters, but she wasn't too busy to grab a dose of spirituality with her morning commute.

"Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," a priest said as he made the sign of the cross in ashes on Todd's forehead at the Wayne train station.

"I was telling my kids, this is Ash Wednesday," said Todd, of Devon. "They asked me, 'Where are you going to get yours?' "

Ashes to Go solved her dilemma.

Todd was one of more than a thousand believers in the area who received Ash Wednesday ashes outside a church sanctuary. Clergy, clad in vestments, offered ashes in train stations, in front of coffee shops, and across from courthouses.

It was part of a nationwide initiative to take the day that marks the beginning of Lent to the streets.

"The church needs to be ready to step out and meet people at unexpected places," said the Rev. Emily Mellott, a Bryn Mawr College graduate and an Episcopal pastor from Illinois who helped start the movement. "I hope people who experience Ashes to Go learn that God and faith are not confined to the church."

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40 days of Lent on the western Christian calendar. The observance commemorates Jesus' fasting and praying for 40 days in the desert. Believers are to reflect and do penance in preparation for Easter and in pursuit of a deeper relationship with God.

On Ash Wednesday, clergy in many denominations make a sign of the cross on the foreheads of believers using ashes from burned palms as a sign of mortality and repentance. In the Roman Catholic Church, the distribution of ashes typically occurs in a church during Mass.

Mellott organized churches around the Chicago area to offer Ashes to Go after she learned about other churches' individual efforts. Then came the website and a nationwide push.

So far, 135 churches have listed Ashes to Go locations on the website, and many more engage in the practice but are not listed, said Mellott, of Calvary Episcopal Church.

Participating denominations include Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists in 34 states and four countries.

At the Wayne station, the Revs. Alexander McCurdy and Matthew Holcombe of St. David's Episcopal Church set up shop at 7 a.m. The Rev. W. Frank Allen, the rector, joined them later.

"With Ash Wednesday, sometimes you think you have to have a whole [church] service, but it's the ashes that really touch us," Allen said.

Tom Rayer of Wayne stopped to get his ashes and then purchased a muffin for the priests from the station cafe. Jovanna Bevilacqua, who runs the coffee shop with her husband, Fabio, stopped waiting on customers long enough to dash outside and get her ashes.

The Rev. Ledlie Laughlin of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Society Hill has performed Ashes to Go for two years and called it "extraordinary" for the intimacy in the act of imposing ashes even in the commuting crush at the Market East station.

Some people come just to get "their Ash Wednesday card checked," Laughlin said. But others cry during the exchange.

In front of the Starbucks in Center City, the Rev. Ethan Jewett of St. Clement's Episcopal Church imposed ashes on 621 people during two shifts. (He used a clicker.) About 35 came up to the Rev. Paul Lutz of Trinity Lutheran Church, who waited at the Lansdale station.

At lunchtime in Norristown, the Rev. Scott Albergate stood beneath a blue awning outside St. John's Episcopal Church, across from the Montgomery County courthouse.

Stephen Malone, restitution coordination in the District Attorney's Office, rushed across the street during his noontime lunch.

"This is a great service," said Malone, who added that he wasn't going to give up anything for Lent. That traditional pledge has as much staying power as a New Year's resolution, Malone said.

"I'm just going to try to be the best person I can be," he said. "That's better than giving up chicken wings."


Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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