Hecla Union Congregational Church sits atop a steep snowy hill on the corner of Cooper Street and Moore Road in Westmoreland. On Sunday it was cold outside, but inside it was light and bright as the church began preparing for Lent and the promise of Easter and spring.
Sunlight bounced off the white walls and beamed through stained glass windows. There was a bouquet of flowers on the altar. Pastor Phyllis Kitchen wore a yellow blazer and greeted everyone in the pews before she began to speak.
“As we prepare to begin our journey through Lent, we remember that Easter is the example of the greatest deepest love,” she said. “It seems only fitting this morning that we hear Jesus’s words concerning the love of others.”
“All of the way my Savior leads me,” the congregation sang. “And He cheers each winding path I tread. Gives me strength for every trial. And He feeds me with the living bread.”
Phyllis’s daughter, Sarah Gaudin, sat behind me. Whenever there was a song to sing, or reading to follow along, she quickly found them in the hymnal or Bible and swapped with me so that I wouldn’t fall behind.
“The next six weeks lead up to the Easter holiday,” Gaudin said. She’s been a member of the church for 18 years, ever since her mother became the pastor.
It’s an important time for the churches in Westmoreland because Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and also start of our town’s ecumenical services in observance of Lent.
“Lent is the time we reflect on what Jesus went through for all of us,” Christine Hansen explained. “The Hecla Church celebrates by gathering with other area churches to reflect upon His walk to the cross.”
“Christ didn’t make the religions, man did,” Pastor Kitchen pointed out. “We all worship differently, but the ecumenical services give all of a chance to worship together.”
Pastor Kitchen and Shawn Hast, whose late husband Rev. Tom Hast, was Pastor of the Bartlett Baptist Church have organized this year’s Ecumenical Lent services with the other churches in town. It begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6 at 7 p.m. at the Lowell United Methodist Church.
“It’s a recognition of the beginning of Lent,” My lifelong friend, Matt Perrault, who is a member of the Clark Mills Annunciation Church explained. “They remind us to be aware of the ultimate sacrifice Christ made for us, and how we should serve and love our fellow man to the best of our abilities. They are also a reminder not to think too highly of ourselves and our goals or achievements.”
“Ashes represent the beginning of a time for repentance,” Hanson added.
“In the Old Testament they repented of their sins by wearing sack cloth and ashes,” Rev. Fred Bailey of the Lowell United Methodist Church told me. “Now we just use the ashes as an outward sign that we are sorry for our sinfulness, and a sign of our inner repentance.”
Genesis 3:19 says, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’”
“Ashes are also a sign of our mortality,” the Rev. Bailey said.
“We were made from dust and we will return to dust,” Hanson explained.
“Our time here is short, and we should do our best to live the life God wants us to live,” Perrault added.
At the services I attended Hanson read from the Old Testament, the admonishments against hating others, lying, slandering, and bearing grudges.
“Lent reminds me of the way I need to live my life every day,” she said.
The cover of that day’s church bulletin said, “As I have loved…” with the word “you” in a heart. Inside it listed all of the churches that will be participating with Hecla Congregationalist in the ecumenical services; Rev. Bailey’s Lowell United Methodist Church, Hast’s Bartlett Baptist Church, the Clark Mills United Methodist Church, Lairdsville United Methodist Church, and the Church of the Annunciation in Clark Mills, where Perrault is a member.
The service at Annunciation Church will end with a “poor man’s supper,” a communal meal where people will be encouraged to bring meatless food to share. It will also feature a musical performance by the group Exodus, of which Perrault is a member.
The group’s founder, Paul O’Neill explained to me how the group mixes original songs with meditations and parts of the Bible to create a narrative that tells the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ, the final events of Jesus’s life which led up to this crucifixion.
For O’Neill, who is also the Annunciation Church’s musical director, this is a time of the year for reflection on his life and his faith.
“I use it as a way to reexamine where I am and to keep myself on the right path,” he said.
Hecla Congregationalist’s church service ended with a final thought. “God speaks to those who take the time to listen, and He listens to those who take the time to pray.” It’s printed on the last page before a long list of people and concerns on whose behalf we were encouraged to come together and pray.
The tribulations faced by the families listed include; “unrest,” “return of cancer,” “multiple health problems,” “deaths in fire,” “an 18 month old boy on life support,” and simply the “strength to remain faithful to God in the face of adversity.”
“Lent is about the time Christ spent in the wilderness,” Pastor Kitchen said.
“The Devil was with him three times. He offered to turn the stone into bread so that He could eat, he offered to make him King if He would bow down and worship him and he offered Him all the kingdoms of the world.”
The Bible says that He declined all three times.
“In Lent you show that you’re willing to sacrifice like he did.” Kitchen says.
Wikipedia says that “The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer for Easter through prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and self-denial,” and a time that Christians “draw themselves nearer to God.”
For the faith community in Westmoreland it is also a time to draw nearer to one another. Pastor Kitchen describes it as a time to, “become the church Universal.”
Before I left, I asked her to take a picture with me on her church’s altar in front of tapestry that says, “Joy to the World.” Everything in the church seems to glow with light coming in from all directions.
This will be her last Lenten season before she retires, a concept that doesn’t exist in the Bible she pointed out. In her yellow blazer, with her red hair, playing piano, making jokes, and leading the church in song and worship she is duly prepared to lead her flock through one more dark and solemn time to come.
I folded up the bulletin, put it in my coat pocket, and headed out into the snow.
“I’ll see you Wednesday,” I told her. “When we all get ashes.”
2019 Ecumenical Services Observing Lent in Westmoreland
Wednesday, March 6, 7 p.m., Lowell United Methodist Church, 5840 Lowell Road, Westmoreland. Monday, March 11, 7 p.m., Westmoreland United Methodist Church, 7286 W Main St., Westmoreland. Tuesday, March 19, 7 p.m., Bartlett Baptist Church, 5639 Bartlett Road, Rome. Monday, March 25, 7 p.m., Clark Mills United Methodist Church, 4857 Clinton St., Clark Mills. Monday, April 1, 7 p.m., Hecla Union Congregational Church, Corner of Cooper Street and Moore Road, Westmoreland. Friday, April 5, 6 p.m., Church of the Annunciation, 7616 E. South St., Clark Mills.
This will include a performance by the musical group Exodus, followed by a “poor man’s supper” meatless potluck held in the Parish Hall people are encouraged to bring meatless dishes to pass. Monday, April 8, 7 p.m., Lairdsville United Methodist Church, 6925 Route 5, Clinton.
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo