Praying the Steps: An Historical Understanding of the Passionists at Holy Cross-Immaculata Church on Mt. Adams, Cincinnati, Ohio
From Interview of Father Richard Parks, C.P. by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
In 1975 I spent my summer in Cincinnati, Ohio. While I participated in the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center I had the opportunity to live at Holy Cross Monastery on Mt. Adams. This Passionist monastery had been built in the 1870s and overlooked the entire city of Cincinnati. I especially enjoyed walking through the narrow streets of Mt. Adams. On Sundays I went up to what was known as Holy Cross-Immaculata Parish. At that time Father Joe Van Leeuwen, C.P. was the pastor. Right from start he and the local people on Mt. Adams proudly talked about “making the steps.” Even though the Passionists closed Holy Cross Monastery in 1976 and returned Holy Cross-Immaculata Parish to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1996 I came to understand that this long time Holy Week devotion held a special place of reverence among Passionists of Holy Cross Province. Since Father Richard Parks, C.P. was the last pastor of Holy Cross-Immaculata I interviewed him on June 28, 2006 in Sierra Madre, California. Specifically, I asked him to share his reflections on this unique Mt. Adams devotion—making the steps. The following summary is based upon that interview.
First impression: Mt. Adams:
It didn’t take any Passionist very long to hear about “praying the steps” at Mt. Adams. It was a long tradition. Locals also called it “making the steps.” Born in 1937, Father Richard Parks, C.P. professed his Passionist vows in 1963. Prior to his ordination in 1970 Father Parks resided at Holy Cross Monastery while he had the opportunity to study psychology for two summers at the University of Cincinnati. Adjacent to Holy Cross Monastery was Holy Cross Parish. Since the mid 1800s it had been home to Irish Catholics on Mt. Adams. Father Parks recalls that it was also home to some fifty Italian Catholic families. Several blocks away was Immaculata Parish where generations of German Catholics had gathered to worship.
By the 1960s the bohemian atmosphere of Mt. Adams attracted numerous visitors. As a result Father Parks remembered that he found walking around the narrow streets engaging. Sometimes, he took the opportunity to wear his Passionist religious habit. He was able to do this on Mt. Adams because many people recognized the garb. The Passionists were well-known and considered part of the hill culture. On the other hand, wearing the habit on streets in other parts of the Cincinnati would have raised a good many eyebrows. Those two summers when he studied in Cincinnati and lived on Mt. Adams allowed him to meet third and fourth generations of Catholics who had lived there, although the 1960s was also the same time that the number of long time Catholic families on the hill began to decline.
A standard topic of conversation in the 1960s—and later in the 1990s when Father Parks was assigned as pastor at Holy Cross-Immaculata—was how easy Catholics on Mt Adams were willing to discuss the Holy Week devotion of making the steps. Whether the people were fallen away Catholics or active Catholics the event of faith was very much a cornerstone of their “very strong but simple spirituality.”
Making the Steps, A Dependable Ritual:
As pastor, Father Parks remembered that he followed an established devotional procedure or horarium that drew people into participation. Just before midnight on Holy Thursday he arrived at Holy Cross-Immaculata Church. Two acolytes joined him at that time directly outside the front door of the church which faced out over the quiet night lights of Cincinnati. One acolyte carried a procession cross. The other carried holy water. Together they walked down the one hundred and twenty-five steps to the street below. There a prayer service took place. “There would be, probably, a five-minute reflection in terms of what we’re about and what we were going to be doing for the next twenty-four hours. I tried” recalled Father Parks “to tie it in spiritually with Christ’s love for us.”
Father Parks was inspired by what happened next. About two hundred or three hundred people had gathered below and almost all would follow him and the acolytes back up the steps as they said the Rosary. Each step Father Parks remembers how he would “stop to say a Hail Mary or an Our Father and the people would recite that with me. But I would go up about 50 to 70 steps and look back, and what started out as three hundred people would be five or six hundred.” By the time he was at the top of the church entrance once again he found “there could be eight or nine hundred people there. And again, all ages. This was not just an old timers nostalgia spirituality of the past. There were a lot of young people. A lot of families.” The whole Holy Thursday ritual took about one hour. And it took place whether “there were snow flurries or a heavy rain, but, honest to God, every year, the people would be there at the bottom of the steps. And that would continue for twenty-four hours.” It ended at midnight on Good Friday. One of the more memorable moments was his going into the Holy Cross-Immaculata Church sanctuary where in silence he “could hear the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers. And they would come in, and they would start passing that along. So, once the priest was in the church, there were laity who would continue to recite the decades of the Rosary, and so forth.” Even in the late 1970s or in the 1980s there was a whole segment of the pilgrims that would start praying the steps down at the Ohio River. That was where “the old timers” started to pray the steps. The steps from the Ohio River up to the front door of the church was close to four hundred steps. In all the years that he was there Father Parks never recalls using a microphone system outside. He could always count on the strong voice of those making the steps to maintain the ritual of prayer.
