Elise Fedele closed her eyes as one stripe and then a second formed a cross of ashes on her forehead. But instead of standing near the altar at church, Fedele was flanked by work stations with shears and swivel chairs on Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian season of Lent.
“Every year, I give up sweets for Lent,” said Fedele, a stylist at Total Look Salon on Post Road in Fairfield. “This year, I threw in pizza.”
Fedele and about 10 other salon employees lined up to receive ashes from the Rev. Tomi Thomas of St. Matthew Church in Norwalk.
The salon visit was one of eight stops by St. Matthew’s Ashes-on-the-Move program in Norwalk, Fairfield and Stamford.
“Almost all the religions have this,” Thomas said, referring to a Lenten season of fasting and reflection. “Islam, you know, they have got the roja and everything, right? Keeping fasts. Hindu tradition also has got this kind of time for making penance and amending their ways.”
Along with Total Look Salon, ashes were distributed at churches and schools all around the world Wednesday, including St. Mary-St. Michael School at St. Mary the Immaculate Conception church in Derby.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
Fedele, a member of St. Matthew Church, helped to coordinate the Ash Wednesday stop at the salon. She timed the visit just as shifts changed.
“I think clients are thinking about doing it too,” Fedele predicted.
Sure enough, a client heard that Thomas was upstairs and she came up wearing a black cape, mid-treatment, with her hair wrapped in foils.
“Full-service salon,” she said, laughing and thanking Thomas.
With a small bowl of compacted ash in a bowl, Thomas wiped the mark of a cross with his blackened thumb. Moments later, the client had black ash smudged over her makeup between trimmed bangs.
This is the second year parishioners from St. Matthew Church have left church on Ash Wednesday to bring the ceremony to the people. In addition to the ash bus, St. Matthew also stayed open for 15 hours Wednesday to offer as many opportunities to interested participants as possible.
“Even before Christ, these ashes meant that person is repenting. It’s a symbolism,” Thomas said. “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
On his way out, Fedele passed Thomas an envelope of alms, a donation to help the less fortunate.
Lenny Coleman, a Norwalk firefighter, received ashes from Thomas earlier in the day at Lajoie Auto & Scrap Recycling in Norwalk.
“I think it’s important to be able to express our faith, and sometimes at the fire department you’re kind of stuck there and you can’t leave,” Coleman said. “So to do something like this for the community is just phenomenal.”
The Ashes-on-the-Move concept was first developed in 2007 when members of major Christian churches developed Ashes to Go. Clergy members across the country left their churches and headed to public places such as downtown streets, sidewalks and train stations to distribute ashes.
“Today is a working day,” Thomas said. “Many aren’t able to come to church even if they want to. This is our way of telling people how much we love them and how much we appreciate their faith.”
Making it easier for people to practice their faith is also an effort by Norwalk churches to buck the trend of declining membership.
Cumulative parish registration was down 11 percent and Mass attendance fell 20 percent across the city’s seven Catholic churches last year, officials said.
Saint Ladislaus Parish is the only Norwalk church that has seen an increase in both parish registration and Mass attendance.
For St. Matthew Church, the Ash Wednesday outreach bus is a way to recruit and retain members.
“I’m bringing the bus onto the street to offer others a reminder of Ash Wednesday,” said St. Mathew Pastor Walter C. Orlowski. “To give them ashes. To tell them about our great Catholic church. To invite them in and listen to them.”