Faithful flock to church for ashes in post-Mardi Gras New Orleans

As a cold drizzle fell on the dark flagstones in front of St. Louis Cathedral on Ash Wednesday, the atmosphere in Jackson Square was a stark contrast from the scene of decadence just one day before.

Midday on Wednesday, there were no street performers, no tarot card readers, no streets littered with beads and no walking parades of colorfully costumed people following brass bands — just rain and the lonely sound of bagpipes.

Inside the cathedral, it was the time for somber personal reflection of things on which to do better — shortcomings to acknowledge and bad habits to break.

About 1,000 people migrated to the iconic church to receive crosses of ashes on their foreheads, and the significance of the day— as well as the sobering reality of the day after Mardi Gras — held different meanings for different people.

To the standing-room only crowd, Archbishop Gregory Aymond cited the abrupt midnight ending of the Carnival season as the time to “not only take off the Mardi Gras masks but to take off the other masks we wear knowingly or unknowingly.”

We are all sinners together, Aymond said, and “only we know what needs to be changed.”

With the ashes, Aymond asked the solemn crowd to remember weaknesses, failures and sins and identify “an action or attitude that God may be calling on you to adjust or to change.”

Rita Walters, who was in town visiting from Tennessee, she said she and her husband thoroughly enjoyed their first Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But Ash Wednesday for Walters marked the beginning of Christ’s suffering and an affirmation of faith.

She said that getting the ashes “encourages me to make repentance and to help me have a better life and change the bad habits I have.”

Walters said she and her husband would both be giving up sweets for the Lenten season.

Sheryl Harvey, of Chicago, said Ash Wednesday was a “time for me to re-evaluate life,” and a time to “resolve and heal myself, discipline myself, and a time I put myself to test.”

Harvey said her list of things she plans to give up for Lent is a personal one, but it also includes some small things like profanity.

Patricia Rhodes, of Brooklyn, said that as a Catholic, she felt it important to mark the beginning of the change in the church’s year and found an “exquisite place of peace,” within the walls of the cathedral.

Rhodes said she enjoyed the “sense of old world and culture and tradition that New York and other cities don’t have,” and also liked watching the midnight ceremony when “the frivolity is done” and Lent is ushered in.

Dominique Quarterman, of Madisonville, said she always makes sure to get her ashes as an important part of the Catholic religion, and that instead of giving something up, it was her goal to attend church every Sunday.

But for some others working extended hours at jobs in the French Quarter’s service industry, Ash Wednesday primarily marks the victorious survival of another Carnival season.

Bartender Kat Kimmons said that for her, the day signifies a big sigh of relief but that the diversity of religions and attitudes expressed on the day is one of the things that most draws her to the city.

“New Orleans either pulls you in with her mystery and wraps her loving arms around you, or draws you in with a promise and then chews you up and spits you out,” Kimmons said.

Jared Miller, who is employed on Bourbon Street, said he has come down every Mardi Gras from Baltimore to work.

This year, Miller said he is staying for good.

As a service industry worker, Miller said he is being realistic about Lent. Until he has a different job, “it’s silly to give anything up or commit to any godly sacrifices. It’s Bourbon Street — everything’s available.”