Easter’s Big Production

I have gotten to the point in my life that I am no longer able to find any station on local radio that satisfies my musical preferences. I now defer and have become addicted to NPR (National Public Radio.) Today, I listened to a discription of the guest speaker’s trip to Germany and that he attended the 2010 performance of The Passion Play in Oberammergau,  Germany.

According to Wikipedia: The Oberammergau Passion Play was first performed in 1634 and is the result of a vow made by the inhabitants of the village that if God spared them from the effects of the bubonic plague then sweeping the region they would perform a passion play every ten years. A man travelling back to the town for Christmas had accidentally brought the plague with him. The man died from the plague and it began spreading throughout Oberammergau. After the vow was made, not another inhabitant of the town died from the bubonic plague and all of the town members that were still suffering from the plague recovered. The play is now performed in years ending with a zero, as well as in 1934 which was the 300th anniversary and 1984 which was the 350th anniversary (though the 1940 performance was cancelled because of the intervention of the Second World War). It involves over 2000 actors, singers, instrumentalists and technicians, all residents of the village.

Angela Gheorghiu sings to the pictures of John L. Stoddard’s trip to Oberammergan to see the Passion Play in the year of 1890. All photos copyright by John L. Stoddard 1898, All music credit to Angela Gheorghiu, song is: Sacred Romanian Orthodox Church Song.

As many of you know, an annual production of a play, similar to the Passion Play, was offer in Duquesne at one time. 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. As situations changed in Duquesne over the years, the annual event ceased. Eventually, the demolition of our beloved Carneige Library on 2nd street and the fact that so many steelworkers left the area with the demise of the steel industry.

About three years ago, I published a post that was not only about Duquesne’s production of Calvery, but also featured the article published in LIFE magazine in 1960 about the uniquiness of Duquesne’s production. As we all think about the upcoming celebration of Easter, let’s also reflect on those who made our Easter season so special while growing up in Duquesne.

PUBLISHED IN MARCH, 2014….

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 ashevent 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 4-18-60week. 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.

Passion Play 1

JOHN PONIST

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.”

JOSEPH PONIST

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.”

 Passion Play 2

LAWRENCE TRAINOR

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.”

 

CLEM MATTA

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.”

Passion Play 3

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?

 

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10 Responses to Easter’s Big Production

  1. Ken Denne says:

    John Matico was a supper director, involved in many productions in the 40’s, 50’s,60’s

  2. Carl Kavish says:

    Jimmy,

    Article aside, NPR!!!, You’re freakin’ loosing it, my friend.
    Happy Easter!

    Carl Kavish

  3. bornyek says:

    Hi, Jim, Happy Easter.   The Passion Play of Oberammergau | | | | | |

    |

    | | | | The Passion Play of Oberammergau Over 2000 participants brought the story of Jesus of Nazareth to the ears and eyes of the audience in a five-hou… | |

    |

    |

    Regards, George Bornyek

  4. Cheryl Oxford says:

    Thank you for this post. This heart warming endeavor by common everyday people, warmed my heart. Cheryl Oxford (Dover,De)

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  5. Patricia Madden says:

    Thanks for sharing Jim. Gee the good steelworkers of Duquesne, Irwin and U.S.Steel Homestead works, just not the same without these wonderful men. The play was well represented for the Crucifixion of our Lord.

    Not certain you are aware of the Pittsburgh Radio Station WAOB, 106.7 and also on the AM dial. see website below: http://www.waob.org/

    Jim, not certain you are familiar with the St. Paul’s Monastery on the South Side, you might enjoy checking it out. Many good men and retreats on for Easter and during the entire year.

    http://www.stpaulofthecrossmonastery.com/

    Have a blessed Easter and God bless you and your entire family. Pat Mihalic Madden & family

    Every human being is precious in the eyes of God (St. Bernadette) What we say does not matter, only what God says to souls through us. Pg. 17, Mother Teresa “In My Own Words”

    On Tue, Apr 11, 2017 at 9:57 AM, The Duquesne Hunky wrote:

    > Jim posted: “I have gotten to the point in my life that I am no longer > able to find any station on local radio that satisfies my musical > preferences. I now defer and have become addicted to NPR (National Public > Radio.) Today, I listened to a discription of the guest s” >

  6. Bob Vislay (DHS '69) says:

    How many years did the K of C put on the play, and in what year did it start? I only remember going to see it once.

    • Jim says:

      Bob,
      I’ll see if I can locate some information regarding the play. Unfortunately, the Duquesne Times will not be able to give me the ending year since they ceased publication in 1960, however I might be able to determine year number one!
      Jim

  7. g. clymire says:

    Would’ve liked to have seen this production had I known about it when I lived in Duquesne!

  8. Liz Shiner says:

    I remember that play. We went every year. So sad that something so important went by the wayside. Bet you wouldn’t be able to put it on now…too many would object.

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