One day ahead of next Monday’s 126th Boston Marathon, Old South Church will again honor participating runners at its annual “The Blessing of the Athletes” on April 17, which also falls on Easter Sunday this year.
Three identical “Blessing of the Athletes” services will take place on Sunday at 9 and 11 a.m., and 1 p.m., respectively, at the church located at 645 Boylston St. in the Back Bay (an ASL interpreter will be present at all three services, and the 11 a.m. service will also be livestreamed at youtube.com/OldSouthChurch) while as the “Church of the Finish Line,” Old South will also ring its Great Tower Bell as the winners of the four elite competitions cross the finish line on Monday.
This annual tradition dates back to 2005 during Rev. Nancy S. Taylor’s first year at Old South Church. Some members told her at services two weeks ahead of the Boston Marathon that they wouldn’t be seeing her the following Sunday due to the challenges of getting to the church the day before the footrace. But in their place, Taylor realized that 30,000 Marathon runners would be descending on the neighborhood who could instead fill the pews.
Since its exception, Old South Church has held “Blessing of the Athletes” every year except for 2020, when like the Marathon itself, it was sidelined by the pandemic.
(For last year’s 125th Boston Marathon, Old South Church held two identical “Blessing of the Athletes” services on Sunday, Oct. 10, with the capacity capped at 400 for each service due to social distancing.)
The inaugural “Blessing of the Athletes” in 2005 attracted less than a dozen runners, said Rev. Taylor, while in subsequent years, 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.
And with “The Blessing of the Athletes” falling on Easter Sunday this year, Rev. Taylor said, “It means we’ll have a full house , and unfortunately, we’ll be turning people away.”
This isn’t an unprecedented event, however, since Rev. Taylor said “The Blessing of the Athletes” typically falls on Easter Sunday about every three or four years. “We understand it, and we’re ready for it,” she said.
As in years past, “The Blessing of the Athletes” services will include a piece of music called “Highland Cathedral,” which Rev. Taylor said was “written for Scottish games and composed for competition,” and is performed on bagpipes, organ, brass, and percussion. Athletes in attendance are asked to rise when this piece is performed by musicians, including bagpiper David Methven.
“It’s stirring,” Rev. Taylor said of the composition.
The musical piece has remained a mainstay of “The Blessing of the Athletes,” since it was first introduced several years after the event’s inception. Harry Huff, the church’s now-deceased former director of the music, had personally selected and arranged the composition for the occasion, said Rev. Taylor.
With Rev. Taylor set to step down from her role as senior minister and CEO of Old South Church next month after nearly two decades, she reflected on not only what a special event the Boston Marathon continues to be, but also on the innate spirit of inclusiveness and equality in running as a sport.
“The Marathon is the oldest peaceful, international competition in the world, and athletes race for many reasons – some because they want to win, many because they beat cancer, or they’re running to raise money, or they’re running for some cause,” said Rev. Taylor. “And almost anyone can run. It doesn’t require the cost of playing golf or tennis. It’s something that anyone can do.”