What remains of St. John Church; right, an early program.
Richard Wurth, OFM
PHOTO BY TONI CASHNELLI
BY TONI CASHNELLI
It began with a promise at a Franciscan parish. It survives because it has meant so much to so many for so long.
“I don’t think we’ll ever make Broadway,” says Dennis Herron, a behind-the-scenes crew member in the current production of The St. John Passion Play. “But that’s not what we’re out to achieve. If we make a difference in one person’s life, that’s what we’re after.”
Dennis is one of about 80 people who each year bring the Gospel to life in local venues by re-enacting the passion and death of Christ. Many have done it for decades. All are part of a remarkable story of faith and dedication.
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The Passion Play is forever linked to St. John Church, closed in 1969, demolished except for the red-brick tower still standing on Republic Street in Over-the-Rhine. With Pastor Richard Wurth as producer, the parish first staged the play in 1917 as a living prayer for its young men serving in World War I. After the last performance, Richard and the cast vowed to present the production each year to ensure God’s protection for the soldiers of the parish.
Promise made, promise kept.
The Pilot scene on stage at St. John’s.This year marks the 99th consecutive season for the play, produced for the last 45 years by lay people who, like Dennis, are so deeply invested they consider it a calling. “It’s got a great message,” he says, “the greatest story ever told.”
For 54 years friars at St. John’s and nearby St. Francis Seraph directed, produced, and promoted the play, “a real Cincinnati institution,” according to Fr. Florian Greve, writing in the Spring 1952 Provincial Chronicle. Although Florian was Director of Publicity, he was not exaggerating. “It was a big deal,” says Fr. Jeremy Harrington, a student at St. Francis Seminary in the 1940s. As many as 13 performances of the Passion Play were staged at St. John during Lent, some for special audiences of Sisters or parochial school children. Groups from Louisville, Dayton and Columbus reserved more than 100 tickets each. “The missionary aspect and Catholic Action possibilities of the Passion Play is evidenced by the attendance of 88 Presbyterians on Palm Sunday,” according to the Chronicle. “They came from all over,” says Fr. Hilarion Kistner. As a teen-ager in the ’40s, “I thought it was wonderful.”
Director Paschal Varnskuhler, left, was assisted by Juvenal Pfalzer; below, Joe Schreck was renowned for his portrayal of Judas.It was known as “Cincinnati’s Own Passion Play”, Florian wrote. “For the past several years, pictures of the Passion Play characters and scenes have been on display for one week each season in the windows of the Fifth Third Union Trust Company at Fourth and Walnut Streets.”
The annual production was “a major episode in our province,” says Fr. Cyprian Berens, who first saw the play in the 1950s. “I know that like the general audience I was moved and that it was spiritually helpful.” Jeremy attended with classmates. “It was inspiring. It was pretty realistic. I know that Paschal Varnskuhler directed it for some years. Alphonse Hoff was in charge of ticket sales. John de Deo Oldegeering played the organ for it. I think the organ music helped intensify the devotional aspect. It was like you were in church, not like a theater.”
On Passion Sunday in 1950 the entire play, three hours long, was televised from St. John’s school auditorium. Requesting permission from the Pope, the friars sent a cablegram to Rome. It began, “Humbly prostrate at the feet of your Holiness…..” Pope Pius XII gave his blessing for the broadcast, responding through the Archbishop of Cincinnati: “Holy Father cordially appreciates devoted prayerful message….” The chief engineer of WCPO TV later told friars, “I think this is one of the best programs we have ever televised.”
Fr. Ricardo Russo was recruited for the play as a youngster. “They came to St. Francis Seraph, where I went to grade school, and they solicited volunteers to set up chairs and things of that nature,” he says. “Then for the people in the 7th and 8th grades they asked if anybody had hairy legs and could portray a Roman soldier. I went over there for the play and worked the chairs and my father did, too. I must have been 6 or 7 years old when I first saw it. I remember that cross as a young boy. I remember they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ It was pretty impressive for a youngster.”
Judy Hughes was “entranced” when she discovered the Passion Play. Now 67, Judy came on board at the age of 12. “It was the most remarkable production I had ever seen in my life.” In the 1960s, “There was a full choir that sang the music and it ended with the Hallelujah Chorus. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was marvelously put together. I knew I had to get involved in it.” After ushering for two years, she moved into acting. “I was a member of the mob in the crowd scenes, the temple scene, the Sermon on the Mount, yelling for Barabbas, all that.”
As the neighborhood evolved, Jeremy says, “St. John went from being a parish and having fewer people to being active in Over-the-Rhine in social work. Then it closed completely” in 1969. What became of the Passion Play? “My vague memory is that the friars felt responsibility for it, so when it closed from St. John’s they wanted to find a place to continue it, so St. Francis Seraph School [two blocks away] was the place.”
