The pews of St. Vincent de Paul Parish were, to no one’s surprise, packed today at the noon Ash Wednesday service. This beautiful (if somewhat rundown) gem of a church, with its towering Corinthian columns and Tiffany stained-glass windows, sits on Manhattan’s West Twenty-Third Street, in the neighborhood known as Chelsea, just south of the Garment District and Hell’s Kitchen. It is, of course, a perennial mystery as to why so many otherwise unseen Catholics turn up every year at churches throughout New York City to “get their ashes,” but the atmosphere in this West Side church on this day was not one of puzzlement or irritation. Indeed, the French-speaking parish’s pastor, Fr. Gerald E. Murray—tall and dignified, with perfectly parted grey hair—celebrated the 12:15 Mass as though only the usual twenty-odd weekday worshipers were present: with precision, reverence, and loving attention to detail. In Fr. Murray one sensed a man who, formed by and in love with the liturgy and with being a priest, was grateful for the opportunity to share these sacred rites and start this penitential season with so many of the faithful.

Fr. Murray used his homily to remind those present that, with the start of the Lenten season, we are called to imitate Christ’s forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert. Believers, he said, should spend time reading the Bible, preparing for a good confession, and performing works of charity and almsgiving. He encouraged those present to pray the rosary, to perform corporal works of mercy, and, if possible, to attend daily Mass. After the homily Fr. Murray invited all to come forward and kneel at the altar rail for the imposition of ashes. He exhorted each person in turn to “remember, o man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” A mere twenty minutes later, the faithful found themselves kneeling in front of the altar once again, this time to receive life in the body of Christ—a fitting conclusion to an ancient rite that begins with acknowledgment of our sinfulness and our dependence on God’s infinite mercy.

City: New York
Borough: Manhattan
Neighborhood: Chelsea
Address: 123 West 23rd Street
Phone: 212-243-4727
Religion: Catholic
Main Service: Sunday, 10 a.m. (English); 11 a.m. (French)
Pastor/Chief Liturgist: Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Physical Aesthetics of the Church: 8 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Aesthetics of the Service: 9 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Rhetoric of the Sermon: 9 (out of 10)

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