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Offering ‘Ashes to Go’ gets a mixed reception in Beverly

DARREN DURLACH/GLOBE STAFF

Gay Cox of St. Peters Episcopal Church applied ashes to Carrie Kimball Monahan at the Beverly train station.

BEVERLY — Walking down the platform at the Beverly Depot train station around 8 a.m. yesterday, Lyndsy Stopa paused with a puzzled look in front of a folding table with an A-frame sign that read “Ashes to Go.’’

“Sure, what the heck,’’ Stopa said after being offered the traditional Ash Wednesday blessing by a lay Eucharistic minister from Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church.

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Just before boarding her Boston-bound train she told the minister: “It’s a great thing you’re doing.’’

For the first time, the Beverly church joined Episcopal parishes in a dozen states yesterday, the beginning of the holy season of Lent, in bringing ashes to the masses.

Episcopal priests and lay people from Beverly, New York, Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities around the country marked foreheads with the sign of the cross at train stations, subway stops, coffee shops, and street corners.

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Yesterday afternoon, Bishop M. Thomas Shaw offered ashes to pedestrians in Downtown Boston yesterday afternoon, said a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. And St. James Episcopal Church in Amesbury offered a similar service to about 35 people outside its church, according to its rector, the Rev. Susan Esco Chandler.

But the efforts to reach outside the confines of a church were especially unusual in Beverly, where Saint Peter’s took to the train platform. In all, about 35 commuters stopped for the brief prayer between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m., said Godfrey Perrott, Saint Peter’s treasurer and one of eight lay Eucharistic ministers at the church.

‘It was very personal. I felt they connected with me.’

Kathy Grattan Beverly resident who stopped for the prayer
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“We think there is an unmet desire for people to get ashes on Ash Wednesday that cannot make it to a regular service because it’s a workday,’’ Perrott said. “We thought going to a train station and offering ‘Ashes to Go’ will meet that need.’’

Members of the Beverly church said they did not proselytize from the platform, but some commuters said they were uncomfortable.

Yesterday, an MBTA spokesman said the agency will study its policies regarding religious groups on train platforms.

“I think it’s a little strange, to tell you the truth,’’ said Andy Kirch, 31, of Beverly, after declining the prayer. “It kind of . . . takes the ritual out of it. It’s a little strange, doing fast-food religion. But if people want to do it, that’s great.’’

The Ashes to Go program was started by a church in Missouri in 2007 and picked up by a congregation in Chicago two years go. Saint Peter’s rector, the Rev. Manuel P. Faria III, said he was not sold on the idea initially.

“I didn’t know quite what to make of it,’’ he said. “Part of me thought it was a great idea, part of me said, ‘I don’t know if this should be done outside of a church setting.’ I was a bit torn. I have to say this is one where the laymen pushed me along.’’

Faria said that the church did not clear its plans with the MBTA beforehand. But he said he did alert local police and the Essex district attorney’s office.

Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said the T has several solicitation rules, including regulations geared toward the distribution of newspapers and periodicals. Pesaturo said the T will now consider whether those rules should apply to religious activities.

“The MBTA prohibits certain activities, particularly those which may interfere with the regular operation of service,’’ Pesaturo said by e-mail. “But we have not received any complaints from customers or commuter rail personnel about this morning’s activities at Beverly Depot.

“The MBTA’s law and real estate departments will, however, discuss whether this type of activity is appropriate in a public transportation environment.’’

This issue will be added to the agenda of a previously scheduled meeting, Pesaturo said.

Pesaturo also said that staff will look at the T’s court-approved advertising guidelines for “guidance in considering what messages may or may not be appropriate on MBTA property.’’

Those guidelines prohibit ads from displaying such things as endorsements and political or campaign speech.

One woman interviewed on the platform yesterday saw the church’s gesture as a political one. When told about her comments, Gay Cox, a deacon at the church, said she was surprised more people did not seem offended.

“It’s not surprising some people find it difficult,’’ Cox said. “It’s a public place; we have everybody [here]. I’m pleased she had the opportunity to air her opinion.’’

Perrott said part of their church’s mission is for members to practice their religion outside the church.

“We’ll smile, we’ll have the sign, but we’re not going to impress ourselves on people,’’ said Perrott, 69, a Beverly resident. “We are a very welcoming denomination; we don’t feel it’s our place to force our beliefs on others.’’

The Saint Peter’s stand also provided an informational pamphlet about Lent with times of Sunday worship services.

Perrott said he hoped that some of the commuters who stopped for the prayer would check out one of the church’s services.

“This is great,’’ Beverly resident Kathy Grattan said after stopping for the prayer. “Usually I go in Boston to a half-hour service. I haven’t seen anything like it. It was very personal. I felt they connected with me.’’

Grattan, 45, who is pregnant with twins, said the gesture reminded her how important it is to attend church regularly.

“Because it’s going to be important for these babies,’’ she said.

Boston.com producer Darren Durlach contributed to this report. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.
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