Left, Alphonse Hoff sold tickets; below, The Last Supper from the current production; Judy Hughes, below, and right, as Claudia with Jim Bollinger as Pilate.Two years later when the play was again threatened with demise – reportedly bumped by Bingo – Judy and a handful of other cast members stepped in to save it. They formed a nonprofit corporation, The St. John Passion Play Inc., pulled together props and costumes and searched for venues. “There were a couple of years when we did not have a location” for the production, she says, so instead of staging the play, they read it to a small audience to insure continuity. “There were a couple of years when we didn’t have the funds to do it, so we took the money out of our own pockets. We wanted to see it continue. We pitched in and God always provided.”
They have performed the play at the Emory Auditorium downtown, Third Presbyterian Church in Westwood, Mount Notre Dame High School, the Carthage Church of the Nazarene, Saint Augustine Church in Covington. This year performances are Lockland Christian Church and Mount St. Joseph. Once largely a Catholic tradition, it is attracting seekers of all faiths.
Left, Jesus appears before his followers in the Epilogue of The St. John Passion Play; above, Jesus is sentenced.The script has evolved with teaching and the times. “There were significant changes after Vatican II,” Judy says. “We had to do some revamping while still fitting the Scriptures. One of the encyclicals said that in Passion Plays we had to be sensitive in making sure it [the language] wasn’t anti-Semitic.” For less detailed passages from the Bible, such as the Sanhedrin scene, “We take artistic liberty. Of course we have to be careful it’s all true to Scripture.”
In 55 years with the play, “I’ve made costumes, I was a producer for many years, for years I played the role of Claudia, the wife of Pilate,” Judy says. Like many offspring of Passion Play veterans, her daughters have gotten involved. As crew member Dennis says, “It’s just something that gets in you and stays with you.” Director Don Schlosser has been with the play for 29 years. Randy Marksberry has played Jesus for 21 seasons. None of them are professionals. “Some of us are retired now,” Judy says. “We’re looking to turn this over to a younger crowd.”
Some things have changed since 1917 – like advances in sound and high-tech lighting – but sadly, others have not. Each year the play program includes a dedication to the men and women serving in our armed forces around the world.
Why do we still stage Passion plays? For Judy, the answer is obvious. “Is the message that God loved us so much he gave his only son so we might have everlasting life ever going to become irrelevant? I don’t think so. The message of love that is personified in Jesus Christ is as relevant today as when he walked the earth.”
And it still makes for great drama.
(Thanks to Ron Cooper in the Archives for suggesting this story.)
Florian Greve, OFM(Florian Greve wrote about the origins of the St. John Passion Play for the Spring 1952 edition of the Provincial Chronicle,)
BY FR. FLORIAN GREVE, OFM
The year 1917 clings to every memory with fingers of steel. A world war ravaged Europe, making a shambles of once idyllic French villages, and cutting down the flower of the world’s youth like so much unwanted hay. Red stars, hanging in the windows of thousands of homes, testified mutely to the number of “our boys” who had gone “over there.” Gold stars told silently and eloquently of those who would never come back.
Those were days of curtailed food rations … newspapers with sensational black headlines … hysterical propaganda … broken hearts … and unseen tears.
Terrible days, tragic and dark.…
And, out of them, like a glowing, golden ray of light, came the Passion Play, turning men’s minds from the brutality of war to the crucified Christ, Prince of Peace.
Under Father Richard Wurth, then Pastor of St. John Church, the Passion Play was first produced in those war torn Lenten days of 1917. It has continued uninterruptedly, every year since.
From its inception, down to the present day, the presentation of this biblical pageant recording the sufferings and death of the Divine Redeemer has been strictly a parish undertaking, all of the 200 participating in cast, chorus, and the other work incidental to the play, being present and former members of St. John Church. Pursuing the expressed wish of its first founder, the Passion Play has ever sought to aid the needy in the parish, all revenue realized being turned over to charitable and educational purposes.
What the late Father Richard so enthusiastically began 34 years ago has been loyally carried on by his successors.
– The Provincial Chronicle Vol. XXIV, No. 3
If you go
There’s still time to see this year’s production of The St. John Passion Play.
There is no charge for admission. Free-will donations are accepted at the end of each performance to support the play.
Bernardine Dusch, CPPHOTO BY COSTELLO STUDIOSThe playwright behind “Cincinnati’s Own Passion Play” wasn’t a Cincinnatian. He wasn’t a friar, either.