As I listened to Father Parks my historical intuition made me come to the quick conclusion that this was essentially a Rosary Devotion. He agreed but then offered insights on the storied history of making the steps that made me realize that there was and still is so much yet to learn about this Mt Adams, Cincinnati devotion. Like so many aspects of Passionist history in the United States it could easily become the topic of a Ph.D. dissertation.
General belief is that Immaculata parish was built by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. It is said that when Archbishop John Baptist Purcell was returning home from the First Vatican Council in 1870 he got caught in a terrible storm. In the midst of riding out that storm he promised Our Blessed Mother, if he survived, that he would build a shrine in her name. While Father Parks thinks there is a grain of truth to this, he also stated that it is important to remember that priests of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati actually staffed Immaculata for ten years before the Passionists arrived on the scene in 1871. In fact, when they did arrive one of the stipulations was that their being given permission to build a monastery on Mt. Adams was dependent on their willingness to staff Immaculata parish. It probably was helpful that some of the early Passionists had experience with German immigrants on the South Side of Pittsburgh at St. Michael’s Parish so ministering to Germans at Immaculata Church would have been a suitable transfer of assignment.
Father Parks told me that while the church actually owned the steps property it was, as far as he knew, the city of Cincinnati that had built the cement steps circa 1910. He then added another interesting caveat. He believes that there is also a story that making the steps might have had its origins just prior to the Civil War in 1861. This is backed up by old newspapers—some of which were anti-Catholic—that described the Good Friday devotion in the late 1800s. Other information was found in parish archives or commented upon in journals from parishioners that lived at Immaculata or Holy Cross at the time. One thought behind this was that there was a common sense of prayer on the part of the local people to avert the Civil War. They “would begin to come up the hill to pray even as they were just building Immaculata Church. And so, the foundations were laid. But, there were many times in the three to five years to build the church that, either Holy Week or during Lent, Catholics would begin to come up that dirt path, up the hill. And then, of course, there was wooden steps put in at one point. And we had the tram, which was from downtown Cincinnati.” It came up to the top of Mt. Adams about three blocks from Immaculata. A focal point was the huge crucifix that stood outside the church for many years. “And that is still there today, and people would pay their respect there before they would go into the church on Good Friday.”
Neither did Father Parks underestimate the fact that the whole devotion of praying the steps probably allowed the German Catholics to remember their pilgrim homeland devotions in Bavaria. It was a kind of local religious festival where “as immigrants they would feel as if they were at home; transference of an immigrant culture into a modern culture.” Over the years he remembered visitors from Europe feeling very much at home when they prayed the steps.
The more that Father Parks reflected on this historic devotion of making the steps the more that it became apparent that the Passionists had become identified with it for two reasons. First and foremost had been the fact that the Passionists had been synonymous with Holy Cross-Immaculata even though they did leave the parish on Mt. Adams in 1996. Given their century old time on the hill, it was only natural that anyone growing up there would think of the Passionist connection to making the steps even if it proved true that they had inherited the tradition. But the second reason is all important as well. The Passionists considered this Holy Thursday to Good Friday devotion not to be a burden since the founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775), desired to promote an understanding of the healing and redemptive ministry of Jesus through his death and resurrection. In fact, this devotion was a perfect fit into dynamics of Passionist spirituality.
Part of the strength of making the steps was that pilgrims did not end their devotion at Immaculata. Again Father Parks: “And then they would trek up to Holy Cross Church. [They went to] ‘The Grotto’. And they would go down there to pray as well. So, it would be to Immaculata, be refreshed, and then they would continue up to Holy Cross Church, and down underneath the monastery was ‘The Grotto.’ And, supposedly, there were many miracles and cures of people. There were, you know, literally hundreds of crutches….and that’s really how I think the people, especially in the metropolitan area of Cincinnati, came to know and love the Passionists.” Father Parks thought that “probably 90 percent, at least, were Catholic. They would come from northern Kentucky; the metropolitan area of Cincinnati; as far away as Cleveland, Ohio; as far south as Nashville [Tennessee]. Each year, those families that would come would check in. We would have coffee and donuts for them and for all who prayed the steps over that twenty-four hour period.”
An Experience of Ministry:
Without a doubt Father Parks came to find making the steps a personal spiritual experience for himself. “What I really enjoyed were people especially who were making it for the first time or wanted to introduce their family who had been praying the steps for forty years. And just mingling with people, especially during the daytime hours out in the area next to the Church. I loved that. That was very challenging.” While it was true that he ran across several people who were intoxicated or had the evangelical urge to do their own street preaching in the middle of the devotion there is no mistaking the fact that the opportunity to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation through hearing confessions was a grace given and received. He told how there were at least three confessionals in Immaculata Church itself that were set up especially for the devotion. Sometimes two were set up in the office area of the rectory, which was attached to Immaculata. He found “the quality of the confessions during that twenty-four hours was absolutely astounding to me. In terms of real traditional spirituality that has meaning, [that is] in terms of the sacrament itself, is that more people came to confession with what I would call really serious sins than any other time in my thirty six years or thirty seven years of ministry as a Passionist priest. In terms of being reconciled with the Lord, there was something about the death of Christ the Cross on that Good Friday that evoked or challenged them to maybe get right with the Lord. And, I mean, I had to go to the theology books on more than one occasions on terms of how to handle this or what to do. But, you know, it was all about the love of Christ.”
