Last week, many of us made our annual midweek trip to Church to obtain the mark of our humanity and mortality. Ash Wednesday, as a child of Holy Name Grade School, was an event that unlike five of the seven sacraments, was not age restricted. Wee ones were able to approach the altar side-by-side with parents and siblings, older kids, teens and adults alike.
The good sisters at Holy Name did an outstanding job of helping every child understand the solemnity and significance of the Ash Wednesday. I can still hear Sister Martin DePorres telling us the reason behind the ashes as we sat in her 2nd grade classroom. At that age, ANYTHING that a nun would tell us was gospel in our minds. So with awe and wonderment we would proudly wear our ashes throughout the day and spontaneously begin all of our Lenten rituals and responsibilities.
As a child, I remember the big decision I had to make at the start of each Lenten season. What was I going to give up for Lent? Of course my first inclination was to give up things like spinach or brussel sprouts, but those were never given the thumbs-up from Mom or the nuns since I would NEVER, EVER, consider eating them in the first place. My final choice was usually a STRONLY suggested one from Mom. Candy, cookies, donuts or cake were usually her “go-to” items. The 40 days of Lent were the longest I could ever imagine as a child.
Here’s a bit of trivia about the 40 days of Lent that unfortunately, I learned too late in life. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Question: Lent, the period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Easter, is 40 days long, but there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, and Easter. So how are the 40 days of Lent calculated?
Answer: The answer takes us back to the earliest days of the Church. Christ’s original disciples, who were Jewish, grew up with the idea that the Sabbath—the day of worship and of rest—was Saturday, the seventh day of the week, since the account of creation in Genesis says that God rested on the seventh day.
Christ rose from the dead, however, on Sunday, the first day of the week, and the early Christians, starting with the apostles (those original disciples), saw Christ’s Resurrection as a new creation, and so they transferred the day of rest and worship from Saturday to Sunday.
Since all Sundays—and not simply Easter Sunday—were days to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, Christians were forbidden to fast and do other forms of penance on those days. Therefore, when the Church expanded the period of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter from a few days to 40 days (to mirror Christ’s fasting in the desert, before He began His public ministry), Sundays could not be included in the count.
Thus, in order for Lent to include 40 days on which fasting could occur, it had to be expanded to six full weeks (with six days of fasting in each week) plus four extra days—Ash Wednesday and the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday that follow it. Six times six is thirty-six, plus four equals forty. And that’s how we arrive at the 40 days of Lent!
Had I known this as a child, I would have definitely used this tidbit as a way to eat sweets on Sundays. DARN!!!!
I have to toss out a big “thank you” to Mike Ferchak for the comment he made earlier this week. He reminded me of a Duquesne institution of sorts, and one that was featured in LIFE Magazine in April of 1960. Aside from the rudimentary aspects of the Lenten Season that I remember, I also recall attending one of the performances of the Passion Play at Duquesne Library with my parents. I was able to unearth the article from the April 18, 1960 issue of LIFE and wanted to share it with you.
Just in case your eyesight is as dicey as mine, I’ve transcribed the text from the article so that you can read it more easily.
STEELWORKERS’ PASSION PLAY
For centuries, the story of Christ’s betrayal, trial and crucifixion has been retold during Lent in passion plays acted by laymen. This year an unusual troupe in Pittsburgh has given the play a special kind of homely realism. The actors are mostly steelworkers whose rugged bearing gives them a look that the apostles – who were workingmen – and Roman soldiers might have had. And their involvement in the roles gives their portrayals a sincerity that more than makes up for their lack of polish.
The play, called Calvery, was written in the early 19th Century by an Augustinian priest. A member of the Duquesne-West Mifflin chapter of the Knights of Columbus, which is putting on the play, had read it as a youth and saw his chance of producing when he became a chapter official. It took a great deal of coaxing to get the steelworkers to join the cast, but once they agreed, they worked hard. Preformed seven times during Lent, the play was gripped audiences – and also the actors. Long after the curtain has dropped, they find themselves still caught up in the play and their parts, as they explained in the captions with their pictures.
Foreman – Judas
The role of the traitorous apostle, above, counting his 30 pieces of silver, is played by John Ponist, a 47-year-old foreman at U.S.Steel’s Hempstead plant. He finds his role runs him “emotionally dry. . . . . . It takes something out of you to play the part of a man who committed the greatest injustice in history. You can’t help but feel the torture that was racking Judas’ soul.”
Guard – Christ
The 44-year-old policeman at U.S.Steel’s Duquesne Works and brother of the man who plays Judas. Joseph Ponist took the part of Christ only because he “figured somebody had to do it.” Now he finds that it “seems to have made me better. Every once in a while a guy cusses but now I watch myself on that. When you play that role you can’t help but act up to it.”
Foreman – Abiron the Leper
Trainor, 36, a foreman at U.S.Steel’s Irvin Works, plays the part of a leper stoned by the Pharisees because he has overheard their plot. His part was originally a small one but it was made bigger as the rehearsals went on. The play made him “stop and think. . . . Now we know what Calvary is all about. It’s made better Christians of all of us.”
Draftsman – a Chief Priest
The Pharisee leader shown below stoning Abiron the Leper is played by a 31-year-old draftsman at the Ceco Steel Products Corp. in Pittsburgh. A friend persuaded him to try for the part. The play, he says, “really moves you . . . brings you a spiritual lift.” It has given him a sense of history that he did not have, “a feeling for what Calvary was.”
MEMBERS OF THE CAST assemble in the final scene (above) and on a Pittsburgh street after work (below).In the foreground of the stage is John Matico, the director of the play, who also plays a high priest. The Christ on the cross (Joe Ponist) stands on the far left in the picture below. The thief on the cross at right (Peter Kanski) stands next to him in the street. Next are Joe Timko (Saint Peter) and Larry Trainor (leper). The others had small parts.
