NORTHERN ONTARIO – Today, February 17, is Ash Wednesday, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie has created a plan to allow worshipers to mark the sacred day at home in a safe, physically distanced format.
“We do not want to let the COVID-19 pandemic get in the way of this important day,” said Thomas Dowd, Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie. “Ash Wednesday remains a very popular day of devotion among Catholics.”
Public health restrictions have led to the closure of most churches and, even when they are allowed to re-open for limited capacity services, many parishioners will not wish to gather in person.
Ash Wednesday ceremonies are especially challenging given the public health restrictions. To mark the start of the 40-day religious season of Lent that runs until Easter Sunday, worshipers generally receive a blessing and a cross on their forehead of blessed ashes—made from palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration—from a faith leader in a church.
This necessarily means a person getting close to another’s face to apply the ashes, which is strongly discouraged during the pandemic.
Instead, the diocese said it called all parishes in Northern Ontario to offer take-home Ash Wednesday worship kits, to ensure people still have the opportunity to take part in the holy day.
On Ash Wednesday, a priest will bless the ashes as usual, and then invite parishioners to take home a small container of the blessed ashes. They will also receive a prayer card to follow at home, featuring Bible readings and instructions on how to distribute the ashes.
“Making sure everyone is included and encouraging our families to pray together on this holy day is quite significant,” explained Bishop Dowd. “It’s an opportunity for families to begin Lent together, to share with one another the importance of this time of year.”
At Wiikwemkoong’s Holy Cross Church, Father Paul Robson said Friday he was working on plans for the upcoming distribution.
“It’s good that we can do something, that we can do what we can while trying to stay safe,” he told The Expositor.
He will be holding a private mass, not open to the public, but invites members of the faith community to visit the Buzwah Church’s parking lot between 4 and 5 pm on Ash Wednesday to receive a container of ashes and the prayer book. Fr. Robson said the prayer sheet will also be available via email or Facebook.
Fr. Jim Kelly, who serves at churches in Gore Bay, Mindemoya, M’Chigeeng and Sheshegwaning, said Friday he was working out details for distributing ashes in Gore Bay and Mindemoya, and in discussions to see whether M’Chigeeng or Sheshegwaning are interested in the distribution at their churches. Interested parishioners can contact their church on the day and find information about times and locations.
“Ashes are tactile and people like that, having a thing they can touch. These days, we’re often so isolated, especially for those who live alone, it’s a matter of how you can have that physical connection while still maintaining good COVID practice,” he said, adding that he hoped people living alone did not feel left out by the ash distribution.
Bishop Dowd said the Lent season teaches parishioners about hope and finding strength in faith, something he said was especially important in the midst of the challenging pandemic.
All distribution of at-home Ash Wednesday kits will follow all public health orders and Bishop Dowd said he would work to make the system as flexible as possible for those who cannot attend a church on the holy day, or for those who hear about the initiative late.
“I am giving permission to celebrate the distribution of ashes at any time until the end of February so as many people can participate as possible,” he said.
Anyone wishing to take part in this sacramental should contact their nearest Catholic church to learn about their available programs for Ash Wednesday. The diocese has a copy of the prayer service and an instructional video on its website, dioceseofsaultstemarie.org.