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Churches around Chicago celebrate Ash Wednesday with COVID-19 safety precautions: ‘It’s strange’

This year’s Christian observance of the start of Lent was in stark contrast to its usual crowds, with fewer numbers of masked parishioners visiting churches to receive ashes in person or pick up “Lent kits” to celebrate the season at home.

A congregant receives the imposition of ashes from Father Tom Hurley at Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the Near West Side on Ash Wednesday. Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, Hurley did not touch anyone and gave out ashes on a fresh Q-tip to each congregant, then threw the Q-tip away.
A congregant receives the imposition of ashes from Father Tom Hurley at Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the Near West Side on Ash Wednesday. Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, Hurley did not touch anyone and gave out ashes on a fresh Q-tip to each congregant, then threw the Q-tip away.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

To start the season of Lent, congregations across the city came up with creative solutions to hold Mass, dole out the imposition of the ashes and maintain a sense of community safely.

At Old St. Patrick’s Church, 700 W. Adams St., visitors were met Wednesday with hand sanitizer stations, face shields, Lenten goodie bags and cotton swabs smudged black with ashes.

“It was just very strange to be giving out ashes through a Q-tip,” said the Rev. Tom Hurley of Old St. Patrick’s Church. “It’s strange to have Ash Wednesday but not have the big crowds that we normally have.”

Lori Hiltz, a Streeterville resident who has been attending Mass at the church for 11 years, said despite the pandemic she believes it is still important to observe Ash Wednesday.

“I wanted to honor it today,” Hiltz said. “I made a reservation, and I felt like I won the lottery to get in to come to church.”

Lori Hiltz, 60, of Streeterville, receives the imposition of ashes from Rev. Tom Hurley at Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the Near West Side on Ash Wednesday. Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, Hurley did not touch anyone and gave out ashes on a fresh Q-tip to each parishioner, then threw the Q-tip away.
Lori Hiltz, 60, of Streeterville, receives the imposition of ashes from Rev. Tom Hurley at Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the Near West Side on Ash Wednesday. Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, Hurley did not touch anyone and gave out ashes on a fresh Q-tip to each parishioner, then threw the Q-tip away.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Due to in-person capacity limits, those who wanted to attend Ash Wednesday Mass at Old St. Patrick’s signed up in advance for a spot. Before entering, visitors were required to sanitize their hands and complete a temperature check, and during the imposition of the ashes, the pastor used a new cotton swab for each parishioner.

Laura Higgins, who is on the church’s music team and pastoral care team, said this year instead of imposing ashes on hundreds of people and sending teams of people out to train stations like it normally does, the church made more than 1,500 “Lent kits” for people to celebrate the occasion at home in addition to attending virtual church services.

Each kit includes a small votive candle, ashes to self-impose during livestream services, a Lenten prayer card and a small sticker with an ash cross to represent the day that marks the beginning of the Lenten season, a solemn 40-day period devoted to reflection, prayer and fasting before Easter.

Joseph Roccasalva, the parish’s liturgical coordinator, said the pandemic actually provides the “perfect opportunity” for a holiday like Ash Wednesday.

“Ash Wednesday is that time of looking in, and seeing what has happened this pandemic really has allowed us to look at what we’ve done in our lives—how can we do better and how can we pray better,” Roccasalva said.

Director of ministries Keara Ette said while many things have been stripped away and it is easy for people with privilege to see themselves as victims, it is important to be reminded of what the essentials are, and the opportunities for love and justice that still exist.

“It’s heartbreaking to say we can’t have more than 50 people, or we can’t all be in one place,” Ette said. “But the concept of the common good is one that’s deep in our tradition.”

Michelle Orlando, a West Loop resident and regular congregant, said she is thankful she had the opportunity to come in person, although this Ash Wednesday was “definitely a different vibe” from the church’s typically packed mass.

“For Catholics, it’s a really important time of the year to kick off the Lent season,” Orlando said. “The fact that [Old St. Patrick’s] is making it available for people during such an unconventional year really shows how much they’re committed to helping Catholics in the area celebrate the day.”

West Loop resident and medical student at Rush University Marissa Pharel said she dropped by with her roommate as a way to step back from her life during the pandemic and center herself on religion and connection.

“This is probably the fastest I’ve been in and out of a church in my life,” Pharel said. “So, very different, but it’s great to at least have the opportunity to see it, feel it, [have] some sense of normalcy.”

Hurley said the pandemic has allowed the church to interact with people of faith from all over the world with its 10 a.m. livestreams, which usually get between 3,000 and 4,000 views.

Pastor Amity Carrubba of Grace Place Episcopal Church, located at 637 S. Dearborn St., said Ash Wednesday was the first time congregants were able to enter the church building and the sanctuary since the pandemic began.

Carrubba said those giving the imposition of ashes were double masked, wearing a face shield and sanitizing their hands before each person. She said the church has also been giving out its own bags for Christian holy days that include consecrated communion hosts, so congregants can share in communion over Zoom, and materials for Lent.

Carrubba said there have been both unexpected joys and challenges with worshipping online, and the pandemic has reestablished the basics of the faith and what it means to be a community.

“Many people said that keeping up the traditions have created ... a structure for their lives, which have been helpful in daily and weekly routines,” Carrubba said. “Religious traditions keep us grounded in our mental health and grounded in God.”

Pastor Ben Adams, of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, receives the imposition of ashes from the Rev. Amity Carrubba at Grace Episcopal Church of Chicago in the South Loop on Ash Wednesday.
Pastor Ben Adams, of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, receives the imposition of ashes from the Rev. Amity Carrubba at Grace Episcopal Church of Chicago in the South Loop on Ash Wednesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times