But it's not just a Cincinnati tradition anymore. In fact, according to the parish's Web site (hciparish.org), it is the only pilgrimage of its kind in the world, and people from around the world are taking part in it.
Father Martin Moran, pastor of Holy Cross-Immaculata, told St. Anthony Messenger that, thanks to Cincinnati's international airport and international businesses, the parish is seeing visitors from as far away as Germany, Italy and China, among other international destinations.
By midnight on Good Friday, 8,000 to 10,000 people will have taken part in this ritual that recalls Christ's journey to Calvary. This year marks the 150th anniversary of both the parish and the tradition.
I took part in Praying the Steps for the first time last year with my father and two of my children—Maddie, age 11, and Alex, seven. My dad, who grew up not far from the parish, has climbed these steps for years as part of his Good Friday devotion. In fact, if you mention this trek to just about any Catholic in Cincinnati, he or she will have a story to tell. The tradition spans generations and age groups.
Last year was also Father Moran's first experience of the tradition. He was named pastor just days before Good Friday and decided to take part incognito so he could see what this Praying the Steps was all about.
He was amazed by the quietness and prayerfulness that surrounded him. He was also struck by the fact that "there were still 350-plus people at midnight on Good Friday."
Pointing out that it can take up to an hour and a half to make it up the steps, Father Moran believes that says a lot "in an age of no patience."
A Tradition Is Born
Credit for the tradition rests solely on the shoulders of Cincinnati's first archbishop, John J. Purcell. He built the Church of the Immaculata to fulfill a promise he had made to the Virgin Mary while sailing back from Rome. The ship encountered a terrible storm at sea and the archbishop promised that, if he survived, he would build a church to honor Mary in Mt. Adams, Cincinnati's highest hill, which overlooks the city from the east.
He did survive, and in 1859, Archbishop Purcell stayed true to his word and laid the cornerstone for the church. He purchased the land, donated the stone and personally supervised construction of the church from start to finish. Some reports say he gave $10,000 of his own money to fund the project.
During the process, he asked local Catholics to pray for the success of the project. And they did, by walking up the hill on a dirt path toward the church's construction site, to check on the progress and pray at a wooden cross that had been erected. Thus, the tradition known to generations of Cincinnatians as the Praying of the Steps was born.
The church, which served the area's German-speaking immigrants, was successfully completed and dedicated by Archbishop Purcell on December 9, 1860. Shortly after, crude wooden steps were constructed to make it easier for Catholics to make the climb to the church.
More than 100 years later, Immaculata Parish welcomed members of nearby Holy Cross Parish, which had been established in 1873 to serve the Irish residents of Mt. Adams. The church was then renamed Holy Cross- Immaculata Parish, as it is still known today.
Back in 1911, the City of Cincinnati had helped the church build concrete steps. Since then, the steps have been rebuilt twice, once in 1958 and again in 2008, when the steps underwent a yearlong renovation.
On April 9, 2009, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk blessed the new steps restored and donated by the City of Cincinnati. Following the dedication, the archbishop also blessed the original church bells, which were restored by the Verdin Bell Company, and which rang for the first time in over a year.
A Prayerful Experience
As my family and I made our way up the steps to the church last year, what struck me was the absolute silence of the crowd. The only sounds were falling rain and chirping birds. And, despite the steady rain, neither crowds nor moods seemed dampened.
Halfway to the top, a man tapped me on the shoulder and offered me his umbrella for my children, Maddie and Alex, who were dripping wet. When we reached the top, I handed it back to him, and before I could even say thank you or ask his name, he disappeared into the church.
What touched Father Moran during his first experience of the tradition, he recalls, was seeing the number of groups of people taking part together. He recounts seeing multigenerational families, groups of ladies, doctors, seminarians and people coming after work in suits and scrubs. Many come at set times each year, he has learned.
A Personal Journey
As for how the steps are prayed, each person's experience was different. Some people held rosaries, others grasped prayer books. Many simply moved forward, heads bowed in prayer. Alex said a Hail Mary on every step and an Our Father on the landings—the only two prayers he really knew at the time—because that is how my dad was taught to do it growing up.
There is also no correct starting point. Most people begin just down the hill from the church on St. Gregory Street in the heart of Mt. Adams. But others begin all the way at the bottom of the hill near Columbia Parkway, a more formidable hike to the top.
That's what youth ministers Wayne and Marianne Topp did, along with members of their youth group from Our Lady of Victory on the city's West Side.
The group, which included three other adults, gathered at midnight on Holy Thursday at the base of Mt. Adams and spent about two hours making their way up the hill and into the church.
Topp says that for him, taking part in the tradition meant "giving the kids an experience of the Catholic faith that many of them had never seen before.
"On top of that, Praying the Steps signifies for me Christ's journey toward Calvary. And in a very powerful way, through the tiredness and prayers, I feel spiritually connected to him."
Nor is there any set way to end the journey. At the top of the steps, some participants stop to take in the view overlooking the city, the Ohio River and the banks of nearby Northern Kentucky on the other side. Others stop at a replica of the wooden crucifix that originally greeted those who climbed the hill to the church. The original, which was damaged by vandals in the 1930s, was repaired and now is kept inside the church.
And many make their way into the church, to pray the Stations of the Cross or simply sit quietly in the pews. At 2:00 and 7:30 p.m., the Good Friday Liturgy of the Passion/Veneration of the Cross is celebrated. The one thing the parish does not do on Good Friday, however, is sell things.
"We want it to be a prayerful day," says Father Moran. The parish does have plenty of items to give away, though, such as rosaries, prayer books and Bibles, thanks to donations from vendors.
Prior to the 1970 closing of Holy Cross Parish, Catholics would continue on to that church's grotto, which was dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, and there receive a vial of holy water (a tradition Father Moran hopes to revive) as the final stop on their Good Friday pilgrimage. A former Holy Cross member donated the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes to Holy Cross-Immaculata Parish, where the original shrine has been reconstructed.
A Continuing Tradition
Father Moran says he thinks the draw of the tradition is that it keeps people connected with the faith. The parish "has always been a landmark of the faith," he says. While Cincinnati may be known as the Queen City of the West (a historical title), the church stands as a representation of Mary as queen of the city, as Archbishop Purcell intended.
Father Moran hopes the example of the tradition challenges other parishes to ask what they have to offer for the local community. Citing declining numbers in other areas of the faith, such as dwindling Mass attendance and the number of parishes closing, he notes that this long-standing tradition continues to thrive.
"The numbers aren't going down," he says. "The tradition continues."