All the activity meant that Father Parks had only about three hours sleep during the entire twenty-four hour period. “I wanted to be out among the people, and I’m so glad that I had two wonderful Passionists living with me: Father Conleth [Overman] and Father Faustinus [Moran]. They were out as well in their [Passionist] habits. I’ll tell you, that combination was really uplifting. What a way to really get ready for Easter.” Most compelling for Father Parks was the how he came to see the people get “in touch with the Lord through that experience, and many of them would come back the next year, the year after and [would say], ‘You won’t remember me Father…you turned my life around.’ And I would be quick to amend that, ‘Christ turned your life around. I happened to be there standing in the way to be able to help, maybe.’ Yeah, the relevancy of Paul of the Cross’ insight: it’s the passion, suffering, and death and resurrection that makes or breaks us in terms of who we are as disciples of Jesus. Absolutely true.”
One of the more challenging dimensions of the whole event was the intense publicity surrounding the making the steps. “The years that I was there, there would be several television stations—local, and from northern Kentucky across the [Ohio] River.” They would send film crews to cover the event. “And even on certain days, on Good Friday, some of the affiliates would put this into the national [coverage]. ABC, especially, covered [it]. [They] would have coverage of that, or a clip on it: the blessing of the steps before the procession up the steps right at midnight. So, I was hearing from people that I knew from all over the country: ‘Richard, we saw you on TV.'” All this generated a lot of interest in making the steps which meant a good number of letters were sent to the parish as well. In turn this led to donations to the church. It was all the result of good publicity at the beginning of the blessing of the steps on Holy Thursday.
Father Parks came to understand how to deal with the press. He had to pay attention to radio and television reporters. They would come with a camera or microphone that was “six inches from your face.” As time went on he realized that many of the reporters were going to ask “dumb questions.” That was because they knew “diddly about Catholicism or very little about Christ.” All in all the publicity was worthwhile even if it was at times a challenge.
Father Parks suggests that in his time he found the parish council planned for the Holy Week devotion very aware that making the steps was a long spiritual tradition in its own right that also reflected upon and was aided by a rich Passionist tradition. To that end, a decision was made to make available “a lot of literature. Passionist in origin and Catholic by its nature.” There was also a strong desire not to overly commercialize making the steps. For instance, a decision was made “that baskets were put at the front entrance of the church and maybe around the two shrines within the church itself. And I never paid much attention to that, but I found out in terms of our accounting department there in the parish that we would gather several thousand dollars in that twenty-four hour period. We wouldn’t pass the basket; they were out for anybody who wanted to [contribute].” While the parish bulletin did publish the amount of money that was taken in it did not keep names for any type of mass bulk mailing.
In part this may have been due to the fact that so many people wished to volunteer to make the devotion work. A kind of parish family emerged that went even beyond the regular weekly parish members. Father Parks often met people who were delighted to say that they had been volunteers for over forty years. In fact, it was not uncommon for the parish to have priests, deacons, or even leaders of other faiths call on the phone and offer to lead part of the prayer services that went on till people stopped coming up the steps at midnight on Good Friday. One Lutheran pastor even had a large group attend. In almost every case, the pilgrims knew the ritual themselves. “They knew where to start. It was a tradition. Again, with all the publicity, people knew where to start praying the steps. Some would say loud the Rosary. Some would bring Scripture and read passages from Scripture. Some would come up on their knees. Most would come up, of course, on their feet [walking], especially the older people. They,” said Parks “would have groups from different parishes. Kids would get out of school, and the sisters or the pastor or parents would bring them. Oftentimes, we would have groups of 55 or 65 grade school kids. And, again, this was a tradition: their parents had done that at their age, and they were passing it on to the next generation.”
People would sometimes come in buses as a group to pray. Of course this meant grid lock surrounded the church area. On Good Friday from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. there was a communion service. It became apparent that there were many Protestants who were in attendance as they remained seated when communion was distributed. Overall, the ecumenical participation was a powerful source of faith for everyone who made the steps.
Due to restructuring of ministerial priorities the Passionists did leave Mt. Adams in 1996. Father Parks knew this difficult choice had to be made even if it was a very sad day for him, other Passionists, and so many people on Mt. Adams. Still, he is able to look back and see that Cincinnati provided him with a positive experience of ministry especially as it pertained to the steps. The purpose of praying the steps or making the steps allowed them to see the living Passion, their living Passion. They reconnected with their faith as they made the steps.
To this day, Father Parks thinks the “grace of Jesus Christ is being present on those steps.” People made the steps at peace or sometimes when they were angry. In any case, he came to see that “the participation of praying the steps allowed them to really see a participation in the living passion, to name their living passion.”