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, preparing to take part in the tradition known locally as “Praying the Steps.”
The Good Friday Pilgrimage
During the construction of Immaculata Church, Archbishop Purcell had a large wooden cross erected on the site. Catholics flocked to the cross, prayed for the completion of Immaculata and wore a path up the hill. To ease their journey, Purcell built wooden steps in 1860. When Immaculata was completed, people continued to use the wooden steps and began praying as they ascended. Good Friday became a special day of prayer on the steps but the exact beginning of the Good Friday Pilgrimage is unknown. It seems to be something that spontaneously occurred and grew. The earliest mention of the pilgrimage in Immaculata Church records is 1873 but it likely began before then. Immaculata became known as the Church of the Steps and the pilgrimage was known as “making the steps” or “praying up the steps.”
The wooden steps were replaced by the City of Cincinnati in 1911 (they were a public thoroughfare and the City was responsible for their maintenance). The new steps, 108 in number, were reinforced concrete. Most people began their ascent of the steps at St. Gregory Street, prayed to the top of the steps and paused at the foot of the Wayside Crucifix located to the right of the entrance to Immaculata. After praying at the foot of the crucifix, they went inside and prayed in the church. They then departed by the side door, walked two blocks west to Holy Cross Church and visited the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in the Holy Cross basement where they received a bottle of Lourdes Holy Water. They then proceeded upstairs and prayed in the church at Holy Cross. The entire journey often lasted three hours. Some pilgrims began their journey at the foot of Mt. Adams on Eastern Avenue (now Riverside Drive), crossed Columbia Parkway on a pedestrian bridge, continued upward to Hill Street and then to the bottom of the Immaculata steps and on up to the church. There are reports of participants praying the steps on their knees.
The passing of time and the effect of the weather led to the construction of a third set of steps in 1958. The City of Cincinnati again built and paid for the steps. They were constructed of concrete and contained 85 steps and three landings. The pilgrimage was shortened in 1970 when Holy Cross Church and the Grotto were closed.
The late Father Conlith Overman, a Mt. Adams boy and one of the last Passionist Priests at Immaculata, when asked why people continue participating in the pilgrimage, had this to say: “The news stories about the steps undoubtedly bring some people to Mt. Adams but memory is the chief motivation. Many grandparents bring their grandchildren with them to pray the steps. The old folks prayed the steps when they were children and now they pass on the tradition to the next generation.”
The current steps were again built by the City and officially opened when they were blessed by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk on Holy Thursday, April 9, 2009. They consist of 96 steps leading to a viewing platform at the top. The parish welcomes the pilgrims, usually eight to ten thousand in number, by providing coffee and donuts in the Parish Center and an afternoon and evening fish fry for those coming later in the day.
The Seventy-Fifth Jubilee Booklet for Immaculata, published in 1934, contains this description of the Good Friday Pilgrimage: Promptly at midnight a steady stream of pilgrims begin wending their way to this shrine of the Immaculate Conception to make their annual pilgrimage of praying the steps. There are men, women and children, even babies in arms, in the massing. There are Catholics and non-Catholics all crowding together and making their way to the top of the stairs. On every step is said an Our Father and then a Hail Mary. Up the one hundred and eight steps the penitents proceed to a life sized crucifix (the Wayside Crucifix) on the outer wall of the Church.