An Ash Wednesday surprise for the devout: drive-through ashes

Michele Held (pictured) and a friend were on their way back from a doctor's appointment when they spotted Rev. Peter Manzo. "I said, 'I absolutely can't believe it,' " Held recalled.

The Rev. Peter Manzo, in his black robe and clerical collar, made for an unusual sight for drivers on Route 70 in Cherry Hill as he vigorously beckoned motorists to pull in and get "ashes to go" in observation of Ash Wednesday.

For more than an hour, Manzo stood in the cold, pointing to a small sign advertising the roadside ashes and his church, which is not easily visible from the roadway. Manzo received encouraging honks and waves from drivers who spotted him, and a steady stream of them pulled in.

Route 70 at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church was one of more than 30 locations across New Jersey, including the PATCO station in Haddonfield, where the "Ashes to Go" program offered ashes to those unable to attend Ash Wednesday services.

The program began in 2010 when some Episcopal congregations in the Chicago area decided to take ashes to high-volume commuting areas. Within a couple of years, news coverage of the event had inspired Episcopal churches in 21 states and congregations in a couple of countries to join the program.

The Diocese of New Jersey joined the program last year, but Wednesday marked St. Bartholomew's first time participating.

Jonathon Elliott, director of communications at the Diocese of New Jersey, said that out of 149 congregations 34 opted to participate this year. He said he enjoyed seeing the delight on people's faces when they received their ashes.

"It's a really powerful example of getting out beyond the walls of our church and into the communities," Elliot said.

Manzo, who has been director of St. Bartholomew's since 2002, stood outside from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday. In the span of that hour, he drew ash crosses on the foreheads of motorists in 15 cars.

For Manzo, the program epitomizes the direction in which he wants the church headed.

"It's about being a traditional Christian in a modern way," Manzo said.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for Roman Catholics and Anglicans as well as some Protestants, according to Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez, religion professor at Temple University.

Lent commemorates when Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days as a form of repentance, and modern Christians often mark Lent by giving something up, Alvarez said.

Ash Wednesday is significant for Christians, Alvarez said, because unlike some other religions whose followers wear distinctive garb to display their faith, Christians aren't so easily identified. However, on Ash Wednesday an ash cross on their foreheads identifies them to neighbors and coworkers, Alvarez said.

"It's the only day Christians make a public show of their religious identity," Alvarez said.

Alvarez said any Christian may receive ashes at any church on Ash Wednesday, unlike Communion, for which the Catholic Church requires recipients to be Catholic.

A variety of Christians stopped by to receive ashes from Manzo, many of whom were passing by on their lunch breaks.

Coworkers Russell J. Carmody, 56, and Andrew McWilliams, 29, were in the car on their lunch break discussing how they were going to miss out on receiving ashes this year because they had to work late when they noticed Manzo by the side of the road and decided to pull in.

The men, both Catholic, praised the program, and Carmody said the experience got him thinking.

"I'm going to go back and recommend it to my monsignor," McWilliams said.

Chris Garcia, a parishioner at St. Bartholomew's, said his work in some years had prevented him from attending Mass to receive his ashes, but when he read an e-mail from the church about the drive-through program, he knew he could get his ashes this year.

"I thought it was a good idea," Garcia said. "It's convenient."

Friends Michele Held, 55, and Doreen Esposito, 56, were on their way back from a doctor's appointment when they spotted Manzo. Held said she was shocked by the "Ashes to Go" program.

"I said, 'I absolutely can't believe it,' " Held recalled.

Held, a Methodist, and Esposito, a Catholic, agreed that while they want to get their ashes every year, it's sometimes hard to find the time to attend an entire Mass.

After the event was over, Manzo confessed that he had doubts about whether anyone would show up.

"Part of me said since it's the first year, you won't get any people," Manzo said. "We got more than I expected."

Manzo said after the success of this year's program, he foresees "Ashes to Go" becoming an annual event at St. Bartholomew's.


kflynn@philly.com

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