At 12:01 A.M. each year on
Good Friday in Cincinnati,
Ohio, something extraordinary
happens. People begin
to gather at the base of
the steps leading up to Holy Cross-Immaculata Church in Mt. Adams,
preparing to take part in the tradition
known locally as "Praying the Steps."
But it's not just a Cincinnati tradition
anymore. In fact, according to the parish's
Web site (www.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
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
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.
Holy Cross-Immaculata's Web site (www.hciparish.org) offers these suggestions for
Praying the Steps. (They can also be applied
to other settings.)
• Pray the Rosary. Pray a Hail Mary
on each step leading up to the church.
• Pray another favorite prayer of your own.
• Pray on each step, "Lord Jesus, thank you
for your most holy sacrifice."
• Reflect on the events of Jesus' betrayal,
arrest, persecution and crucifixion.
• Read the Gospel of Luke from the beginning
of Chapter 22 through Chapter 23,
reading a few sentences on each step.
• Simply pray in your own words,
talking and listening to God.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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."
Many of the photos in this article
are contained in the book The Mount
Adams Steps: 150 Years of Good Friday
Pilgrimage to Immaculata, available