Hauling backpacks and brief cases and bundled for the cold, hundreds of commuters arrived at SEPTA's Market-East Station on Ash Wednesday, gladly taking part in a centuries-old Christian ritual.
The strap hangers were greeted by the Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniel, 3d, an Episcopal bishop, and two priests from St. Peter's Church in Center City.
"Would you like ashes?" Bishop Daniel asked a woman who had just arrived at the station. After a brief prayer, the bishop spread ashes in the pattern of a cross on her forehead.
For Anne Marie DiCesare, of Germantown, receiving ashes at the station was a great convenience.
"I think it's a beautiful thing," DiCesare, who works at a hospice in Center City, said of the ritual. "I think it's great that the church comes to the people. I think God is everywhere, especially with the people."
The clergy were participating in "Ashes to Go" a program started in 2010, when three Chicago-area Episcopal congregations took ashes and prayer to suburban train stations.
Last year "Ashes to Go" programs were coordinated in 31 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, officials said.
This was the third year that "Ashes to Go" was offered at Market-East Station by clergy from St. Peter's Church, at Third and Pine Streets in Center City.
The service also was offered at rail stations in Lansdale, Paoli and at the Frankford Transportation Center in Philadelphia.
Bishop Daniel was joined by Rev. Ledlie Laughlin and Rev. Claire Nevin-Field.
Rev. Nevin-Field, said about 100 people per hour were receiving ashes between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.
She said an average of about 75 people receive ashes at her church.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days before Easter on the western Christian calander. Lent is a period of penance, fasting, and sacrifice that commemorates Jesus' 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert.
The period is observed by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians and some Protestant churches.
Ashes are placed on the foreheads of believers in the pattern of a cross to remind them of Jesus' sacrifices and the sorrow they should feel for their sins. The priest then says "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Jessica Hess, a research coordinator at Thomas Jefferson University, received ashes at Market- East for a second year in a row.
"As a full-time working mother of two children, it's difficult to get to church and do it in a church setting," Hess said. "So having it here is convenient and easy and allows me to practice my faith without trying to squeeze in going to church when it's right here."
When Matt Vanacore, an accountant from Northeast Philadelphia, arrived at the station and noticed the priests, he asked, "Is this Ash Wednesday?" Vanacore then received ashes.
"It was a nice reminder," he said of seeing the priests. "It makes me happy knowing that I did receive my ashes."
Bishop Daniel, who oversees Episcopal parishes in the five county Philadelphia area, said "Ash Wednesday calls us to remind ourselves first of our mortality and secondly our need for God's forgiveness and the ready availability of that forgiveness.
"This may be the only chance that some people have to have any touch with religion or God today, he said. I am glad we can offer that."