Ash Wednesday: Churches make last-minute calls to ash merchants

There was a time when churches prepared for Ash Wednesday by burning the dried palms from the previous Palm Sunday. Many still do. More and more churches, however, are buying commercially produced ashes online.

But there’s a catch: Order early.

“We just had a call 10 minutes ago,” said Mark Gould, owner of Religious Supply Service in Davenport, Iowa. “We’ve had them all day long.”

Gould was speaking Tuesday, one day before the start of Lent.

A few days earlier, Religious Supply Service had posted a note on its website saying, “Sorry, sold out for the season.” That didn’t stop churches from calling the company for a last-minute shipment.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Gould said that his company was still trying to accommodate desperate customers. For some small churches, though, the bill would be tough to swallow. As Gould put it -- $30 or $40 to overnight a $6 bag of ashes.


One ounce of commercially produced ash can grace about 250 foreheads. The ash, often produced by commercial palm growers in Texas and Florida, is sold by church supply companies nationwide. Enough ash to serve 100 people costs about $4.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in a 2007 story on the trend, churches began shifting to commercially produced ash because it’s clean (the ash usually comes in plastic pouches), safe (there’s no danger of church volunteers burning themselves) and easy (if one remembers to order early).

Also, the Catholic practice of placing ashes on the forehead at the start of the Lenten season is being increasingly adopted by some Protestant denominations. Gould said that trend helps account for the growing sale of ashes. The palm ash is a symbol of death and sorrow for sin. Lent is the period of repentance, fasting and abstinence leading up to Easter.

Church Supply Warehouse, based in Wheaton, Ill., was also fielding inquiries this week from anxious church members. The store had already sold out of 400 packets of ash and had ordered extras. “We just got some more in,” Derek Lehr, an employee with the store, said in an interview Tuesday.

Some callers asked the warehouse to overnight their purchases, Lehr said. Others, representing churches in and around Wheaton, said they would swing by the store to pick up their ashes in person.


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