Sifting through the ashes

Women don't mind getting dirty to prepare for service

Mary Gail Nesbit and Phyllis Strozier have an annual job, and it's not a clean one.


Every year before Lent begins, the two co-chairwomen of the Church of the Good Shepherd Altar Guild get together and sift ashes. That's right -- ashes.

The ashes are used in Ash Wednesday services and are made from palms used in the previous year's Palm Sunday celebrations.

Nesbit's husband burns the fronds in an aluminum washtub about three weeks before Lent.

The smoke from the burning palms, Nesbit said, is a very white, light smoke. It reminds her of the smoke used when a new pope is announced, and she likes to think of it as a "happy" smoke.

"It just fills the backyard," she said. "It's really quite intriguing."

After the palms are burned, the ashes are left to cool for a couple of weeks before Nesbit and Strozier sift them.

They sift the ashes -- outside if the weather is good, inside if the wind is strong -- using common kitchen strainers and a spoon to force the ashes through.

Two days before Ash Wednesday, they add a small amount of olive oil to make the ash easier to apply.

The end product isn't a large quantity. Last year's amount fit into a plastic frozen-yogurt container and provided ashes for several local churches, with a good portion left over.

"We give the ashes to anyone who wants them," Nesbit said.

Last year, ashes went to St. Mary's Episcopal Church, the Convent of St. Helena, MCG Children's Medical Center and even a Baptist church.

The Church of the Good Shepherd has always used homemade ashes, the women said.

"It's always been done," Strozier said. "It's just our turn."

The two women have made the ashes for longer than they wanted to reveal, but they consider it a labor of love.

Because the palms come from the church's own Palm Sunday celebration, the symbolism and significance make their rather dirty chore worth it.

"These palms are blessed," Strozier said. "You don't just use ashes from your fireplace or something. These are our palms."

The blessing read over the palms states, "Let these branches be for us signs of (Christ's) victory, and grant that we who bear them in his name may ever hail them as our King."

Palm Sunday is a Christian holiday that celebrates Jesus' entry to Jerusalem, Nesbit said, and its mood is in sharp contrast to the somber aura of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

The ashes are also blessed, and a priest applies them to the forehead of churchgoers participating in Ash Wednesday services.

Lent precedes Good Friday and Easter, the season honoring Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, emphasizing repentance and humility in light of Christ's death.

"You're very aware that it's Lent," Strozier said.

"I'm always glad when it's over."

The church's décor reflects that mood, and Strozier said there are many cosmetic changes to the sanctuary and altar area to indicate that.

The altar is stripped of most of its brass candlesticks and only two are left.

Instead of the large flower arrangements that usually decorate the front of the sanctuary, the altar guild places bare branches in vases.

"Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes are to remind us of our humble state," Nesbit said of the Lent atmosphere.

"It makes the celebration of Easter all the more glorious."

Ash Wednesday services

- St. Mary on the Hill: Mass at 7 a.m., 9:15 a.m., noon, 6 p.m.

- Fairview Presbyterian Church: 6 p.m. supper, 6:45 p.m. worship

- Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church: Noon and 5:30 p.m.

- Holy Trinity Lutheran Church: 6 p.m. services

- Church of the Good Shepherd: 7 a.m., noon and 7 p.m.

- Church of the Holy Comforter: Noon and 6:30 p.m.