(boston.com) - Walking down the platform at the Beverly Depot train station around 8 this morning, Lyndsy Stopa paused with a puzzled look on her face 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. She told the minister: "It’s a great thing you’re doing.”
The Beverly church, for the first time, joined Episcopal parishes in a dozen states today — which marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent — in bringing ashes to the masses.
Priests and lay people from Beverly, Chicago, St. Louis, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore, Newark and other cities and suburbs around the country marked foreheads with the sign of the cross at train stations, subway stops, coffee shops and street corners.
About 35 people stopped for the brief prayer between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. this morning, according to Godfrey Perrott, St. Peter’s treasurer and one of eight lay Eucharistic ministers at the church.
“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 in an interview yesterday. “We thought going to a train station and offering ‘Ashes to Go’ will meet that need.”
Parishioners said they did not proselytize from the platform but merely offered a smile without pushing the prayer on anyone. Some commuters, however, were offended by their public presence.
“I think it’s a little strange to tell you the truth,” Andy Kirch, 31, of Beverly said in an interview 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 program was started by a church in Missouri in 2007 and picked up by a congregation in Chicago two years go. Even the St. Peter’s Rector, The Rev. Manuel P. Faria, III, said he wasn’t completely sold on the idea initially.
“I didn’t know quite what to make of it,” he said this morning. “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.
“It’s been done a lot. There has kind of been a groundswell; far be it for me to discourage lay people’s good ideas.”
One woman, who declined to identify herself, saw the gesture as a political one.
“I don’t enjoy being confronted with religion on my daily commute,” she said during an interview with the Globe. “I feel it’s in your face. I find it offensive. On the other hand it’s their right to be here and they can do what they want to do but it’s not making me happy.
“Everyone like Rick Santorum is trying to bring church into government. I feel the religious right is trying to take over the country. I feel it’s a Taliban takeover. For me right now any religion is the face of that. I don’t like seeing it on my daily commute.”
When told about the women's comments, Gay Cox, a deacon at the church, said she was surprised more people didn’t seem offended this morning.
“It’s not surprising some people find it difficult,” she 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 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,” the 69-year-old Beverly resident said yesterday. “We are a very welcoming denomination; we don’t feel it’s our place to force our beliefs on others.”
They also provided an informational pamphlet about Lent with times of Sunday worship services.
The church held a service at 8 a.m. and is planning another one for 7:30 p.m. tonight.
Perrott said the church, which has a congregation of about 100 families, usually has about 50 people total at both Ash Wednesday services. He said they draw about 100 to 125 people each Sunday and as many as 250 on Christmas and Easter.
He hoped that some of the commutes who stopped for the prayer would check out one of the church’s services on another date, an idea recent Beverly transplant Kathy Grattan seemed open to.
“This is great, usually I go in Boston to a half hour service,” Grattan said after stopping for the prayer. “I haven’t seen anything like it. It was very personal. I felt they connected with me.”
The 45-year-old 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.