Thursday, April 8, 2004

Tradition, faith, reunion

Every year on Good Friday, the James family climbs the steps to Holy Cross- Immaculata Church.

By Rebecca Goodman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim James (left) of Mack, stands with his family on the steps of Holy Cross-Immaculata Church in Mount Adams. Members of the James family have been "praying the steps" on Good Friday and gathering afterward for decades.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/STEVEN M. HERPPICH
MOUNT ADAMS - On Good Friday, Steve James will carry a prayer book and rosary and say a prayer on each of the 85 steps he climbs from St. Gregory Street to Holy Cross-Immaculata Church atop Mount Adams.

For James, the Good Friday climb has been a ritual repeated each of the 44 years of his life.

"I've been going up since I was in my dad's arms," James said.

He will be among 10,000 or more people who make the climb to mark the day when Jesus Christ died on the cross. Most are Roman Catholic, but all are welcome.

This Good Friday tradition is unique to Cincinnati - dating to 1861. That's when German Catholics made the first pilgrimage to the pinnacle of Mount Adams. Before the invention of automobiles or the advent of inclined-plane railways, climbing the steps was the only direct route to the new German Catholic house of worship at the summit.

The climb was too steep for even the hardiest horse and buggy. Back then, it was called the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Dedicated in December 1860, it was built of limestone quarried from the hillside. The first steps to the church, made of wood, were also built that year.

Holy Cross-Immaculata Church will be open for 24 hours, from when the stroke of midnight turns Holy Thursday into Good Friday. The Rev. Stanley H. Neiheisel, pastor of the church, will bless the zigzagging steps - now concrete - before the first of the faithful begins the climb.

"This tradition is a sign of the faith of people who want to remember that Jesus died for us on Good Friday," Neiheisel said.

Steve James, of the Mack neighborhood of Green Township, will be accompanied by his son, Max, 11. Like his father, Max has ascended the steps on Good Friday each year of his life. As a baby, he, too, was carried in the arms of his father.

Jim James of Westwood, father of Steve and grandfather of Max, will also be there. The senior James, 70, has been climbing the steps for about 65 years. "I've been going up since my grandpa and grandma took me up," he said, "since I was 5 or 6 years old."

Jim James is unsure when his grandparents started doing this themselves, but he knows his own parents also made the ascent. That's at least five generations who have prayed the steps of Mount Adams - for at least seven decades.

The only thing that has changed over the years, said Jim James, is that "I can't carry Steve any more." And Steve James is now joined by his wife, Elaine, and their other two children, Whitney and Dan.

They'll pause on each step, reciting the Lord's Prayer or the Hail Mary - or praying "whatever comes to mind," Jim James said.

The James family is of German and Welsh ancestry. Usually, about 35 members - including Steve's three brothers, two sisters and their children - climb Mount Adams. This year, Steve's brother Mike, who lives in Nashville, will travel the farthest to join in, along with his wife, Dana, and their three children.

Good Friday, one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar is the biggest get-together of the year for the Jameses. "Children want to spend Christmas Day in their own homes," Steve James notes. And while Good Friday "is a day of reflection - it's also a time for our family to reunite."

Parking can be problematic. Motorists grab a spot wherever they can on the streets below Mount Adams. The James family parks some cars atop Mount Adams, then shuttles everyone back down after making the climb.

Because they are such a large group - with diverse schedules and ages, including 15 grandchildren - the Jameses won't start the ascent at the same time. But they plan to congregate afterward.

Once they reach Holy Cross-Immaculata Church, members of the James family usually buy a fish dinner for $4 at the Parish Center on Guido Street. The fish fry runs from 3 to 7 p.m. The Jameses carry their sandwiches, french fries and coleslaw to Crowley's Highland House, on nearby Pavilion Street. For at least the past 15 years, they have gathered at the second-oldest pub on Mount Adams and ordered pitchers of beer and soda pop to wash down dinner. For Crowley's, which dates to 1937, it's among the busiest days of the year - rivaling St. Patrick's Day and Thanksgiving Day, according to bartender David Riesenbeck.

The beer and pop and fish will sit on tables until the entire James clan gathers. "You can't eat or drink from noon to 3 p.m." anyway, Steve James notes, "because that's when Jesus was on the cross."

Before breaking their fast, family members will raise their glasses in a toast: "To a long life."

"We have always done this," Steve James said. "It's a means of passing tradition on to the little ones so they can carry it on. It's us together - and it's the family reflecting back on what's been sacrificed for us."


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