American Catholic school children are introduced to the Stations of the Cross in kindergarten or first grade and for many, the devotion continues throughout adulthood. The Stations of the Cross most American Catholics are familiar with were written by St. Alphonse Ligouri, a Franciscan priest, in 1787. Their history, however, goes back to the fourth century, when Christian pilgrims were first allowed to travel to Jerusalem and follow Jesus’ footsteps on the Way of the Cross on Good Friday.
Following in the footsteps of those early pilgrims, staff at Mount Olivet Cemetery in St. Joseph laid out The Way of the Cross Section in the early 1960s. Over the years, a tradition of a “pilgrimage” of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday began and has continued to this day.
Jeanne Rost, Director of Religious Education at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Savannah, described Mount Olivet’s Way of the Cross section. “A large granite monument, set in brick, draws the passerby’s attention and is the prevailing feature in this area. The Pieta is depicted on one side of this monument; while on the other is The Risen Christ with the quote, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” engraved into the granite. She said the monument was set in place by cemetery staff in 1967.
Granite two-sided Stations of the Cross, set at intervals, outline the perimeter of the Way of the Cross section. Each four-foot high monument was donated by families in memory of loved ones, and the donor family name and the person remembered is imprinted on the station. Each is engraved with its number and title, as well as a depiction of the event. On the reverse side of each monument, is a depiction of the opposite Station number and title. On the back of Station I, for example, is Station XIV. Rost explained that this enables a person “to pray the stations walking on the road around the area by walking in one direction. By traveling in the opposite direction, one may also pray the stations by walking around the inside.”
In 1994, Father, later Msgr., Rick Dierkes, then pastor of St. Patrick Parish in St. Joseph, decided that the Stations at Mount Olivet would provide a unique Good Friday devotion. Walking the nearly half-mile perimeter of the Way of the Cross section would help put people in touch with Jesus’ walk to Calvary. The priest designed a prayerful journey – a narrative, reflection, and hymns – and invited Catholics to join him at noon on Good Friday to pray. Perhaps he had a 4th century pilgrimage to Jerusalem in mind.
In 381, a pilgrim from Gaul named Egeria traveled to the Holy Land and became one of the first to describ the journey. She wrote in her diary that the bishop of Jerusalem and about 200 pilgrims began “at the first cockcrow” at the site of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. They said a prayer, sung a hymn, and heard a Gospel passage, then continued to Jerusalem itself, “reaching the (city) gate about the time when one man begins to recognize another, and thence right on through the midst of the city. All, to a man, both great and small, rich and poor, all are ready there, for on that special day not a soul withdraws from the vigils until morning.”
The Stations of the Cross at Mount Olivet was successful enough that Father Dierkes decided to do it again. Rost said that in 1995 the priest began keeping “sketchy records of attendance and weather conditions.” Some years more than 100 people attended, depending on the weather. Father Dierkes kept up the devotion until 2005 when failing health interrupted him.
St. Joseph families had made the Stations of the Cross at Mount Olivet part of their Good Friday devotions, and Father Tom Ludwig, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, saw its popularity and meaning. In 2006, when Msgr. Dierkes became too ill to continue the service, Father Ludwig stepped up to take his place.
Father Ludwig will lead the Stations of the Cross, narrative, reflections and hymns at noon, April 22, Good Friday at Mount Olivet Cemetery, 26th and Lovers Lane, St. Joseph. The tradition continues.
The Stations of the Cross
Following 250 years of persecution, in 313 Roman Emperor Constantine finally permitted Christians to worship legally. In 335, under his direction, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built on the site where Jesus’ tomb was believed to have been. Processions of pilgrims in the Holy Land, especially during Holy Week, began soon after its completion.
During the crusades (1095-1270), it became popular for pilgrims to “walk in the footsteps of Jesus” to Calvary. Eventually a route was fixed, from the ruins of the Fortress Antonia through Jerusalem’s old city, where Pilate had his judgment hall, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The route, known as the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the “Sorrowful Way,” gained acceptance as the way Jesus went to his death and remains unchanged.
Stops developed on the way to note specific events on the road to Calvary. In many cases, pilgrims could only guess where some incidents took place because Roman armies had almost destroyed Jerusalem in the first century. When Franciscan monks were given custody of the Holy Places in the Holy Land in 1342, they vigorously promoted the devotions.
Sometimes pilgrims tried to recreate the Via Dolorosa devotions at shrines erected in Europe, which became very popular after Moslems recaptured the Holy Land and pilgrimages there became too dangerous. The term “stations” in describing the stops on the Way of the Cross was first used in the writings of William Wey, a 15th century English pilgrim who visited the Holy Land twice. The number of stations varied widely, with some manuals of devotion listing as many as 37. The number was eventually fixed at 14.
In 1686 Pope Innocent XI permitted Franciscan monks to erect pictorial displays of the stations in their churches. By the mid 18th century, depictions of the Stations of the Cross had become common in all Catholic churches.
The 14 Stations of the Cross
1. Jesus is Condemned to Die
2. Jesus is Made to Bear His Cross
3. Jesus Falls the First Time
4. Jesus Meets His Mother
5. Simon Helps Jesus Carry His Cross
6. Veronica Wipes Jesus’ Face
7. Jesus Falls the Second Time
8. Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem
9. Jesus Falls the Third Time
10. Jesus is Stripped
11. Jesus is Nailed to the Cross
12. Jesus Dies on the Cross
13. Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross
14. Jesus is Laid in the Tomb