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Mid-Ohio Valley churches continue Ash Wednesday tradition amid pandemic

St. Luke’s Lutheran Church Pastor Steve Mahaffey, right, imposes ashes on the forehead of church member Jane Irvine in front of the Marietta church Wednesday. St. Luke’s was among a number of area churches observing both Ash Wednesday and safety recommendations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Provided)

BELPRE — Like so many activities and traditions in the last year, Ash Wednesday 2021 looked a little different around the Mid-Ohio Valley.

Instead of spreading the ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of parishioners to mark the start of the Lenten season, Father John Rice, pastor at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Parkersburg, sprinkled them on individuals’ heads.

“I don’t have to touch you to give you ashes this year,” Rice said between masses Wednesday. “These days, people are touchy about touching.”

Both because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the frigid temperatures, Rice said attendance was lower than what he would usually see on Ash Wednesday, which is the start of Lent, a Christian period of reflection and repentance leading up to the celebration of Easter.

St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Marietta still isn’t having in-person worship because of the pandemic, but Pastor Steve Mahaffey said the church wanted to continue the Ash Wednesday tradition in as safe a way as possible.

Pastor Rick Hastings bundled up outside of Pioneer Presbyterian Church in Belpre to continue the Ash Wednesday tradition while following guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Photo Provided)

“People are desperate right now to connect with their faith community,” he said.

So Mahaffey put on two masks and a face shield and imposed ashes on the foreheads of church members and others who pulled in in front of the church at Fourth and Scammel streets Wednesday. He sanitized his hands after each person.

Pastor Rick Hastings did the same at Pioneer Presbyterian Church on Farson Street in Belpre.

“So many people are still reluctant to try in-person worship services, plus … we’re still not out of the woods yet by any stretch,” he said.

With the stress of the pandemic and other recent tensions in the country and culture, Hastings said, this was a tradition he did not want to see fall by the wayside.

Stout Memorial United Methodist Church in Parkersburg offered temporary tattoos as a safe alternative to the imposition of ashes for Ash Wednesday. (Photo Provided)

“What better time to remind folks that there is hope, that we do have our faith to stand on and to lean on?” he said.

Church member Jennifer Crow said she was glad the drive-through activity was offered since the usual community service involving multiple Belpre churches wasn’t feasible this year.

“It’s important, I think, to maintain, especially in a season where COVID has done so much to halt everything that seems normal,” she said.

Stout Memorial United Methodist Church in Parkersburg planned an in-person and virtual service for Ash Wednesday. But instead of ashes, temporary cross tattoos were provided.

The Rev. Cindy Eakle, Stout’s pastor, said she got the idea from a Methodist church in the Charleston area.

Pioneer Presbyterian Church Pastor Rick Hastings, right, imposes ashes on the forehead of church member Bev Chapman on Wednesday as part of the Belpre church’s drive-through observance of Ash Wednesday. (Photo Provided)

“I think it’s very important to be reminded that we are still living in a sinful world and there’s still the opportunity to come to God and find peace and happiness and renewal in these difficult days,” she said.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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