For the 30th consecutive year the Passion of Our Lord was commemorated on Good Friday at St. John the Evangelist Church in Philadelphia through a Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross) utilizing the music of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886).
The score is taken from his 1878 Stabat Mater, as created by University of the Arts Professor Annette DiMedio and staged by Pearl Schaeffer, CEO of Philadelphia Arts in Education.
It is a tradition that was established when the late Msgr. Charles Devlin was pastor of St. John’s. Msgr. Devlin, who died in 2010, was probably the last person buried in St. John’s tiny graveyard, although he probably had a better listening post for this service from heaven.
In addition to being a great composer, Liszt was in his day considered the world greatest pianist, and it is appropriate that DiMedio accompanied the presentation by piano. She is also the producer of the long-running Sunday Mass on Channel 6 and music director at St. John’s.
“It was my idea to take this powerful Liszt musical depiction of the Stations of the Cross and bring it to life as a pianist with singers, adding movement to the music and then freezing the station with narration and reflective responses by the congregation,” DiMedio said. “The Good Friday hour of this 30-year creation is a transforming experience of this timeless story for all of us — the actors, musicians, narrator and the congregation — as we walk with Jesus down the Via Dolorosa.”
“Working on this production is an intensely personal and spiritual journey and I am continually humbled by the commitment of all who contribute to bringing this annual event to fruition,” Schaeffer said. “As a professional dancer and educator it is especially gratifying to work with a diverse cast and crew of young aspiring artists who are joined by talented seasoned performers.”
Virtually everyone connected with the production has some connection to the University of the Arts, although it is not itself sponsored by the university.
The singers this year – soprano Linda Powell, tenor Randy Thomson and baritone Thomas Deluca — all have been participating for years; in Thompson’s case from the very beginning.
Their offerings included such traditional hymns as “Vexilla Regis,” “Stabat Mater” and “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” all set to Liszt’s music.
Central to the production are the Stations of the Cross, and in this case the narrator and leader was Father John Daya, O.F.M.Cap., the current pastor of St. John’s. He has a spiritual family connection to Liszt, who in his later years took minor orders as a Third Order Franciscan.
In his eighth year of participation in the production, Father Daya believes it is an inspiring performance.
“It really touches people’s hearts and gets into the whole experience of Good Friday and the pain of Christ and his eventual resurrection,” he said. “It is inspiring and moving.”
The cast, who represent the various figures in the stations, tend to be current students or recent graduates. Their roles as choreographed by Schaeffer were performed by action, not singing. Included were Jesus, Mary, Pilate, Simon, John, Veronica and other women, and centurions.
Another student, Greg Power, played Jesus. He’s Presbyterian and probably not that familiar with the Stations of the Cross.
“I can’t relate to what Jesus went through physically and emotionally,” he said. “It is very human, I take that and expand on it.”
Kayla Rivera played Veronica, and she is a member of St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Philadelphia. “I feel honored because Veronica wiped the face of Jesus,” she said.
Langston Massey Jefferson, who is Baptist and a University of the Arts graduate and professional singer, came back to help DiMedio. He knows his Bible and did triple duty playing Pilate, Simon and John the Apostle. “Pilate condemned Jesus and the other two helped him,” he mused.
The entire production, incorporating Stations of the Cross, took just about an hour and everyone in the congregation stayed.
“It’s beautiful, and I think it was an excellent performance,” said John Bradley, a member of Presentation B.V.M. Parish, Wynnewood. He has been attending the Via Crucis at St. John the Evangelist for more than 10 years.
Next year Good Friday falls on April 19, so mark your calendar and check out this devotion now running three decades.