WINTHROP — The question stopped Lori Audette and Don Ladson in their tracks Wednesday afternoon on Main Street.

“Ashes?” Audette said, looking at the sandwich board sign on the sidewalk. “Is it Ash Wednesday? Sure.”

The Rev. James Gill dipped his finger into the purple velvet capped vial he had been carrying in a pocket and traced a cross on Audette’s and Ladson’s foreheads with these words: “Remember, you’re dust and to dust you shall return.”

Audette said she had attended church faithfully as a child, but ashes on Ash Wednesday are not generally part of the Southern Baptist tradition. Audette said she stopped for the ashes because she and her new boyfriend — not Ladson — are planning to start going to church.

For Gill, the reason is unimportant. The Episcopalian priest had led a noontime Ash Wednesday service at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, where he put ashes on those who wanted them. Then he stationed himself on the street in front of Pete’s Roast Beef to offer the same service to passers-by. It’s an act that’s denuded of all pomp and circumstance, taken out of the structured format of the church and straight into everyday life. As a retired priest, he said, he likes to get people into the church, but he also likes to get the church out to the people.

Gill’s sign advertises Ashes to Go, an initiative that started six years ago in the Chicago area and now is observed internationally on the first day of Lent. In the Christian liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a six-week period during which Christians may reflect, pray and forgo a luxury as a form of penitence. It ends with the celebration of Easter. The occasion has been marked this way for centuries.

“The season of Lent is a time for me to reflect on what I have been doing to make the world a better place and what I should be doing to make the world a better place,” Bill Nave said.

Nave, one of Gill’s parishioners, wasn’t able to attend the noon service because he was at home making lunch for his wife, Joyce, who is recovering from chemotherapy. He has taken over the household chores so she can concentrate on things that build her spirit, such as making furniture in her woodworking shop. So he made a point of stopping to see Gill after going to the post office across the street.

“It’s a season to slow down,” he said, standing with his cap in his hand and a cross marked out in ashes on his forehead.

The ashes, Gill said, come from palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which were burned and blessed.

Although the day was not bitterly cold like the last time Gill took part in Ashes to Go, few people were on the street and fewer still opted to take part. But that didn’t bother him at all.

“Jesus said to St. Peter, ‘Feed my sheep,'” Gill said. “He didn’t say ‘Count my sheep.'”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

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Twitter: @JLowellKJ