As parishioners streamed out of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Bradford Street at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, most of downtown Sonora seemed absent of any Valentine’s Day couples beckoning the affection of the holiday.

For the first time since 1945, Valentine’s Day fell on the same day as Ash Wednesday. Love may have been on most people’s minds, but for Catholics, symbols of love were also marked on their foreheads.

“Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again in our lifetime,” said Monica DeBruyn, 65, vacationing in the Mother Lode with her husband Randall De Bruyn, 70, from Portland, Oregon.

“It’s a big challenge about how we’re going to celebrate this because we love Valentine’s Day, too,” she added, joking that she would be “fasting all day in between my meals of pure chocolate.”

For the parishioners at the church, in the coincidental collision of the secular Valentine’s Day holiday and the annual repentance of Ash Wednesday, religious observance would undoubtedly take precedence.

“Valentine’s Day nowadays is founded on romantic love while Ash Wednesday is focused on a more universal kind of love,” she said. “With Valentine’s Day, you sometimes have wilted flowers and an empty box of chocolates. Ash Wednesday is a part of something bigger.”

During the morning mass at St. Patrick’s Church, Father Samuel West signalled the beginning of Lent, six weeks of repentance before Easter, and emphasized that “the ashes we received is like a Valentine’s card from God.”

The symbol of the cross, he said, was representative of penitence, veneration, and a reminder that love far surpassed just a romantic holiday.

“This love is much more than just a feeling, it’s an act. It’s wanting the good and happiness of others,” he said.

But the story of Saint Valentine, the patron namesake of the holiday, was characterized by limited historical fact, West said, and a corresponding feast celebrating his martyrdom was removed from the liturgical calendar in the 1960s.

But as the legend goes, Saint Valentine had been imprisoned by the Roman emperor Claudius II in the third century and sent the first Valentine card signed “from your Valentine” to a girl who had visited him in jail.

The DeBruyn’s had sent out cards this year filled with fireplace ash to wish a “Happy Valentine’s Ash Wednesday,” to their family and friends, they said, just as a reminder that love could be celebrated any day of the year.

But for some couples, the apparent vacancy of Valentine’s Day festivities was an opportunity to spend a romantic day of their own design.

At the doorway of Mountain Home Gifts, Karen and Mike Ryan, of San Jose, said they decided to spend the Valentine’s holiday at their vacation home in Twain Harte for a romantic, pastoral departure from city life.

“We’ve always celebrated it, can’t you tell?” Karen Ryan, 71, said, signalling toward her husband’s pastel red sweater before wrapping him in a fond embrace.

“We’re out of the Bay Area. It’s romantic and quaint,” Mike Ryan, 75, said.

Here they had the opportunity to spend the holiday in a way that was out of the ordinary, they said. First would be lunch at Emberz, “Mamma Mia!” at the Sierra Repertory Theatre, and a charming dinner, at home, in Twain Harte.

“That’s something special that we could not do at home. I think that’s really special. You show your love,” she said. “We’ll drink wine, that’s for sure.”

But despite a lack of couples out on Wednesday morning, holiday hallmarks were ubiquitous throughout Sonora.

Outside of the iron gateway on South Washington Street near the Church Street intersection, a lush roadside pop-up adorned with blossoming, verdant bouquets attracted the attention of passersby seeking a flowery token of holiday affection.

“Anytime to get flowers for a loved one is a good time,” said Lisa Rae Siemonsma, 25, of Sonora. “We keep saying happy love day, but it could be every day.”

Siemonsma and Cheyenne Radanovich, 25, of Sonora, owners of Wildbulb Floral Design and Event planning, readily acknowledged the tincture of materialistic obligation that seemed to taint Valentine’s Day for many members of the public.

But the floral arrangements, set with garden roses, red roses, manzanita branches, carnations, ranunculus and quints, represented not just a symbol of love, they said, but a love that was foraged and fostered locally.

“It can be commercialized, but for me and my husband it's another excuse to tell each other how they’re appreciated,” Radanovich said.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.