The placing of ashes on the forehead for Lent symbolizes both death and repentance. During this period, Christians show repentance and mourning for their sins because they believe Christ died for them. When the priest applies the cross of ashes, he says to the worshiper, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
However, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church cancelled any physical contact from the traditional Ash Wednesday activities under this COVID-19 pandemic at this time.They also cancelled the singing portion of their mass while requiring people to wear masks to reduce any possibility of COVID-19 infection.
Because of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control advocates that churches should not gather in groups to avoid the risk of spreading the new virus. CDC offers these suggestions for the church to decide whether to accept or not and bear the corresponding selection results.
St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, located at the corner of Bush and Steiner Streets, was established in 1873. For Ash Wednesday 2021, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church started posting registration for limited seats on major event websites such as the Eventbrite, and they are the only church in San Francisco that held Ash Wednesday indoors.
Ash Wednesday, occurring on Feb. 17 this year, is a holy celebration for Christians to kickstart the Lent season, the six weeks of reflection and humility before Easter. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches across San Francisco replaced the receiving of ashes on the forehead with an online prayer service. As for St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, their doors remained open.
Grey Price is a staff member at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church. On the night of Ash Wednesday, he stood in front of the church to check the appointments.
“It’s more difficult to administer. People want to come to mass, they want to be in the church and they want to receive their ashes in the traditional way on Ash Wednesday,” Price said. “This year, because of COVID, we have to limit the numbers safely.”
As one of the main people who planned and arranged this year’s Ash Wednesday event, Price maintained an optimistic attitude towards the health of the people participating in the event at the church.
“We probably have the most rigorous safety precautions of any church,” Price said. “We limit the numbers of people. Every participant is ticketed. So we know their contact information. Everyone wears masks, we keep their distance. Afterwards, we sanitize the entire church. And we try to keep the services as brief as possible. So we have all the doors and windows open so the ventilation is best it can be.”
St. Dominic’s priest, Father Michael Hurley, led the Mass. Since Hurley has hosted Ash Wednesday for many years, this year’s COVID-19 pandemic is the most unique year he has hosted Ash Wednesday.
“Obviously, we didn’t have as many people come in person today, sincerely because there’s a limited amount of space. But we did live stream and we had all sorts of outdoor kinds of events too, as well. So we’re doing what we can with what we got,” Hurley said.
Hurley said that he felt OK with this situation as long as there is equal treatment for the church and any other kind of institution.
“As long as the government doesn’t single out churches to be closed or not have the same protocol as other places, then I think they’re doing their best,” Hurley added. “We are all doing the best we can.”
Mia Gancayco, a parishioner of St. Dominic’s Catholic Church who went to the Ash Wednesday mass said she arrived after getting off work.
“Of course you want to balance being really safe and careful with COVID-19, also just being close to your faith,” Gancayco said. “So it’s just a difficult balance. For me, I just want to make the right decision and at the same time still enjoy the solemnity and holiness of the Ash.”
Matt Safranek, who came to the event, said he was very satisfied with the event.
“I am. You know, it’s always good to gather as a community. Yeah, it’s a very, it’s a very important day,” Safranek said, “because we’re human beings and, you know, without human contact, we just don’t do very well.”