By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
WASHINGTON — Father Bernie Weir, hoping to help his parishioners at St. James Catholic Church connect Palm Sunday with Easter, organized a burning of palm leaves for use as ashes on Ash Wednesday. He invited the parish’s junior and senior high youth groups to burn the old palms, collected from parishioners over the last few weeks.
On Jan. 31, the students met at the home of parishioners Marty and Teresa Beenblossom for the palm- burning ceremony. “We had a little prayer service, which included a Scripture reading for Ash Wednesday,” said Fr. Weir, the pastor of St. James.
The youths cut the palms into manageable pieces and then burned them on a charcoal grill. It took about 45 minutes. Youth minister Mary Sue Merrick and several other adults also participated.
Fr. Weir blessed the 20 youths as each placed palms on the fire. “We’ll bless the ashes on Ash Wednesday,” he added. The burned ashes required some refining, so the priest used a blender for that process. The ashes filled a sandwich bag. It was expected to be an ample supply for the 400 or so people likely to attend St. James on Ash Wednesday.
“I thought it was very exciting for the youths to be involved in the process of the burning of the palms, very educational for them,” Marty Beenblossom said. “I think it made them feel a part of what was going on.”
The idea to get the parish involved emerged after the pastor discovered that many people “had no idea where the ashes come from or what they were supposed to do with the palms (they had received on Palm Sunday).”
“Last year, I burned all the palms myself, which took three or four hours because I had a little grill and had to cut up the palms so they’d burn quicker,” Fr. Weir said.
Having parishioners burn the palms “makes Ash Wednesday a little more real and it brings people back to last year’s Palm Sunday — the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then going immediately into the Passion. We have absolute joy on Palm Sunday and we use these same things (palms burned to ashes) to show repentance and the need for salvation the following Ash Wednesday.”
Ashes purchased from a supplier “stick” better when applied to people’s foreheads, but “we’ll just use the plain ashes. We’ll get people as dirty as we possibly can,” the priest joked. He planned to talk about the youths’ experience and the connection between the palms and ashes during Ash Wednesday Masses. “It’s something we hope to make an annual tradition,” Fr. Weir said.