Thank you again Mike for reminding me to remember! I can’t help but wonder if the “Pittsburgh Street” identified in the last picture was actually taken in Duquesne. Any thoughts?
Does anyone know where I can find other pictures of the Passion Play as my dad, Mel Monkelis was also in it? thanks! Deb Monkelis Ramirez
Jim, this brought back so many memories. Attending the passion play at the old library was a yearly tradition. I recall how real it all seemed to me. And being a product of Holy Name school/church, how so full of faith I would become. I would give a lot to be there one more time to witness it all again. Wish my grandchild could, also.
Jim, it’s good to catch up with you once again, as well as with all of those who post such thoughtful comments. I commend you on your commitment to transcribing your vivid memories. Although I am a few years older than you ( I graduated DHS in 1964), our recollections are strikingly similar. What I love most about your posts is that they validate all the stories my wife Helen and I have told our children about our lives growing up in Duquesne. Many times my three children have said they wish they could have lived in the Duquesne of our childhood. I am certain that the adults of our youth looked to the future with much trepidation and fear, but what a testament to their love of family and tradition that our childhood memories are all “good” memories.
I do not remember the Steelworkers Passion Play, but as a student at Holy Trinity, I certainly remember attending Veronica’s Veil on multiple occasions. I also worked at the US Steel Duquesne Works, and I often joked with my children that I attended the University of Pittsburgh on a US Steel scholarship! Keep following your passion for writing, you certainly have a flair for the craft. I for one thoroughly enjoy your efforts!!!
In addition to the duties and religious services I experienced as an Altarboy at Holy Name, all of which became very important to me as a child and early-adolescent, I enjoyed some of the more secular traditions associated with Easter, as well. For example, for quite a while as I was growing up, my parents annually gave me an Easter Basket that was as tall as I, being increased in height each year, as well as a chocolate Easter Bunny, which was as tall as I, a tradition that lasted for several years. That bunny – sometimes hollow; sometimes solid – nearly cured me of any taste for chocolate (which persists to this day,) since my friends and I were still gnawing at it right up to very close to Christmas, it seemed. In fact, I recall that my friends, such as our dear neighbor, Robert Capristo, had automatic entre’e into the kitchen to break off a piece of that chocolate rabbit any time they wanted it. Even they eventually ate less and less of it as the months rolled along. Usually, by Thanksgiving, we had switched our sweet-tooth snacking to Charms suckers and those sour balls that came in a can. I loved those days.
I remember Veronicas Veil after musing on it for some time.
My purgatory for Lent was not the candy I gave up, but that I didn’t get enough ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. Who wants to walk around with a slight smudge of ash?
I attended Holy Trinity Catholic School (located on 3rd. street just behind the library) for eight years. I’m sure the good Vincentian Sisters of Charity marched us down to the library to see the play but I don’t remember. However, I do remember going to see the play called “Veronica’s Veil” at St. Michael’s School Auditorium on the Pittsburgh South Side and about 20 years ago we took our daughter and niece to see it. If interested you can Google “Passion Play” or “Veronica’s Veil” to locate a performance near you. The Pittsburgh Trib has an article at: http://triblive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/ae/theater/s_731344.html.
We at Holy Trinity School attended “Veronica ‘s Veil” a number of times by the bus load. The climactic crucifixion scene, despite rudimentary special effects, was dramatic, disturbing, terrifying. I am not sure if it still being performed. The Trib article from 2011 mentioned a badly deteriorating building, and a prior PG report noted financial problems. The play even used to be advertised on TV.
What a fabulous piece of history and thanks for sharing the details with us.
Also, the liturgical season of Lent ends at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening. The Triduum then officially begins. For some reason, I remember Sister telling us that we could eat our candy beginning at noon on Holy Saturday!
Larry Trainor ?? I believe he had a daughter, Mary Lou, in 1960 who was the prettiest girl in Duquesne High School..
Yes, he did. Mary Lou graduated with my sister, Roseanne Cusick, from DHS in 1961.
Remember well the Cusicks..How’s brother John????Always remember your Dad at the Library. Spent many hours after school at the Library gym. Never knew there were books in the Library!!!!
My father, Louis J Weber, was always in the cast as a member of the K of C 4210. He was in the crowd scenes and is pictured in the photo of the steelworkers walking up the street in Duquesne. I still have a copy of that magazine. Thanks for the memory.
I did not know the Passion Play got a write up in Life Magazine. Impressive that these grizzled steel workers would take the time to participate and contribute to the convictions of their religion.
My mother took me to the play many times along with her sisters and my cousins, it became a family tradition. In some years my relatives would be members of the cast and I paid closer attention. After seeing the play many times I knew how the play would end. What I remember is the realism, for example I recall when Jesus was stabbed on the cross a piece of flesh flew out on the stage and the actors seemed to cry real tears.
Also one year Lady of Fatima was playing at the Plaza Theater and every seat in the house was taken. I remember the movie and it left and impression on me just as the passion play left a lifetime impression.
What an interesting article. I never knew the information about the 46/40 days of Lent and how they calculated them.
I remember seeing this play more than once when I was a child. It seemed like you couldn’t get enough of it. I wish the play were still being put on as my own children were growing up. Now I wish I could have my grandchildren see it. They wouldn’t be impressed with the theatrics of the day back then, but they would have gotten the message. Perhaps if these kind of things were still around, our children would be better mannered and more respectful. One thing for sure, it couldn’t hurt. Wish someone would have filmed it for the future. Thanks for the memory, Jim.