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Article Published February 18, 2020
Ashes to Go: An Innovative Approach to Ash Wednesday in Essex
Rita Christopher, Senior Correspondent

Walking their dogs gave Ed and Suzy Burke the idea for an innovative way to observe Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, six weeks before the Easter holiday. Ash Wednesday this is year is on Feb. 26.

The Burkes have been walking dogs in Cross Lots, one of the properties of the Essex Land Trust, for some 20 years. Cross Lots is diagonally across from the Essex Library.

Three years ago, the couple, both active in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, had an idea that combined their habitual dog walk with church outreach: Ashes to Go.

The Burkes suggested reaching more people on Ash Wednesday by making it possible to receive ashes, traditionally placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross, at Cross Lots. While dog walkers get ashes, the dogs will not be overlooked. They will get a biscuit.

“We want to meet people where they are,” said Reverend Benjamin Straley, assistant rector of St. Johns, who along with Reverend Linda Spiers, interim-priest-in-charge, will be putting on the ashes. “Not everybody can get to church.”

The ashes come from burning the palms fronds used on the previous Palm Sunday.

Ashes will be available at Cross Lots from 7 to 8:30 a.m.

This year, St. John’s is adding something new to the Ashes to Go program: It will also be possible to receive ashes at the Old Saybrook train station from 6:30 to 8 a.m.

“People have to get to work. If they can’t make it to church, we can go to them,” Straley said.

One of St. John’s clergy will be at the station; the other at Cross Lots.

And during the afternoon, Straley added, both he and Spiers would walk up and down Essex Main Street to place ashes on the foreheads of people who ask for them.

“It’s not just for our parishioners,” Straley noted. “It would be for anybody who expressed interest, people who are active in the church, perhaps some people who have fallen away.”

For Spiers, Ashes to Go has a familiar ring. Before St. John’s, she was rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Collinsville, where there were also Ashes to Go, done in the church parking lot. After the parking lot, Spiers went to the police station, the fire house, and a local restaurant in Canton offer ashes.

“To receive ashes and remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return is an important dimension to one’s spirituality,” she noted. “In doing this we are taking church to the people [instead of] having church confined to the walls of a building. Some are surprised to see ashes offered on the street or in a park. Most are grateful.”

Suzy Burke agreed.

“Most people are grateful,” she observed. “Some only want their dogs blessed. A few give us wide berth.”

For a more traditional observance on Ash Wednesday, St. John’s will have two services, one at 9 a.m. and the other at 7 p.m. at the church, 3 Cross Street, Essex.