Mercredi des Cendres — Franco-Americans and Lent

Lent is the liturgical season that marks 40 days of prayer and repentance practiced by the faithful in preparation for celebrating the Easter Season.  Franco-Americans are traditionally very observant about Lenten religious practices that have been defined by the Catholic Church.  Officially, Lent lasts for 40 weekdays, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Saturday, before Easter Sunday.

Ash Wednesday at St. Charles in Brunswick Maine

Alter setting with symbols of Carême at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Brunswick Maine. This photo was taken on Ash Wednesday. (L’Heureux photo)

In French, the observances during Careme (Lent) are rooted in religious traditions with the purpose being to prepare for Pâques (Easter).

Religious practices include attending Mass on Mercredi des Cendres (Ash Wednesday), on the first day of Carême.  I discovered some traditional French religious practices on a website named Linguee, where some of the liturgical rules are described and translated in this blog.

During a special ceremony during the Mass, the priest and lay leaders greet the parishioners who advance to the alter, giving them a benediction, while putting blessed ashes on each of their foreheads. This is the blessing: En francais: Carême bénédiction – “Souviens-toi, ô homme, que tu es poussière et que tu retourneras dans la poussière.” (“Remember, O man, that you are dust and that to dust you will return.”)  Ashes used in this ceremony are actually the burned palm leaves that were used in the previous year’s celebrations of Palm Sunday,  celebrated a week before Easter.

En outre, tous les catholiques de plus de 14 ans doivent se priver de viande le mercredi des cendres, le Vendredi Saint et tous les vendredis du Carême.  (In addition, Catholics who are 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and during the Fridays of Lent.)

BRUNSWICK, Me–  A standing room only sanctuary, including parents with young families, filled the Saint Charles Borromeo Church on Ash Wednesday. They came in the middle of the day to worship at the 12:15 PM Mass, on the first of the 40 days of Lent. This level of parish participation from those who came to receive the annual administration of Blessed Ashes was very common in past years. Yet, the numbers who participated in recent years had seemed to taper off. Nevertheless, the number of faithful in Brunswick who received their Ashes at noon and attended Mass on Wednesday, February 26, was reminiscent of the Pre-Vatican II years. At that time, Catholic churches were often so packed with parishioners on Ash Wednesday services that the faithful often lined up outside the sanctuary to patiently wait until the crowds moved on, before they could get inside and receive Ashes on their foreheads.  One of the new young families who attended in Brunswick had very recently relocated to the area from Georgia.  Certainly, there is optimism among the congregation to see and meet the new parishioners.

“Pendant toute la durée du Carême, nous sommes préparés à cette magnifique saison pascale.”

It is the purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind the faithful about our promise to be repentant  in advance of celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the joy of the Easter season. Today, Lent is also a time when the church congregations engage in programs to support social justice. For example, at St. Charles, the parishioners host Friday Lenten suppers and the proceeds from the meals are donated to local charities.

“Pour nous, animés de la foi chrétienne, le Carême de partage offre un moyen privilégié de collaborer à l’œuvre de justice.”

Saint Charles Borromeo Church is one of the seven Roman Catholic communities in the All Saints parish cluster, located in Maine’s Midcoast.  One of the notable churches in the parish is the beautiful Saint John the Baptist sanctuary in Brunswick, that was built specifically for the French-Canadians, and Franco-Americans who lived in the area and worked in the Brunswick and Topsham manufacturing mills. In my opinion, the most beautiful religious statuary and stained glass windows in Maine are found within the  Saint John’s sanctuary, where the labels and inscriptions are presented in French. In fact, the fourteen Stations of the Cross aligning the sanctuary’s walls are three dimensional and inscribed in French.

Certainly, all faithful are welcomed to participate in Carême traditions, like receiving the Holy Ashes and other prayer services. Especially, “nous chez bienvenue” to all who are continuing to practice the religious and prayer traditions we have learned from the Scriptures.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.