Praying the Steps in Cincinnati

Yesterday evening, Good Friday, my husband and I drove into Cincinnati to observe (in the sense of “to watch”) an annual tradition we’d read about: the praying of the steps. People climb a series of stairways leading to Holy Cross-Immaculata, a Catholic church at the top of Mount Adams. On each step, people pause to recite a prayer, traditionally a Hail Mary or an Our Father–or both. This Good Friday tradition dates back to the 1860s or early 1870s.  People start the climb, often referred to as a pilgrimage, as early as the midnight dividing Thursday and Friday.


There’s a short version and a long version of the climb. The long version begins at the base of Mount Adams, not far from the river, and involves a pedestrian bridge crossing a freeway. The short version begins in what’s become an upscale residential-business neighborhood below the church. (Most of the businesses appeared to be pubs.) The long version must take between two and three hours to complete: as my husband and I came back down the stairs after doing our own prayer-less climb, we passed people we’d already passed on the way up, who an hour later were still working on the first stretch that would get them to where the short climb begins.

As we began the long version of the climb, we found ourselves sharing the stairs with a smattering of pilgrims and a few joggers. When we got to the beginning of the short version, we found a long line of people waiting to climb those steps, so we took a “back route” through an alley to get to the top of the hill and the church. Here’s a video of our arrival.

The dog, by the way, was supposed to be making the climb in penance for having recently murdered a baby bunny; but as you see, she was in a more festive than penitential mood. (For the record, it’s not me you hear panting in the video. The one of us who was most winded, ironically, was the one of us who’s most faithful about getting to the gym.)

The  church was originally a German parish, Immaculata. There was a Passionist monastery just a couple of blocks away which served an Irish parish, Holy Cross. During the 1970s, as a result of the hemorrhaging of priests and brothers following Vatican II, the monastery was shut down and the two parishes were joined into Holy Cross-Immaculata. The Immaculata church still has its nineteenth century artwork. Over the altar is painted the word AMERIKA, which on closer inspection turns out to be the last word of a prayer on a scroll above it. The prayer reads in German:

O Mary, without sin conceived, pray for the conversion of this land… AMERICA.

Not the vision of a “Christian America” we’re most used to encountering.

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