Churches go local for Ash Wednesday

More clergy members burn palm fronds themselves to save money

Staff WriterFebruary 17, 2010 

  • Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a season of fasting and penitence observed by many Christians in preparation for Easter. It follows Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," the last day of indulgence before the sacrifices of Lent. Easter is April 4.

    Ashes have been viewed throughout Christian history as a symbol of humility and sacrifice for those who wear them. They also are seen as a symbol of devotion.

    The religious day is observed by Catholics and increasingly, by Protestants.

The black smudge of Ash Wednesday has always been a sign of spiritual austerity.

Now it's a sign of financial austerity, too.

The notion of churches making their own sacred ashes for Ash Wednesday services was abandoned years ago by many congregations. Whether it was fear of fire or simply the ease of ordering out, many churches stopped burning palm fronds from previous Palm Sundays and turned instead to commercial suppliers for their stock of ashes for the centuries-old rite.

This year, though, one of the largest ash suppliers in the Southeast says the deep recession has put a damper on business. Some churches are going back to making their own palm ash to save money.

"I sent out less than half as much ash as I normally do," said Ralph M. Higginbotham, an 85-year-old palm ash supplier from Mims, Fla., who has been in business for nearly four decades. "I asked one of my good customers about the drop, and they said it was because a lot of the Catholic churches in the Northeast have members who've lost their jobs. And if they're unemployed, they're not putting money in the church plates. If that happens, the churches aren't ordering as many products."

At Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, the Rev. Daniel Oschwald never adopted the practice of turning to commercial supply houses for palm ash. On Tuesday, as many Triangle churches lined up their baggies of imported ash, Oschwald was filling a copper urn with palm fronds and sacramental oils to prepare the ash that will be used to mark churchgoers' foreheads today.

"This was an experience I had in seminary," Oschwald said. "It's not obligatory in the Catholic church, but it's a wonderful reminder."

Leading up to Lent

Ash Wednesday is a day of penance that marks the beginning of Lent. Roman Catholic, Anglican and increasingly, Protestant churches hold services at which congregational leaders rub ash crosses on churchgoers' foreheads as symbols of humility and sacrifice.

At Sacred Heart, where 2,400 families worship regularly, Oschwald said, the church receives nearly four garbage bags full of palm fronds for the ceremonial burning on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Only a small number fit into the copper urn; the rest are buried.

Harder than it looks

But many of the larger churches in the Triangle have to supplement their ceremonial ash with commercially supplied ash.

At St. Mark's Episcopal Church in northeast Raleigh, the Rev. Lorraine Ljunggren says she turns to commercial suppliers for other reasons, too. It is not easy to make the sacred ash.

"It's a very delicate combination of oil, water and ash," Ljunggren said.

The wrong combination can turn to lye.

"I was warned about this in seminary by a friend who said it's very difficult to make this from scratch," Ljunggren said.

Higginbotham, who has been making palm ash for nearly half his life, knows how difficult it is to hit on the right formula. With the downturn in business this year, he's not revealing his recipe.

"It's a secret," he said.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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