CINCINNATI -- Many faithful got a head start Thursday night on a Good Friday tradition unique to Cincinnati that dates back 157 years.
People come from across the country to climb the steps from close to river-level to the Church of the Immaculata shining like a beacon atop Mount Adams. They say a silent prayer or scripture on each of the more than 100 steps.
Rose Donovan grew up in this parish and has seen the world walk these steps.
It's a really special day. There's a special air up here -- you can just feel it," said Rose Donovan. "I would have thought other people would have copied (the tradition), but they didn't. It's ours."
First-time climber Joellen Raabe had been to the church before but had never prayed the steps on Good Friday.
"I love it. I mean I know we got an early start, but it was very peaceful. I wouldn't mind being amongst the crowd either, but we did attend the mass, did the washing of the feet, so it was nice just to go up the steps just now," she said.
Even though some get an early start, the tradition officially began with the blessing of the steps by Bishop Joseph Binzer at midnight Friday, and then people are welcome to come at any time throughout the day.
Church historian Jim Steiner noted unrest around the world may give some people a reason to pray the steps.
"There's obviously a new admin with President Trump in the presidency. A lot of people are concerned, so they certainly will come because they get peace from doing this," Steiner said. "Anybody can do it -- you don't even have to have a religion. Do it for spiritual reasons."
In the early days, the faithful climbed a dirt path until wooden steps were built, followed by concrete steps in 1911. Today, those visiting the steps can choose to begin from one of three locations: the upper steps, middle steps, or lower steps. The upper steps begin on St. Gregory Street just below the church entrance, and the middle steps begin on Columbia Parkway. The lower steps, which begin on Riverside Drive, were repaired in 2009 and now feature wider steps and lighting. There is also an improved pedestrian overlook at the top of the steps, just outside the main entrance to Immaculata Church.
As visitors reach the top of the steps, they will be directed to file through a hospitality tent on the plaza to receive a prayer pamphlet and a votive candle. The votive candles may be set by the outdoor cross or taken into the church. Inside the church, they will be invited to light their candles, write in a prayer request in the intention books and set their votive candle on the communion rail.
"It is possible that by the end of the day, 10,000 candles or more will light up the church," said Pastor Fr. Len Fecko. "It will be a sight to behold!"
The prayer pamphlets will include several devotions to be used for private prayer and an examination of conscience for those hoping to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the priests who volunteer their time each year for the benefit of the visiting pilgrims.
Two Good Friday Services are scheduled. Bishop Joe Binzer will preside at the 2 p.m. service and Fr. Steve Angi will preside at the 7 p.m. service. The services include the reading of the Passion narrative, the Veneration of the Cross and reception of Holy Communion.
Holy Cross-Immaculata parishioners will serve doughnuts and coffee from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., LaRosa's cheese pizza slices from 11 until 3 p.m., and then a traditional fish fry from 3 to 7 p.m. The church will remain open until midnight.
The parish also hosts an Easter Vigil at 8:45 p.m. Saturday and two Easter masses at 8 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.