A Marathon Tradition: ‘Blessing of the Athletes’ Resumes at Old South Church

One day ahead of the 125th Boston Marathon came the return of the traditional “The Blessing of the Athletes” at Old South Church on Sunday, Oct. 10.

The church has saluted the athletes participating in the footrace by inviting them to join in worship on Marathon Sunday every year 2005, except for last year, when like the Marathon itself, it was sidelined by the pandemic. During  every “Blessing of the Athletes” service, the clergy acknowledges the runners and their families, as well as volunteers, and asks God to bless the athletes, to keep them safe from injury and harm, and to give them perseverance.

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister and CEO of Old South Church.

In pre-pandemic times, three services were typically held for the athletes on the day before the race, with each one filling the church’s sanctuary with capacity for up to 850, said Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister and CEO of Old South Church.

This year, however, two identical “Blessing of the Athletes” services were held in the sanctuary, with the capacity capped at 400 for each service due to social distancing. (In all, 800 people attended the services.)

“It felt so good to have everybody back,” said Rev. Taylor  from her office late Monday morning as she watching the runners cross the finish line just outside her window. “Some people come back year after year, and it’s such a good vibe in the church,” she added.

“Highland Cathedral,” a musical piece involving bagpipes, drums, and organs, was performed for the athletes as part of the service, reviving another annual tradition that dates back to around 2010.

Each year, the church also ring its bell as the winners in their respective categories crossed the finish line.

Since this year’s Marathon was held on Indigenous People’s Day, the worship services began with a Land Acknowledgment by Larry Spotted Crow Mann (Nipmuc). He was joined by his son, Anoki Mann for the singing of two Nipmuc songs: “A Healing Song” and “A Paddling Song for Travelers.” The church also passed out rubber bracelets with the names of three Massachusetts’ Tribes: the Massachusett, the Wamanoag, and the Nipmuc

With the Marathon returning after a one-year absence, Rev. Taylor said the church wasn’t sure what to expect for a turnout for the “Blessing of the Athletes.”

“We had to turn away some athletes, but we had clergy outside offering blessing and many people took them up on it,” said Rev. Taylor, who added that clergy always offers blessings to runners outside the church on Marathon Sunday.

As for why Old South Church chooses to pay tribute to the Marathon and its runners each year, Rev. Taylor said the Marathon is the “one of the oldest, peaceful, international coemptions,” and unlike another activity like golf, running doesn’t require any costly equipment. “You just need the human body and a lot of heart,” she added.

Old South Church’s next “Blessing of the Athletes” for the 126th Boston Marathon takes place on Sunday, April 17, which is also Easter Sunday, as well as an overlap that occurs every four or five years. But it’s still too early to tell, said Rev. Taylor, whether that will mark a return to the church holding three services as they have in the past.

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