By Mike LaBella
HAVERHILL — As area Christians observe Ash Wednesday tomorrow, the spiritual leaders of one local church will be taking it to the street — the ashes, that is.
In a new take on a centuries-old Christian tradition, the Rev. Marya DeCarlen, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Groveland, will leave the warm confines of her house of worship and brave the elements to offer “Ashes to Go," a street ministry that will kick off the Lenten season with an unusual twist.
DeCarlen and Julia Steer, minister of spiritual care for St. James, will be at Haverhill's Bradford train station from 6 to 9:15 a.m., offering ashes to those catching the morning train. Then they will be in front of the Georgetown Post Office to offer ashes from 9:30 to 11 a.m.
St. James Groveland is part of a new nationwide movement that has clergy and lay people visiting transit stops, street corners, coffee shops and college campuses to mark the foreheads of interested passers-by with ashes that mark the start of the holy season of Lent in preparation for the celebration of Easter, DeCarlen said.
"Since most of Jesus' ministry was done in open places where people longed to hear him, maybe we’re returning to our very roots," DeCarlen said. "In our crazy, busy, reflection-deprived lives, I feel called to imitate Jesus' ministry of meeting people where they are, to reach and create a moment of grace amidst the demands of our busy lives.
"Ash Wednesday gives us an excellent opportunity for doing that,” DeCarlen said.
Catholic churches in the area will be holding Masses tomorrow where ashes will be given, but for some of the faithful ashes, will be coming to them. The Rev. Timothy Kearney, pastor of All Saints Catholic Parish, expects to bring ashes to homebound parishioners, as well as those in nursing homes and hospitals who are unable to attend a Mass. But he does not see himself taking it a step further as St. James is doing.
"It sounds like they're trying to reach out to people, and if it makes them think about their faith again then that's a good thing," Kearney said. "But I don't see that it's something the Catholic church would be doing. And even if I wanted to, I wouldn't have time.
"You want people to go to the Mass as it's the beginning of Lent," he said. "You want people to think about what Lent is all about."
The Rev. John Delaney, pastor of Sacred Hearts Parish, a Catholic church in Haverhill's Bradford section, called DeCarlen's program a creative way of offering the Ash Wednesday service to people on the go.
"It reminds people that Lent is beginning," Delaney said. "I think it's wonderful."
This year marks the first time St. James is participating in the Ashes to Go ministry, which was introduced by an Episcopal church in St. Louis in 2007.
"Ashes to Go is about bringing the important traditions of our faith out from behind church walls and into the places we need them every day,'' said the Rev. Emily Mellott, who maintains the www.AshesToGo.org website with resources and stories about this ministry.
"As people get busier and busier, we need the church in new and non-traditional ways," Mellott said in a press release announcing this year's Ashes to Go ministry. "The people who accept ashes on the street are often people longing to make a connection between their faith and the forces of daily life, and Ashes to Go helps them feel that connection."
Joseph Pesaturo, spokesman for the MBTA, said there is no ban of the Ashes to Go kind of activity at the Bradford train station, and that a representative of St. James notified him yesterday of the plan,
In addition to the outdoors “Ashes to Go” ministry, St. James welcomes the public to an Ash Wednesday Service at 7 p.m. inside the church at 119 Washington St., Groveland.