The youngest worshippers sat in the front pews of the church. The kindergartners craned their necks in awe as the sun streaming through the stained-glass windows cast colors across their faces and onto the floor.
Rows behind the students from All Saints Catholic School in Bangor sat seniors, college students and worshippers headed to work.
All of them sported a cross of ashes on their foreheads that were placed there during a morning Mass on Ash Wednesday at St. John Catholic Church on York Street.
All 300 plus worshippers wore masks.
It was the first time in more than a year that the students at Bangor Catholic school had attended an Ash Wednesday service with adults from the community. Last year, Ash Wednesday fell during February vacation week, so students did not attend with their classmates. Social distancing requirements would have kept students farther apart than they were required to be on Wednesday.
The last time students were able to attend an Ash Wednesday Mass at the church was in February 2020, shortly before the pandemic shuttered church doors and put learning online.
“It was a pretty big deal,” 14-year-old Julia Rioux of Glenbrun said. “Things are getting back to usual like they were before.”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day period of prayer, repentance and fasting for Christians that ends with Easter.
All Saints Catholic School Principal Matthew Houghton said the service allowed the kindergartners to reconnect with their eighth-grade prayer partners in person.
“We’ve really been looking forward to it,” he said after the Mass.
The Rev. Frank Murray, who celebrated the Mass, told worshippers that Lent is time to slow down.
“When he went into the desert, Jesus slowed down and he did a lot of praying,” the priest said. “Slow down and closer to the Lord.”
Murray also urged the children and adults to pray for the less fortunate in the world, including the people of the Ukraine who are under attack from Russian government forces.
Murray, who retired in 2020 from administrative work, said that he loved seeing such a large, multi-generational group at the Mass.
“This brings all ages together,” he said. “I think it’s just wonderful.”
Interest in Catholicism rose over the past several years, according to Dave Guthro, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
This weekend about 80 people who have not been baptized in any Christian faith will publicly express their desire to become Catholics at services in Presque Isle, Winslow and Portland presided over by Bishop Robert Deeley.
That is the highest number of catechumens since 2008, according to Guthrie.