Friday, April 18, 2003

Priest vows to preserve tradition of steps on Good Friday - quietly

Cliff Radel's Cincinnati


Eighty-five steps. Eighty-five prayers.

They measure the annual Good Friday pilgrimage of the Rev. Stan Neiheisel.

At the stroke of midnight, as Holy Thursday turns into Good Friday, Neiheisel blesses the concrete steps from the street below to his sanctuary, Holy Cross-Immaculata Church atop Mount Adams.

[IMAGE] The Rev. Stan Neiheisel has been pastor of Holy Cross-Immaculata Church atop Mount Adams since 1996.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
After the blessing, he begins his climb. One step, one prayer at a time.

"Going up can be tough," he said. "But not when you're saying a prayer on each step."

This year, he might single out a step and stop to say a prayer for his aching spine. He's recovering from back surgery.

He won't be praying alone.

"Last year, we had 150 people waiting to climb the steps at midnight," he said.

"The church is open 24 hours, from midnight to midnight. We average between 8,000 and 12,000 people on Good Friday, to commemorate the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus."

They come to the church of the steps in good times and bad, during war and peace, in snow, sleet, rain and sunshine, in sickness and in health.

Cincinnatians have been spending a portion of Good Friday praying on the steps leading to this church since 1861.

Two years earlier, the faithful had begun making periodic treks to the site. Archbishop John Purcell had a cross erected on the grounds after he chose the spot for a hilltop church to serve the area's German-speaking Catholics. He wanted a commanding view of what was, in 1859, the sixth-largest city in the United States.

Back then, Mount Adams was a barren hill about to be transformed from a rural to an urban setting.

Disease was wiping out Nicholas Longworth's hillside vineyards. His grapes had produced a world-renowned sparkling catawba wine. Longfellow had gushed over the hometown vintage in a celebrated 1854 poem, crowning Cincinnati as "the Queen of the West."

Made of limestone carved from Mount Adams' hillsides, the house of worship was then known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Dedicated Dec. 9, 1860, the structure marked its first Good Friday in 1861.

At that time, no horse-drawn buses or inclines went to the summit of Mount Adams. If people wanted to go to church, they climbed the stairs. Since the steps were steep and the crowds heavy, many pilgrims paused on their journey.

The steps became associated with the stations of the cross in the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Eventually, people started praying on every step, establishing a tradition unique to Cincinnati.

"We know of no other city in America that does this," Neiheisel said. "There is a church in Italy that has a tradition of praying on the steps. But it is not a Good Friday tradition."

This tradition has been passed down from family to family and even across faiths. But not always across town.

Neiheisel was born and raised in Cincinnati. But he never climbed the steps on Good Friday until 1996.

"I'm a Bridgetown boy," he explained. "In Cincinnati, west siders are west siders. East siders are east siders. Neither cross Vine Street."

That north-south artery acts as the city's Sauerkraut Curtain separating east and west sides and their citizens, many still loaded with German blood. Passage across Vine is guaranteed by passport, marrying someone from the other side of town or by faith.

A priest's calling brought Neiheisel to Mount Adams in the spring of 1996. He had just received a new assignment. He was leaving All Saints Church in Kenwood.

"I had just been appointed to take over Holy Cross-Immaculata," he said. "So I thought I had to walk the steps on Good Friday."

The experience moved him deeply. His big, deep voice still resonates with emotion when he talks about it.

"I knew I was going to be a part of this tradition," he said. "It was going to be my job to keep it in existence, to help it touch people's hearts.''

He tries to keep the Good Friday ritual in its proper perspective.

"I know it is a huge event," he said. But he intends to keep it extremely low-key. No band plays. No choir sings. There are none of the bells and whistles typically associated with such a storied and well-attended event.

The Good Friday walk of the steps draws enough people to fill three Music Halls or a city the size of Cheviot.

From 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., the church serves coffee, doughnuts, milk and juice. A fish fry goes from 3 to 7 p.m.

"The older members tell stories of a parishioner who used to sell pea soup to the faithful," Neiheisel said.

"Gallons and gallons of the green stuff were sold. Now, there's just coffee and doughnuts and fish. No soup."

And no noise.

"It's very quiet on the steps," he said. "It brings peace to people. All you hear is the shuffling of feet going up the steps."

One more prayer

Before he blesses the steps, before he opens the church's aged wooden doors of white ash anchoring windows of leaded glass, Neiheisel prays silently:

"Lord be with me. Be with the people who are here today praying to your glory."

Then he goes down the steps.

On the way back up, he prays "for what I need and what the church needs."

The church needs repairs. A routine inspection in the summer of 2002 found that the building's roof and walls had shifted. The parish council launched a $500,000 fund drive.

"Most of the work is done," Neiheisel noted. "We've already raised $450,000."

A good portion of those donations came from people who have prayed the steps on Good Friday.

The parish priest has received many letters, which read something like this:

"I am donating this money because when I was a youngster my grandmother used to have me walk up the steps with her.

"Now, I'm a grandmother and my grandchildren are walking up the steps with me on Good Friday and are praying with me."

Father Neiheisel wants to preserve that family tradition. He knows that at this time of year so many traditions, public and private, sacred and secular, have gone by the wayside. Easter parades. Easter egg hunts. Family dinners at home. Time in quiet reflection on the season's meaning.

So, when he walks the steps, he just might say another prayer.

May this tradition continue. Forever.

Cliff Radel, a west-side native, writes about the people, places and things that define his hometown.


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