Family 'prays the steps' in Mount Adams as way to display faith in God, love for son who can't walk

CINCINNATI - For many Christians in the Tri-State “Praying The Steps” is a long-standing family tradition.

The Good Friday pilgrimage up all 98 steps of Holy Cross-Immaculata Church in Mount Adams offers a time for personal reflection and prayer. 

The devotional procession takes place from midnight on Holy Thursday to midnight on Good Friday. As many as 8,000 to 10,000 Catholics, some from around the world, took part in the 150-year-old religious observance that mirrors the fabled final steps Jesus took leading up to his crucifixion.

PHOTOS: Cincy faithful 'pray the steps' in Mt. Adams

But for one faith-filled couple from Morrow, Maria and Christi O’Brien, Friday morning's journey up the famed stone stairs offered a unique set of obstacles – the need to carry their 3-year-old son, Gus, to the top.

Gus was born at just 29 weeks with periventricular leukomalacia , more commonly known as PVL. It kept him in the hospital for the first three months of his life.

Individuals affected with PVL generally exhibit motor control problems or other developmental delays, and they often develop related health issues later in life like cerebral palsy, which Gus is also battling.

While he is in good spirits, talkative, playful and an otherwise average kid, his ailments make getting around difficult for Gus who uses a walker of sorts and the assistance of others to push himself from place to place.

"He was 14 months before he started to roll over on his own, 2 1/2 when he could sit up unsupported for any amount of time, and it wasn't long ago that he started doing a little army crawling," his mother, Christi O’Brien, said prior to their climb, adding that he's "making progress."

"We are working hard with traditional and nontraditional therapies hoping he will be able to sit himself up from the floor, get better at crawling, and, hopefully, some day walk!"

The mixture of their desire to see their son walk and their faith is what inspired Gus' parents to take part in Cincinnati's unique pre-Easter ritual.

The family explained their decision on their blog, "Hop On the Bus, Gus "

"I liked the idea of 'Praying the Steps' ever since I heard about the century+ old tradition of doing so in Cincinnati and the times I've been able to do it only strengthened my resolve to do everything to make time for it annually on Good Friday. Good Friday has always been a time of deep reflection for me. The mystery of the crucifixion, the tremendous sacrifice by Jesus and our Heavenly Father, the heartache of Mary, the thought of how cruel people can be to one another but how selfless the response can be - these things and more give me much to consider and pray about in my own life."

Kristen Zaffiro doesn’t know the O’Briens personally but said she understands why the family finds the event so meaningful.

“It means a lot. It's very important to show God (thanks) … for what (Jesus) has done for us, dying on the cross,” said Zaffiro, one of the thousands of participants who planned to participate in one of the Stations of the Cross observances at the church after their walk. 

“It makes me happy to do something with a bunch of people and have the city gather together and share faith."

Many of the Good Friday adherents quietly say the rosary while they embark on their spiritual journey to view the displayed crucifix hanging high above church grounds. Others choose to belt out, in a respectful tone, "Let there be peace on Earth" and other traditional Easter season hymnals.

For some, though, the walk is a chance to ask the Almighty for help with an issue that's close to their heart.

"My attention today was to pray for Ukraine," said stair-climber Jennifer Smith. "I take the time from the craziness of life and take the time to reflect on this special time."

The O'Briens' special intention prayer was to see their young son walk, something they didn't have the benefit of Friday.

It isn't easy to hold a 40-plus-pound child for the better part of three hours, let alone carry one up nearly 100 stairs that span several hundred feet. 

But the physical struggle didn't slow the couple, who took turns carrying their health-challenged young son up the steep steps. It was a testament to both their love for him and their faith in God, Maria O'Brien said Thursday.

“It's something we want to do as we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us that we're remembering on Good Friday," she said. “We're just asking our friends and family and the community at large to join us in prayer for Gus, that Gus might walk some day."

The O'Briens' commitment to their beliefs and their son isn't loss on Cate O'Hara, Gus' aunt.

"I know what a challenge it is to move Gus around and also know how much they love Gus," the Northside resident said. "By the same token, I know what a blessing it would be if Gus could move himself."

While the crowds gathered at the church well before midnight Thursday, the O'Briens made their trek at 11 a.m. Friday, finishing just after 2 p.m. During that period and up through

3 p.m., the family asked the public to pray for Gus' healthy and their family.

"Would you please join us in adding your prayerful intentions, especially on Good Friday at 3 p.m. as we mark the time of Jesus's death on the cross, to our own beseeching chorus to God that Gus will learn to walk?"

But regardless of when or even if Gus is able to walk on his own, the family said just having him with them on Friday, and every day, shows their prayers were answered.

"I think we're very blessed to have a very beautiful day to make the climb with Gus and so much support surrounding us as we pray," Maria O'Brien said. "We're very, very grateful for that."

WCPO reporter Tony Mirones contributed to this report.

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