The Disappearing Passion

By Phineas J. Stone


There have been so many changes in Boston, and frequently Mr. Boston here likes to point them out.

Few are bigger, though, than the change around the observance of Easter.

Simply put, it’s because there are fewer celebrating – that’s at the heart of it.

But the soul of the city came alive on Easter in old Boston.

Mothers would save money after Christmas with great care to make sure their little boys and little girls had a new Easter dress or Easter suit. They would storm the department stores and discount houses like those seeking milk during a snowstorm.

Everyone was in a frenzy to make every moment significant leading right up to the major celebration on Easter Sunday – when the “big” church service or Mass took place, families sat down for lunch and local traditions were honored (in the Italian culture of the North End, it meant that Lent was over and they could eat meat again, which gave birth to the cold cut laden, preserved ham, heart attack inducing Pizza Ghiena pie).

In the Catholic churches, it was Holy Week, and every day had a significance that everyone followed.

Confessions became more important on a daily basis.

Going to church was a thing you squeezed between every daily event. Some would go on lunch breaks, certainly after work, and the elderly quite often spent all day at the church.

Every different order of priests broke out their special liturgy for the week on just the right occasion.

Thursday meant the washing of feet, and Catholics and protestants alike would participate in this. Of course, the ritual signified the Last Supper in the Christian tradition.

Every Parish had its thing and every church community put on its best for the week; and every store and business catered to the needs of those fully caught up in the observance.

And there were hundreds of thousands in those days – in the time where a person was defined not by neighborhood geography so much as they were their Parish or church community. Some families went to Immaculate Conception on Harrison Avenue (now closed and slated to become apartments) – and that’s who they were.

The week, of course, all culminated on Good Friday, when school was let out so families in huge numbers could observe the solemn day. Most Boston schools still get out on Good Friday, but the day off is certainly facing threats in and around the city.

My favorite part of the whole week was always the Passion Plays, especially the play that took the situation out to the streets. Thousands would follow the person playing Jesus and the Roman soldiers whipping him as the neighborhood stopped what it was doing to take it all in. I always thought it interesting to watch those on the fringes – the men smoking cigars on the corner, who didn’t participate in anything except Easter Sunday. They would quickly put their cigar behind their backs and stand at attention while the procession went by – even though they knew the priest knew they weren’t all that interested. They gave a moment’s respect though.

They were the outcasts then.

These marches still happen today, but in much smaller numbers. It seems the tradition is kept alive mostly by those in the Spanish-speaking cultures, who regularly practice such marches through the streets in their home lands. They bring it here to the U.S. and come out in great numbers. I wonder if they’ll abandon this tradition eventually as the majority of Boston has? Time will tell.

At the South End Cathedral this week, a young man playing Jesus on Good Friday adorned himself with fake blood, a realistic looking crown of thorns, make up applied to emulate the lashings, and hit the streets of the South End – having been blessed by Cardinal O’Malley himself prior to leaving.

As the young man, the Roman Soldiers, the man playing Caiphas the priest, and a handful of followers proceeded down Washington Street, traffic stopped but life went on. It was the marchers who were the outcasts last Friday, ghosts to the rest of the world.

Most of the neighborhood continued on as if nothing were happening, and some not participating looked on with sickened countenances (rather than the cigar smoking gentlemen of the past).

I heard one young lady proclaim, “These people need to be stopped.”

Most in the neighborhoods would probably agree, saying the Passion Plays in the streets are a tradition that needs to go away; some are likely offended by these public displays of faith – which are increasingly not tolerated. There might even be some who would say this time-honored tradition violates some kind of law already on the books.

I don’t really participate in the marches, but I think they are important to the soul of Boston – which for centuries has been tied to religion and religious expressions. It makes me proud to think something that was such a crucial part of the fabric of spring in Boston is still alive in some form.

I heard one person recently lamenting the loss of arts and artists in the city, saying rightly that the city is fighting for its soul.

Boston is Catholic; it can’t be denied. Boston is and was about marching through the streets re-enacting the story of Jesus. You don’t see that everywhere. Is not this “soul of the city” worth preserving too?


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