Ash Wednesday winter storm shakes up churches’ liturgical plans

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 22, 2023

Commuters negotiate snow-covered streets in the early hours of Feb. 22, 2023, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Brutal winter weather hammered the northern U.S. Wednesday with “whiteout” snow, dangerous wind gusts and bitter cold, shutting down roadways, closing schools and businesses and prompting dire warnings for people to stay home. Photo: Francisco Kjolseth /The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

[Episcopal News Service] Numerous Episcopal congregations in the upper Midwest canceled Ash Wednesday services Feb. 22 or moved them online in the face of a major winter storm this week that is bringing heavy snow, blizzard conditions, ice and freezing rain to much of the United States.

From Arizona to upstate New York, the storm forced Episcopalians to shift gears as they prepared to mark the start of Lent, bringing back memories of how the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago initially upended in-person worship. “It’s so disappointing, but we’re grateful that technology can bring us together,” the Rev. Beth Taylor, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak, Michigan, wrote in a Facebook post.

In southern Wisconsin, where bands of ice and snow were expected throughout the day, the Diocese of Milwaukee warned Episcopalians to check the status of services at their churches and then check road conditions before venturing out.

Some churches were able to go through with services that had been planned for earlier in the day but canceled later ones as conditions worsened.

“If the roads are OK in the afternoon, I still plan to be outside for Ashes To Go,” the Rev. Dan Buchin, priest-in-charge at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Belmont, Michigan, wrote in a Facebook post. “You can drive in and then go right back home. I realize that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but let’s not return to dust anytime soon.”

Improvisation was a liturgical rubric for many. The forecast allowed others to plan – and act – ahead of the storm. At St. Katharine’s Episcopal Church in Martin, South Dakota, when members saw the storm was coming, they cleaned up the kitchen from their Shrove Tuesday pancake supper on Feb. 21, and the Rev. Michelle Dayton presided at an Ash Wednesday liturgy that night.

Earlier Feb. 21, South Dakota Bishop Jonathan Folts had said Episcopalians who needed to cancel their service the next day could use the Ash Wednesday liturgy on the First Sunday in Lent “or at any other time when the weather permits.” Other congregations across the church were planning to do the same.


St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Wyandotte, Michigan, chose to cancel both its “Drop-in Ashes,” and its evening liturgy because of the timing of the storm’s arrival. And in St. Paul, Minnesota, after Messiah Episcopal Church moved its liturgy online, its rector, the Rev. David Langille, explained how parishioners could participate from home by using oil to impose crosses on the foreheads of family members and friends.

Other clergy offered hours when their parishioners could come to church ahead of the storm and receive ashes.

The storm also closed schools and government offices across the Midwest, according to the Associated Press. The news service reported that the storm’s wind gusts, combined with snow and rain, had forced the closure of a long stretch of interstate highway in the Southwest and knocked out power in California.

In other places, like Puerto Rico, Florida and Pennsylvania, Ash Wednesday services and Ashes to Go took place as planned.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in July 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.