Every year on Ash Wednesday, Gale Murphy of South Portland gets her forehead marked with a cross of palm ash.
This Wednesday, however, Murphy, 68, wasn’t feeling great when she woke up, so she didn’t attend the 7:30 a.m. Mass in Holy Cross Parish to mark the beginning of Lent.
Luckily for Murphy, the Episcopalians have a new take on a tradition that goes back 1,500 years. They call it “Ashes to Go.”
Feeling a little better later in the day, Murphy went to Portland to have lunch with a friend and get some ashes on her forehead.
Three women from local Episcopal churches were in Monument Square to administer the ritual, which took all of 30 seconds.
Episcopal clergy members and lay people also provided ashes Wednesday in Tommy’s Park in Portland, outside the post office in Windham and outside Pratt-Abbott Cleaners in Falmouth.
It was part of a national outreach effort by the denomination, which like other mainline Protestant churches has been experiencing declining attendance in recent years.
Even though she’s Roman Catholic, Murphy didn’t see a problem with getting ashes from an Episcopal deacon.
“People who are very devout feel you should go to Mass to get them,” Murphy said. “But I feel it’s everybody’s choice. I’m grateful for the convenience.”
But wasn’t the setting — just a few yards from Shay’s Grill Pub — a little casual for a ritual that is supposed to get people thinking about human mortality?
Actually, the public space is perfect, said Suzanne Roberts, a deacon at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland.
“It’s what Jesus did. He brought religion to the public square,” she said.
“Jesus is not famous for his church work,” added Nina Pooley, rector at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Yarmouth, who also administered ashes in the square.
In Portland, about 130 people received ashes, said Larry Weeks, who organized the event. Weeks, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church on Forest Avenue, also serves as priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Washington Avenue.
He said he enjoyed getting away from his administrative duties at the church and sharing a spiritual moment with strangers.
“It was very moving for me personally,” he said.
During the ritual, Weeks recited a short prayer. He then pressed ashes against each person’s forehead, moving his thumb in the shape of a cross, and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The ashes came from burned palms from Palm Sunday service last year.
On the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday begins Lent, the 40-day period of reflection and fasting that leads to Easter.
Elizabeth Parsons, 56, of Portland, who teaches theology at Boston University, walked thorough Monument Square on Wednesday and appeared pleased to see people praying.
“This is who Jesus was,” she said. “Jesus was with the people.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: