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One year later, Catholic family reflects on Ash Wednesday incident and lessons learned

William McLeod, left, a fifth grader from Utah, looks on as President Donald Trump speaks during an event on prayer in public schools, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

BOUNTIFUL — William McLeod is still deciding what he will give up for Lent.

For the 10-year-old and many other Christians, the period from Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, to April 9 and Easter is meant to be a time of sacrifice, personal progress and growth. Many vow to give up something significant to them.

William McLeod sits near a Catholic cross in his grandparent’s home in Bountiful on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. It’s been one year since a teacher asked him to remove his Ash Wednesday ashes.
Trent Toone, Deseret News

Sitting on a sofa surrounded by his father and grandparents, the young Catholic considered giving up Snickers candy bars. On second thought, maybe his favorite food, steak. No, food from McDonalds. He pondered for another moment, then held up his hands and asked for a drumroll, he said.

“This year I’m going to give up eating vegetables,” William said, drawing laughter from his family.

Karen Fisher, his grandmother, smiled but disagreed.

“Oh it’s going to be sugar for sure,” she said.

It’s been one year since William received his Ash Wednesday ashes for the first time, only to have his schoolteacher at Valley View Elementary insist he remove them from his forehead less than an hour later. The incident, which the family described as “humiliating,” went on to garner national headlines and resulted in William moving to St. Olaf Catholic School in Bountiful.

The teacher later said the incident was a “total misunderstanding” and apologized to the family.

As distressing as the matter was, and it still troubles the family, some positive things have come from it, Fisher said.

At first she worried the episode and all the attention would shake her grandson’s faith and he wouldn’t want to go back to church. But he has continued in the faith. William recently went to confession for the first time and in May he’ll participate in his first Holy Communion.

The fifth grader was welcomed to his new Catholic school, has made new friends and is excited for this upcoming Ash Wednesday.

In the last year William and his family have received several cards and letters of support from people, applauding him for staying true to his religious convictions, Fisher said.

“The letters meant a lot,” William said. “The support gives me more faith to push forward.”

The most unexpected highlight came in January when William was invited to the White House to meet President Donald Trump on National Religious Freedom Day. While standing next to the presidential desk in the Oval Office, William and others related their experiences to President Trump, who told them “That’s not going to happen again,” the family recalled.

William McLeod, left, a fifth grader from Utah, looks on as President Donald Trump speaks during an event on prayer in public schools, in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

It was an experience young William will never forget.

“I was right here and he was right there,” he said, using his arms to show how close he was to the president. “I shook his hand three times. He (elbowed) me two times.”

“We had a good time,” Fisher added.

William McLeod stands outside the White House in Washington as part of his visit with President Donald Trump on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
Karen Fisher

William also exchanged a memorable “Hello” with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. But don’t get any funny ideas, he said.

“She’s too old for me,” the boy said. “And I already have a girlfriend.”

All joking aside, Fisher hopes the redeeming value of her grandson’s experience will be greater awareness and respect for other faiths, beliefs, traditions and religious symbols, whether it’s someone wearing a Jewish yarmulke, a Catholic cross or a Latter-day Saint CTR ring, she said.

“I think it was a blessing in disguise. It brought me closer to my church,” Fisher said. “Hopefully this year when people see people walking around with ashes, and I know it’s few and far between, they’re going to think of what happened last year. Maybe they will think of their own religion and what they would do if it happened to them. It shouldn’t happen to anybody. We have to be more accepting.”