Ash Wednesday was one of the last public masses Fr. Alan Tremblay celebrated last year at the Parish of the Holy Spirit before the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches to close their doors and transition to virtual services.
The Christian observance of the beginning of Lent fell on Feb. 26, about two weeks before the coronavirus pandemic upended life in New Hampshire. Nearly a year later, COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country. And local religious leaders like Tremblay, the pastor of Catholic churches in Keene and Hinsdale, are preparing to mark the start of another Lent, forcing them to adapt the tradition of smudging ashes on congregants’ foreheads.
“This year what we’re doing a little bit differently ties back to what other countries in Europe already do,” Tremblay said. “... What they actually do in a lot of countries is take a little bit of the ashes and sprinkle them on their heads, instead of drawing the cross on their foreheads.”
This change within the Catholic Church, one of a handful of Christian denominations that observe Ash Wednesday, came straight from the Vatican, Tremblay said.
“It’s actually more scriptural, you might say,” he added, noting that Ash Wednesday has its roots in Old Testament scripture, in which people would don sackcloth and put ashes on their heads to signify that they were sinners in search of repentance.
Aside from the different method for distributing ashes, though, area Catholic churches will celebrate Mass on Wednesday the same way they have since churches were allowed to reopen in June, with physically distanced seating, a mask requirement and enhanced sanitization measures.
Other local churches, like the United Church of Christ in Keene, have not held in-person services since last March. So, the church at 23 Central Square is preparing about 75 small plastic containers of ashes that will be available Wednesday on tables outside the front and rear doors, according to Rev. Cynthia Bagley, the church’s senior minister.
Anyone can take a container, along with an information sheet on the significance of Ash Wednesday and administer the ashes to themselves. The United Church of Christ also will hold a virtual Ash Wednesday service at noon and another at 7 p.m.
Monadnock Covenant Church, at the intersection of Base Hill Road and Route 9 in Keene, will have drive-thru ash distribution Wednesday, Pastor Brad Frost said. From 8:30 to 10 a.m. and again from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., anyone can come to the evangelical church’s parking lot, remain in their car with a mask on and receive ashes on the forehead or hand, from Frost, who will also wear a mask and sanitize his hands before distributing the ashes.
“It will be an unfortunately brief interaction, but that’s also a safety precaution,” Frost said.
In previous years, St. James Episcopal Church would host a similar “Ashes to Go” event outside the church at 44 West St. in Keene. During the pandemic, though, St. James is offering only virtual Ash Wednesday services, said Rev. Elsa Worth, the church’s rector.
Before those services, though, St. James is inviting members to conduct a “Burning Confessions” ceremony at home to create ashes for themselves to distribute within their household. During this ceremony, people will write down what they would like to confess or let go of during Lent, and then burn that paper in a fireplace, woodstove, outdoor fire pit or even in a bowl.
“There is no canonical reason that ashes need to be administered by a priest, so we’re adapting, as we have been working hard to do all year,” Worth said.
And as Ash Wednesday marks the start of a 40-day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving leading up to Easter, churches like St. James, which hasn’t held any in-person services since last March, are planning for another pandemic-altered holiday on April 4.
“No doubt we’ll be planning yet another online Holy Week and Easter this year, something we never would have predicted last March,” Worth said in an email. “We thought when we went online that after two good weeks of shutdown, we’d be back at church by last Easter!”
Tremblay, the pastor at Parish of the Holy Spirit, said the church will continue to livestream masses throughout Lent and the Easter season. For Easter Sunday, the parish hall in the basement of St. Bernard Catholic Church at 185 Main St. in Keene will open as an overflow area to maintain social distancing, Tremblay said.
“It’s wanting to be able to provide a place for people to pray and practice their faith during these strange times but also very much balancing that with the need for safety and precautions,” he said.
Meanwhile, the United Church of Christ in Keene has already reserved the gazebo on Central Square for Easter morning, in the hopes of holding a socially distanced sunrise service, Bagley said.
“We’re all being very creative,” she said. “None of this is ideal, for sure, but as with everyone, I think we’re doing the best we can.”