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Priests move Lent ash tradition to Market Square

Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 9:30 a.m.

They stood quietly in the cold until, one by one, it was their turn to approach the robed clergymen standing in the middle of Market Square.

The Episcopal ministers offered hushed prayers and smudged crosses on foreheads of strangers — mostly Catholics — outdoors on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar. The 40-day season, accompanied by Friday fish fries across Western Pennsylvania, ends on Easter.

“Jesus from the beginning of his ministry was in the street, in the public square where people gathered,” said the Right Rev. Dorsey McConnell, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, who celebrated rites as part of “Ashes To Go” in the Downtown plaza for the second year. “It seems to me that his movement and work begins with getting the word to the people.”

“Ashes To Go” began in 2007 when an Episcopal minister in St. Louis — a heavily Catholic city like Pittsburgh — set up a sandwich board and offered Ash Wednesday liturgy outside a coffee shop on a business district street corner.

A few years later, it spread to Chicago. By 2012, more than 80 churches in 21 states participated.

Last year, “Ashes To Go” offerings were available in 31 states, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

“The need for the mercy and hope that God offers and Jesus is universal,” McConnell said. “If the church waited for people who have this need to come across our threshold, we would not be doing our job.”

Walking from Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Sixth Avenue to Market Square, McConnell and the Rev. Fr. Tim Hushion met Francis Cooney. Cooney, a homeless man who splits his time between Downtown and McKeesport, asked for ashes and a prayer for his deceased mother and sister.

Though a Catholic, Cooney said he'd started his morning walking through the cathedral's red doors to seek shelter. He had not intended to seek the bishop's prayer as he made his way along Fifth Avenue, feeling bad.

“Something good came up when I was walking up the street,” said Cooney, 49. “I feel better. I feel a hell of a lot better.”

The homeless received blessings and prayers along with restaurant workers and office staffers during a chilly hour in Market Square. Others received blessings from Episcopal ministers at Mt. Lebanon's T station during the morning rush and along Shadyside's swanky Walnut Street during lunch.

Graham Harkins joined his mother during his lunch break to get ashes. They were headed to St. Mary of Mercy, a Catholic church on Stanwix Street, when they encountered McConnell and Hushion.

Neither knew the ministers were Episcopalian until after the blessing. Neither cared.

“There's room for everyone,” said Harkins, 24, of Oakland. “It's more the person you are than where you go.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or



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