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Q-Tips To Drive-Thru Services: Churches Get Creative This Ash Wednesday

Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Ash Wednesday will look different for many churches in the St. Louis region this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As millions of Christians prepare for Lent, many churches in the St. Louis region have had to rethink how to safely observe Ash Wednesday during the coronavirus pandemic.

For some that means virtual services with no ashes, while others are finding ways to distribute ashes with a bit of social distancing.

At Manchester United Methodist Church, the answer was fairly easy. The church is offering its annual “Ash & Dash” service, a drive-thru option pushed back to next Wednesday because of the winter weather. This year parishioners can receive a prayer while in their car, but instead of ashes, they’ll receive a burlap cross.

Jim Peich, the executive pastor of ministry and leadership at the church, said the pandemic has made it clear that this kind of interaction is needed now more than ever.

Jim Peich
Manchester United Methodist Church is offering its annual “Ash & Dash.” Parishioners will be able to sit in their car, receiving a prayer and a burlap cross instead of ashes.

“This year has been a painful reminder of how fragile life is for each of us,” Peich said, “and so, this is an opportunity for people to connect in a safe and convenient way.”

Other churches in the region are also putting their creative spin on Ash Wednesday. The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri offered guidance to clergy such as avoiding skin-to-skin contact. Instead, members of the clergy have been asked to use Q-tips or sprinkle ashes on a parishioner’s forehead.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves is no different. Parishioners will be provided with a plastic baggy with a purple Q-tip “loaded” with ashes on the tip. A priest will say a blessing from a distance, and parishioners will be able to place the ashes on their own foreheads.

The Rev. Sally Weaver, an assisting interim priest at the church, said while the addition of Q-tips will be different, she’s certain it will keep people safe. But beyond the precautions, she said now more than ever, Ash Wednesday will be a time of reflection. She said the ashes are a reminder that we won’t be here forever.

“The ashes are such a potent symbol of life and death,” Weaver said, “and Lent is a time when we reflect and remember our mortality.”

Sally Weaver
The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has asked its clergy to avoid skin-to-skin contact and instead use Q-tips or sprinkle ashes on parishioners' foreheads. Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves will provide parishioners with a small plastic bag with a Q-tip inside loaded with ashes.

The church also has prerecorded its liturgy, which will be available on the church’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

Much like the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, the Vatican has offered general guidance like sprinkling ashes on a parishioner's forehead instead of through skin-to-skin contact. The Archdiocese of St. Louis, however, is leaving how to distribute ashes up to individual parish priests.

A spokeswoman with the archdiocese said there will be safety measures in place, including the priest or deacon saying a blessing before distributing the ashes in lieu of individual blessings. Priests and deacons will be required to wear face masks and sanitize their hands.

“We encourage those who are planning to receive ashes to call parishes ahead of time to inquire about the means of distribution,” the spokeswoman said in an email, “and to make the decision to attend a parish where they are most comfortable with the method.”

Catholics who are not comfortable are not required to go to Mass or receive ashes, as it’s not a Holy Day of Obligation.

Last year at Manchester United Methodist Church, more than 400 people participated in the “Ash & Dash” service. Peich said this year, the church is more than prepared to serve the demand.

“We know that people are feeling more isolated than ever before, and so we’re prepared to serve at least 400 people if not more again this year,” he said.

Due to inclement weather, the church decided to reschedule that part of the service for Feb. 24, for 7-9 a.m., 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. in a parking lot at 14380 Manchester Road in Manchester.

The church will, however, provide a livestream Ash Wednesday service at 7 p.m. on Facebook and on its website.

Trinity Episcopal Church, Central West End

  • Trinity will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. for drop-by ashes. Parishioners can show up, get “ashed,” receive Communion from the Reserved Sacraments and leave. Clergy will also be at the Barnes Medical Campus by the Central West End Metrolink from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. to give ashes to anyone who wants them.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ladue

  • From 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., people are invited to stop by the church to receive the imposition of ashes.

St. Francis Episcopal Church, Eureka

  • St. Francis will have an outdoor Eucharist with ashes at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday at the Timbers in Eureka.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Webster Groves

  • At noon and 6 p.m., parishioners can come to the church and pick up a small, sealed plastic bag with a purple Q-tip loaded with ashes on it. Parishioners will proceed down the aisle to within 6 feet of the Rev. Clive Samson, who will say a prayer as they self-administer the ashes to their foreheads.

Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis

  • Beginning at 7 a.m., an Ash Wednesday service will be available on the Cathedral’s Facebook page, accessible with this link. Parishioners also can choose to drive by (heading north with the Cathedral doors on your right) at 7-9 a.m., 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. to be sprinkled with ashes or receive some to take home in a blessed, safely prepared zip bag. Only a small amount of the ashes is needed, and any leftovers should be disposed of outside on the grass. Ashes are not a requirement to the observance of Ash Wednesday.

Holy Communion Episcopal Church, University City

  • Holy Communion will broadcast services at noon and 6 p.m. on Ash Wednesday. The service will be available on the church's websit and YouTube or Facebook pages. There are also three opportunities on Ash Wednesday to receive the ashes on the front lawn of the church, and to say a few prayers together outdoors, masked and socially distanced at 7 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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