Ash Wednesday in Gray’s Ferry was always one of those days that loudly celebrated our Catholic heritage at Saint Gabriel Parish. Of course the day usually began with the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHMs or Mighty Macs for short) taking their student charges into the church for the imposition of ashes. In those days, it was the norm for girls to have veils to cover their heads in church. It was also 1 degree short of a mortal sin to forget your veil and forced one of the sisters into creative head dressing; usually with a couple of tissues or Kleenex. So armed with veil and a rosary for the boys, we marched off to church for Mass, ashes and Holy Communion.

I always found it humorous that after the reception of ashes, everyone in the church looked as if they had a target painted on their foreheads. Obviously the ashes were a real identification of our Catholic beliefs and traditions. We were never ashamed or embarrassed to wear the sign of Lenten penance; it was rather a badge of Catholic honor. Boys at Saint Gabriel didn’t have to worry about having a Kleenex attached to their heads, but they did have to worry if they forgot to wear the appropriate uniform, tie or regulation pants. The infraction was not the same intensity as the 1 off from a mortal sin veil catastrophe. However, any attempt by the boys to brush off ashes from other student’s heads was an infraction that was as grievously wrong in the same category as pugilism in the school yard.

Prayerfully, respectfully and gladly we wore the ashes for the entire day…preparing for the dinners prepared at home that now included Lenten abstinence. Gray’s Ferry on Ash Wednesday was perhaps the originator of the local fish fry celebrations. Everyone ate fish on Ash Wednesday. Being a blue-collar neighborhood we didn’t know anything about shrimp, lobster or crabs…flounder, cod or smelts were the fare of the day. The Ash Wednesday fast and abstinence was difficult, but the practice of “giving-up” something for Lenten penance was even more difficult. Some of us in school would abstain from chocolate, others soda while others gave up cakes, cookies and other confectionary delights. Regardless of choice, forty days was a really long time when you’re a kid in grade school and Lent also included abstinence on all Fridays as well.

Another perpetual activity that started on Ash Wednesday in Gray’s Ferry was the Stations of the Cross. These devotional practices were written by Saint Alphonsus Liguori and are still etched into my Catholic memory. A lot of kneeling, a lot of standing were part of the devotions. Unusual phrases were part of the Liguori stations, such as Christ being nailed to the “gibbet of shame.” Which sometimes was read incorrectly by some unknowing student thus resulting in “giblet of shame,” sending chuckles through the church and our IHM guardians hauling out the inarticulate culprit.

Lent for Catholic students in an urban school was always a time of sensory fascination for me. Purple sacks covered the statues, sweet incense permeated the damp church air and the familiar strains of the Stabat mater echoed between the Stations of the Cross. Lent always meant learning something about others less fortunate than ourselves. It included fasting, abstinence and almsgiving. In the mid 1960’s we had the mite boxes to hoard our nickels and pennies that were sent to some exotic missionary location. My daughter this week received a pristine “Tupperware” container to fill as part of her school’s Lenten observances. Nothing like the old cardboard mite box, that always unfolded and fell apart. Today, my daughter’s school is collecting monies for Lent in a petro-carbon receptacle that is neither a good example of Catholic environmental stewardship nor infused with monetary designations towards pagan babies. In this day and age, collecting for repairs to the Franciscan Sisters Motherhouse is the greater need. Regardless of the intended purpose, it is always fitting and appropriate to give alms. More important for all of us to remember is that we are all sinners and are called to repentance in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In keeping with the tradition of Ash Wednesday we will of course observe the requirements of fasting and abstaining from meat. For Gray’s Ferry Diaspora Catholics that now reside in suburban neighborhoods there is no overwhelming olfactory fragrance of frying fish, rather a drive through at the local fast food establishment and ordering 3 McFish to go. Oh well…at least I have great memories of fish fries in good old Gray’s Ferry. While McDonalds lacks the color and character of a well cooked meal by either our mothers or grandmothers…it makes up for its deficit in expedience.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that muse on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology degree program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at , . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
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