Quick Take:

Like almost everything else, Ash Wednesday was different for Catholics this year. But with a rising number of vaccinations and decreasing infection rates, Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz saw no shortage of congregants attend the atypical services.

The beginning of Lent was markedly different in Santa Cruz County this year. But with “slightly higher attendance” at Ash Wednesday Masses in his parish, a local deacon is hopeful that things are returning to normal.

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To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Vatican instructed Catholic churches around the world to sprinkle ashes — a symbol of repentance — on worshippers’ heads rather than marking the traditional cross on their foreheads.

Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz, like other religious institutions, has seen a significant drop in attendance of both in-person and virtual Mass over the past year — about a quarter to half of the regular congregation, Deacon Joe DePage said.

But on Ash Wednesday, things looked better. About 40 people attended his outdoor service in the early afternoon. “I would say there was slightly higher attendance than what we expected at all of our services,” DePage said, with more people in attendance than for a typical Sunday Mass.

The uptick in attendance mirrors the county’s improving infection rates and gradual reopening of businesses.

DePage said the church’s congregants generally fit into two groups — an English-speaking middle class who have had the ability to work from home and a Spanish-speaking working class that has been among the most at risk.

“The working class Latinx part of the community is, you know, they’re struggling,” he said. “They’re the ones who can’t work remotely, who have to actually expose themselves . . . in their jobs.”

At a drive-thru Ash Wednesday service, Deacon Joe DePage used a jar to sprinkle ashes on worshippers in their cars.
At a drive-thru Ash Wednesday service at Our Lady of Star of the Sea, Deacon Joe DePage used a jar to sprinkle ashes on worshippers in their cars. Credit: Image courtesy of Deacon Joe DePage

As new COVID-19 cases continue to plummet, state health officials indicated Tuesday that the county was nearing the thresholds that would allow downgrading COVID-19 restrictions from the strictest purple tier to the red tier. Meanwhile, with ramped-up vaccination efforts, more than 20% of the county’s population had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Wednesday.

If these trends continue, the county could be in the red tier by Easter, which is good news for churches. Congregants might “be much more excited about coming back (for Easter),” DePage said.

With the challenges of the pandemic tapering off, DePage said he hopes the lessons of the past year aren’t forgotten.

“I really hope that as we come out of this, we will remember how lonely we felt,” he said. “We’ll remember how frustrated we all felt and that we will become a more compassionate people — and we’ll acknowledge how important other people are to us and what we owe our neighbors.”

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Kevin Painchaud is an international award-winning photojournalist. He has shot for various publications for the past 30 years, appearing on sites nationwide, including ABC News, CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, The...

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