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St. Paul's Cathedral came up with a creative way to help parishioners observe Ash Wednesday, Lent in spite of COVID

The Rev. Katie Churchwell, dean of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, stands outside the downtown church's sanctuary. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman Archives]
The Rev. Katie Churchwell, dean of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, stands outside the downtown church's sanctuary. [Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman Archives]

With in-person services suspended in many local churches, religious leaders have found creative ways to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral's efforts are literally in the bag.

The church, led by Dean Katie Churchwell, is offering parishioners "Holy Lent Bags," which include items that individuals and families need to observe the Lenten season at home. The church, 127 NW 7, is distributing the bags in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday on Wednesday.

"Our goal with the Holy Lent Bags is that people will have a holy Lent, and a global pandemic doesn't necessarily have to get in the way of that, regardless of whether people feel comfortable doing things in person," Churchwell said.

"Even with the very strict safety protocols we have here at St. Paul's for in-person things, the majority of our people really are doing either some sort of hybrid of some indoor, some outdoor only, some only online, so our Holy Lent Bags have a handful of different things in them to help people be able to engage with the season of Lent on their spiritual journey, regardless of where they're going to find themselves."

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. Christians observing Ash Wednesday typically attend solemn services focusing on the Lenten season, a time leading up to Easter for reflection on Christ's sacrifice and suffering.

During traditional Ash Wednesday services, ashes — from the burning of palm leaves used during Palm Sunday services the previous year — are distributed to churchgoers in a ritual known as the imposition of ashes. Ash Wednesday and Lent are observed particularly in Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist faith communities, although other Christian denominations often participate.

At St. Paul's, Churchwell said the Holy Lent Bags include pancake mix for the church's Virtual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper.

"People can make pancakes and get creative with their designs, and we'll get together online on Tuesday evening and have an opportunity to have some good fellowship together, to talk and see people and say hi and share our pancake designs," Churchwell said.

The bags also will include ashes for those parishioners worshiping from home on Ash Wednesday. Churchwell said St. Paul's will offer in-person services at 7 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. on Wednesday, but there will be a way for people watching online to participate.

"Each one of those services will have an intentional moment for people who are worshiping from home to be able to engage with the imposition of ashes, whether that's someone else imposing ashes on them or if they're just doing it themselves, but there will be an intentional moment within our in-person services for them," she said.

Other items included in the bags are Mardi Gras beads and soup recipes. Churchwell said parishioners have shared some of their favorite soup recipes for a "Soups of St. Paul's" soup cookbook created for the special bags. Church members will be encouraged to enjoy a meal of homemade soup as they participate in the church's Soup & Study Wednesday evening Lenten Program.

"We'll gather on Zoom and have time for connection and community and then engage in a study on Wednesday evenings where we're going to be reading a book by Kate Bowler called 'Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved' to explore themes in her book, which is both beautiful and heartbreaking," Churchwell said.

"It will be a lively discussion around those big topics of grief, of repentance, what does sin look like and what is it in our lives. It's looking at the concept of prayer through the lens of her book. It will be a fresh way to have those conversations."

She said each bag also includes cards featuring daily Lenten practices for parishioners to explore.

Ashes on the go

In some ways, previous efforts to take the Ash Wednesday observance outside the walls of the church are activities whose time has come.

Barring inclement weather, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church will offer Ash & Dash from 7 to 10 a.m. and from 1 to 3 p.m. on Wednesday in the parking lot of the church, 14700 N May. As part of the special outreach, the Rev. Joseph Alsay, the church's rector, or another member of the clergy, will offer the imposition of ashes to people who drive up for the observance. The church will have two in-person services at noon and 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Faith Editor Carla Hinton edits The Oklahoman’s Spiritual Life section, and covers faith and spirituality, plus other topics for the newspaper and Contact her with story ideas and comments at Please support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at

Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›