COVID-19 changes some Ash Wednesday traditions at Detroit area churches

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Some Metro Detroit congregations chose to continue Lenten traditions despite risks from COVID-19 while others adapted their practices.

Birmingham First United Methodist Church  Senior Pastor Elbert Dulworth shares ashes with Andrea Whan on her hand during a Stations of Lent drive-thru event held by the church on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, Ash Wednesday. "We didn't want to put our hands in people's faces," Dulworth said. "We have an opportunity for them to take their own ashes if they want to do it themselves as well.  We are just trying to do what is most comfortable for each person."

In downtown Detroit, St. Aloysius Catholic Church held close to some Ash Wednesday rituals by holding an in-person Mass but sprinkled ashes on parishioners' heads rather than Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron using his finger and ashes to make the traditional cross on the forehead.

About 22 miles away, the Birmingham First United Methodist Church on Maple Road adapted its tradition by holding services online but offering drive-thru stations outside the church where congregants could pick up Lent goody bags that included a temporary tattoo of a cross to replace the cross of ashes on the forehead.

"How wonderful it is that even in the middle of the pandemic we're able to gather here at St. Aloysius for this sacred rite of inaugurating Lent," said Archbishop of Detroit Allen H. Vigneron.

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When Vigneron finished his homily Wednesday, he blessed the ashes, which are a symbol of penance and made from palm leaves used in last year’s Palm Sunday liturgy. 

For about seven minutes, parishioners bowed their heads as Vigneron sprinkled ashes over their heads, a practice the Archdiocese of Detroit says is an ancient method still common in some parts of the world. 

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a liturgical season of prayer, penance, and sacrifice in preparation for Easter.

"Of course this year... we'll do it a little differently," Vigneron said during mass. "Instead of speaking to each of you as I distribute, I'll say the words of admonition once and then instead of signing you with the cross I'll sprinkle the ashes but it's all the same really."

The Archdiocese of Detroit said in a news release that the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship recommended the practice of sprinkling ashes to dioceses around the world to minimize the spread of COVID-19. 

During the same Mass, parishioners lined the center aisle and received the sacramental bread for Holy Communion. The Archdiocese of Detroit also offered live streams of the Mass.

Holy Communion was given out in small bags at Birmingham First United Methodist Church for church members who participated in the drive-thru event.

Church member Susan Rieth gives Sharon and Bob Pierce their soup and bread as part of the "Empty Bowls, Empty Chairs" fundraiser, which would normally be done inside with 400 people sitting down to eat soup together, at a Stations of Lent drive-thru event at Birmingham First United Methodist Church on Ash Wednesday in Birmingham, on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

"We have a very strong commitment to COVID safe practices, while still trying to build relationships with our people. So our team has been very creative in trying to figure out how can we do both of those things," said Rev. Susie Hierholzer.

The drive-thru stations featured items for families, teens and adults, with one being dedicated for ashes and communion. The ashes were pre-packaged in small containers and members had the option to take the container home and apply the ashes themselves, have the pastor sprinkle the ashes on the back of their hand, or take a temporary tattoo of a cross. 

Hierholzer said the approximately 16,000 tattoo crosses were ordered in bulk and are being used by many Methodist churches across Michigan to maintain safety precautions while also upholding ritual significance. One parishioner did request that Hierholzer bless the ashes and apply them to her forehead. 

"This is such a great church. We just miss seeing everyone, we need to get back to normal, where we can do the things that we love," said church member Louann Darlinghouse, who received ashes on her hand.

Another tradition of Ash Wednesday that changed was the church's “Empty Bowls, Empty Chairs” fundraiser that would normally have been held inside with about 400 members having a soup dinner together. Instead, members were able to pre-order soup dinners and pick them up during the drive-thru event.

Sue Smith's dog, Murphy keeps an eye out as volunteer and church member Doug Emig gives Smith her soup and bread as part of the "Empty Bowls, Empty Chairs" fundraiser, which would normally have been held inside with 400 people sitting down to eat soup together. Soup was handed out at a Stations of Lent drive-thru event at Birmingham First United Methodist Church on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.