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Part II: Mount Adams: Cincinnati’s Holy Hill

April 10th, 2017posted by Sarah L. Ater

To learn the beginning of the practice of “praying the steps,” read Part I here.

In 1871, Archbishop Purcell entrusted the Immaculata to an order of priests known as the Passionists, a community with a great devotion to the Holy Cross and the death of Jesus. Since the pastor’s residence on Mount Adams was not sufficient for a community of priests, the Passionist superior obtained the Mount Adams Astronomical Observatory, by then abandoned because pollution from the city prevented proper viewing of the heavens. The Passionists, in addition to staffing Immaculata church, organized a church near the monastery, known as Holy Cross Church. The two parishes on Mount Adams divided along ethnic and linguistic lines: the Germans worshipped at Immaculata, the Irish at the new Holy Cross.

When in 1873 Purcell dedicated the church and monastery – the former location of the observatory – he alluded to Adams’ anti-Catholic remarks. In his sermon titled, “The Triumph of the Cross,” he called the church a “monument to the Cross” which “should never perish, for the truth should never perish.” The Church, he reminded his listeners, “should be our astronomical instrument and our telegraph and God will regard it and give us knowledge of heaven not attainable by human science.”[1]

Pilgrims climbing the steps in the 1950s.

Since the Passionists promoted devotion to the suffering Christ, Good Friday became a special day to “pray the steps.” The path to the church increasingly became seen as an act of penance. Some pilgrims moved up the steps on their knees; most walked, slowing climbing them and offering prayer. The connection between the steps and Good Friday devotions is first referenced in historical records in 1873, but it may have existed earlier. As the Good Friday tradition developed, it mixed various forms of Catholic piety: Marian devotion and the rosary, the way of the cross, and a walking pilgrimage.

The wooden steps built in 1860 were replaced with 108 concrete steps in 1911. The steps were subsequently replaced in 1958 and as recently as 2009. Pilgrims could choose depending on health and endurance the length of the pilgrimage: to walk the longer distance from downtown or the East End, or to begin partway up the hill, or even from St. Gregory Street just below the church. Once the Mount Adams incline was constructed in 1872, linking the hill to the basin below, it became more common for pilgrims to pray only the steps from St. Gregory Street to the church.

A grandmother and her grandchildren pray the steps in 1989.

Once the pilgrim reached the level of the church, one could stop and venerate the large outdoor crucifix located on the side of the Immaculata or make the stations of the cross inside. Many visitors also stopped at nearby Holy Cross Church, two blocks away, to visit the grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes located in the lower level. The final stop for many pilgrims was the nave of Holy Cross Church for time in prayer before a relic of the True Cross. The pilgrimage lasted from one to three hours for most, depending on the origination point.

Due to demographic shifts on Mount Adams and declining membership, Holy Cross Church was closed in 1970. The parishes were combined and renamed Holy Cross-Immaculata. The original Immaculata site was retained. The new parish name appropriately highlighted the two devotions most prominent in the praying of the steps: remembrance of the passion of Jesus and prayers for the Virgin Mary’s intercession.

The estimate of pilgrims on Good Friday has varied from 50,000 (in 1931) to 25,000 (in 1960) to 10,000 (in 1970).  In more recent years, it is estimated that 8,000 to 10,000 take part, beginning at the stroke of midnight on Good Friday and continuing well into the evening.[2]  The length of the steps today ranges from 400+ steps (ascending from Riverside Drive near the Ohio River), to 200+ steps (walking from Columbia Parkway) to 96 steps (from St. Gregory Street).

Pilgrims in 1995.

That thousands of pilgrims “pray the steps” each Good Friday is especially amazing considering the pilgrimage has never been advertised but spread through word of mouth and now increasingly, media coverage. In addition to the opportunity to take part in regularly scheduled Good Friday services, priests are available for confession inside (and weather permitting, outside) nearly around the clock.

The pilgrimage, as it did from the beginning, has held varied meanings for those who take part. For many the pilgrimage is ingrained in family lore and tradition, a special way of marking the conclusion of Holy Week. Often, parents and grandparents bring the next generation to introduce them to the devotion. The church, not surprisingly, attracts visitors, not just from greater Cincinnati, but elsewhere in the region, especially on Good Friday but throughout the year. Even non-Catholics have become attracted to the steps, showing the adaptability of the devotion.

From the mid-nineteenth century when Purcell vowed to build a church honoring the Blessed Mother to today, the church and its steps remain a focal point for devotion.  Every Good Friday, as thousands of pilgrims pray the steps, Cincinnati is reminded that Mount Adams is the city’s holy hill.

[1] Steiner, Immaculata on Mount Adams, 18-19.

[2] Cincinnati Enquirer, April 1, 1931; April 10, 1960; March 28, 1970; April 12, 2009.