The play performed at St. John Church starting in 1917 was written by Passionist priest Bernardine Dusch (1859-1931), a native New Yorker who was pastor of Immaculata Church in Mt. Adams from 1901-1904. According to Passionist Historical Archives at the University of Scranton, Fr. Dusch wrote the play in 1910 and titled it Veronica’s Veil, named for the woman who gave the suffering Christ her veil to wipe the blood from his face. A program from St. John’s 1920 production in Cincinnati shows it was re-titled Veronica or The Holy Face and lists the playwright as “Rev. Fr. Bernardine, C.P.”
Known for his work among the sick and the poor in Baltimore, Md., Mexico, and Hoboken, N.J., Fr. Dusch was “very popular in the West” because he was fluent in German and Spanish. Dogged by ill health, he spent his last years as a hospital chaplain in Pittsburgh.
Of the Passion Play, a 1953 biography says, “It was produced for the first time in St. Michaels Auditorium in Union City, New Jersey” in either 1913 or 1915 (accounts differ) and ran for 86 seasons. “It is the Premier Passion Play of America and it has been viewed by thousands of people with admiration and satisfying results of Fr. Bernardine’s devotion and energy to this wonderful cause.”
– Toni Cashnelli
Sunday is Passion Sunday, and with singing “hosanna” and processing with palm branches we remember the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. I have always liked the rituals of this day and the dynamic of “entering.”ﾠ Gathering in a different space and processing into church jars me just a bit, enough to remind me that during this Holy Week we too enter into a sacred time, a sacred process.ﾠ Jesus invites us to walk with him on the way of the cross.ﾠ This week we share a death.ﾠ I am reminded of the sacred and privileged times that I have spent with people who are in the dying process. I am so profoundly touched by people who share that sacred moment with me. They may or may not be aware of my presence. They are in the process of a passing over, experiencing a transitus, but something happens to me as I sit by their side, watching, waiting, praying. It is a clarifying time.ﾠ I am more aware of the important things, of mystery.ﾠ Blessings on your entry into this sacred time!
— Fr. Jeff Scheeler, OFM
BY FR. LUIS APONTE-MERCED, OFM, and FR. LARRY ZUREK, OFM
Attending the weekend were (clockwise from top left): Matthew Ryan, Evaristo Gomez and Tyler Thompson. The Vocation Office coordinated a recent Come and See Weekend in Detroit from Sept. 11-13, 2016. Three prospective candidates attended the event. The weekend began on Friday afternoon at Transfiguration Friary in Southfield with evening prayer. The attendees joined the friars at the Fish Fry sponsored by Transfiguration Friary, then spent time sharing their discernment and vocation stories.
Saturday morning began with Eucharist followed by a visit to the pantry ministry at Transfiguration Parish. The candidates then transferred to Duns Scotus Friary to visit the Postulancy House. Fr. Mark Soehner and Fr. Alex Kratz gave a presentation of the Postulancy and initial formation programs. After lunch Br. Michael Radomski took the candidates on a tour of the downtown Detroit area to see and have a street ministry experience. Their tour ended at St. Aloysius Church where Fr. Loren Connell gave them a tour of the parish.
During Saturday evening they celebrated Evening Prayer followed by a Holy Hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The evening ended with a social where the friars, postulants and candidates had a chance to dialogue and got to know each other.
Sunday morning the Vocation Team [Larry and Luis] conducted individual interviews. The morning ended with celebration of the Eucharist followed by lunch. The Come and See was very successful. The three candidates have been invited to begin their application process for the Postulancy.
Matthew Ryan is a 44-year-old lawyer from Kentucky. He works as a Public Defender in Covington, Ky. He is a member of St. Xavier Parish in Cincinnati where he is a Choir member. Evaristo Gomez is a 23-year-old from Hawaii and currently resides in Oregon. He is a firefighter working with the U.S. Forest Service. Tyler Thompson is a 22-year-old from Cincinnati and is a senior at Thomas More College majoring in Theology and Philosophy.
Another Come and See may be conducted during the end of March or early April. Please keep these men and our men in formation in your prayers.
Greg Friedman, OFM
Tim Lamb, OFM
Image of St. Patrick at Cathedral from Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, Calif.
“Nice day, nice, crowd and nice income,” Fr. Jim Bok wrote following last Sunday’s Harvest Mass and celebration in Negril, Jamaica. Attendance was so good they had to set up an overflow tent outside Mary Gate of Heaven Church. “We netted $750,000…ah, that’s Jamaican,” Jim says. “That would be about $6,250 in U.S. dollars. Best ever.” Photos show children with harvest baskets for the offertory procession, the crowded church, and coconuts harvested from the back yard at MGH.
PHOTOS BY JIM BOK, OFM
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