When the faithful made the first Good Friday pilgrimage up the steps to the Immaculata Church, the building itself was only a year old. Far below, the city of Cincinnati was preparing to send its young men off to the Civil War.
Since that first ascent in 1861, every Good Friday, thousands have journeyed up the steep hill to the neighborhood of Mount Adams. Here they make their way up the steps to the church, pausing at each step to say one prayer of the Rosary, slowly making their way up to the church crowned with a statue of Mary.
Now the old stone church is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Last year a number of improvements were completed to be ready for the celebration. The steps themselves, suffering under harsh weather, had not been refurbished since 1955 and were deteriorating. Contractors raced the calendar to complete the project, finishing just in time for the Good Friday tradition. Further, the bells in the church steeple that have been a landmark for the city for a century and a half had worn out. Once again, right on time for the annual pilgrimage, the new bells were installed.
The Good Friday tradition of slowly ascending the steps in prayer, like the angels on Jacob’s ladder, was once more involved than it is today. In the second half of the 19th century, the annual ritual involved a visit to not one but two churches. After ascending the steps and praying in the Immaculata, the pilgrim would then walk two blocks north to the Church of the Holy Cross. Here, the penitent would continue the ritual, which included descending beneath the church to venerate the relics of a Roman martyr.
Immaculata was originally a church built for the German population of Mount Adams, nearby Holy Cross for the Irish. It is said that Archbishop John B. Purcell made a vow to build the church on Cincinnati’s highest spot after he had been saved from a storm at sea. On Dec. 9, 1860, he celebrated the first Mass there.
The tradition of the Good Friday ascent has continued uninterrupted in times of both depression and prosperity. But after a few generations, both parish groups lost some of their ethnic identity. In 1970 Holy Cross Church was closed and combined with nearby Immaculata to form the Holy Cross-Immaculata Church of today.
There will be a number of events to celebrate the anniversary, including a choral concert on May 23. There will also be a special Mass celebrated by new Archbishop Dennis Schnurr on the actual anniversary date.
Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, who retired late last year, was present last year to welcome penitents and usher in the improvements. He rang the bells for the first time and blessed the steps, saying: “Over the centuries God has made it his practice to be in touch with his people on the mountain top. The Ten Commandments were given to the children of Israel on Mount Sinai. The basic teachings of Jesus were proclaimed in the sermon on the mount …
“I believe that in some way or another, we all feel the need to reach out to God wherever God may be found. These renovated steps remind us of the accessibility of the Lord and invite us to reach up to him.
“May God bless all those who have made the climbing and the reaching possible.”
Steven J. Rolfes writes from Ohio.