Priests at Old St. Patrick’s Church have marked parishioners’ foreheads with soot crosses every Ash Wednesday since before the Chicago fire. But this year, more than 1,500 faithful will apply their own ashes from “Lent kits” the church is sending directly to homes.
Delivering ashes was once reserved for places like hospitals and long-term care facilities, but the deadly COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the service into a doorstep delivery resource akin to Amazon.
Those who ordered a Lent kit from Old St. Pat’s will receive a small packet of ashes, a votive candle and a prayer card — all neatly packaged in a white-and-purple gift bag, according to director of ministries Keara Ette, who said the church has shipped packages as far away as Hawaii and the U.K.
The massive distribution effort is part of an attempt to keep people safely connected this Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent, a six-week period of prayer and penance that ends the night before Easter. Many churches are offering virtual mass, but in-person services are also allowed under the current public health guidelines, albeit with rules that have changed how blessings and sacraments are administered. And while new COVID-19 cases are on the decline, doctors warn attending group gatherings can still have serious consequences.
In Chicago, life is starting to return to normal. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union last week agreed to a framework for reopening in-person learning. As new infections continue to fall, local health officials on Tuesday allowed bars and restaurants to expand indoor service to 40% capacity or up to 50 customers.
Yet, even as more residents are receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, doctors are still urging residents to avoid public gatherings, especially now that new, more contagious variants are spreading around the globe.
“If there was a situation where we have unprotected individuals in an indoor space like a church, and they are potentially exposed, the transmissibility would be very high,” said Dr. Mia Taormina, an infectious disease specialist with the DuPage Medical Group.
Taormina said those who are immunocompromised, elderly or undergoing chemotherapy should reconsider attending Ash Wednesday services in person if they haven’t been vaccinated.
“The short-term sacrifice … is for the greater good,” Taormina said. “There will be [future] Easter holidays to come, and we will be able to practice in full with our churches packed to the gills with people celebrating.”
Church leaders have heard the warnings. To limit physical contact, the Archdiocese of Chicago is advising priests to use Q-Tips or cotton balls to draw the cross on parishioners’ foreheads — or, even better, sprinkle the ashes directly on top of people’s heads.
And across the region, many churches are coming up with alternative ways to celebrate Ash Wednesday safely while still honoring tradition.
St. Procopius in Pilsen is organizing a drive-thru where people can receive ashes from the safety of their car. In northwest suburban Mount Prospect, St. Raymond de Penafort is giving congregants a spoonful of ashes to apply themselves. And many, like Old St. Pat’s, are offering at-home “Lent kits” to those who can’t be physically present.
In Lincoln Park, hundreds of volunteers from Saint Clement Parish’s Love Your Neighbor ministry are banding together to make ash deliveries to seniors and others who don’t feel comfortable venturing out into public. The church will have in-person services too, but spots will be limited, according to Father Peter Wojcik, who said attendance is capped at about 90 people in a space that seats 600. He said following local health guidelines is important, even if that means telling people they have to stay home.
And there’s always Zoom, where Saint Clement draws hundreds to virtual calls and small group meetings each week. But it’s not always a fulfilling substitute, and Wojcik said he understands the separation from the “living body” of the church and the community can be painful.
“It’s OK to miss it. It’s OK to say, you know, the way we get it online, it’s not the same,” Wojcik said. “[But] we do have a responsibility of keeping each other safe, and that’s just part of it.”
Libby Berry is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @libbyaberry.