By Marie Saavedra

CHICAGO (CBS) — Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season for Catholics across Chicago.

But how are the faithful encouraged to take part, while staying apart in this pandemic? CBS 2’s Marie Saavedra reports on the challenge for so many churches.

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It is a tall order for parishes to foster community, at a time when the bulk of their members can’t even be in the pews. So many have relied on their belief that God goes far beyond the walls of their church, and now their rituals can too.

Ash Wednesday serves as a time of reflection and sacrifice for Catholics. But that’s what we’ve all been doing for the last 11 months of the pandemic.

“There’s been some fear in some church circles that people might just not come back after this. That’s just not what we’re hearing,” said Keara Ette of Old St. Pat’s Church.

So how do you observe Ash Wednesday, with an act of close contact, while keeping people safe? At Old St. Pats, you reinvent tradition.

“It’s little packets of ashes,” said Ette, showing a sacrament hit.

It’s one of many parishes putting together kits with ashes, candles and a prayer inside. They’ve been made for pick up or packed and shipped to those not attending services.

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There’s another option at St. Procopius in Pilsen, where ashes are available to all who want them: masked, outdoors, for walk-up.

“You know, I appreciate it dearly. This church does so much for the community,” said Toni, a parishioner. “This is beautiful. Drive by! You know, who would ever have thought, Drive by ashes!”

Bishop Robert Casey of the Archdiocese of Chicago applauds the work to keep the faithful engaged. It’s been a tall order, especially as churches are pinching pennies too.

“We do know that our collections are down, but a number of churches are saying they’re down only 25%,” said Bishop Casey.

Take St. Procopius’s Sunday offerings. Before the pandemic, they’d receive $4,000 to $5,000 a week in donations. Last week, giving was just shy of $2,000.

The hope is with every kit, or socially distant sacrament, that tie to faith is strengthened.

“Getting back to the essentials has reminded people that practicing their faith in community, and with us in sacraments, really is the essential,” Ette said. “It’s not the superfluous stuff.”

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While the other options are popular, there were plenty of people attending mass. Many parishes are holding services but with smaller crowds, sometimes requiring reservations, and thorough contact tracing.

Marie Saavedra