Mexicans in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood perform a living stations of the cross, or via crucis, every year on Good Friday. The television stations dutifully cover it.
The event starts out at Providence of God parish, then proceeds one and a half miles west down 18th Street to Harrison Park.
Providence didn’t post any signs outside its church. The doors to the church itself were locked, so anyone wanting to visit the Blessed Sacrament in the altar of repose were out of luck. After seeing some other confused visitors wind their way into a side door, I discovered the stations start out in the basement hall underneath the church.
Those who got there early enough to find a seat contended with hard metal folding chairs. The performance began 30 minutes late. Everyone in the audience was casually dressed. Many held up their smartphones, often quite conspicuously, to record photos or videos. The performance was mostly in Spanish and was well done. Although, there were repeated audio issues – every time the actor playing Jesus turned his head to the right, his mic cut out.
At the point where our Lord takes up his cross, we filed outside to 18th Street to follow him. Following the procession was a van with loudspeakers blasting a campy song in Spanish accompanied by acoustic guitar. It distracted from attempts to focus on the passion of our Lord.
Every so often the procession would halt. An announcer would narrate the current station, first in Spanish and then in English. But this wasn’t consistent; he skipped the English for several stations, then at another he narrated entirely in English with no Spanish translation.
Many of the women among us wore tight jeans or tight leggings, surely a potential temptation to sins of lust for the men.
When we reached Harrison Park, where the crucifixion itself was re-enacted, our male narrator vanished and a woman, speaking only in Spanish, took over. She spoke in a monotone voice with no emotion, clearly reading off a script.
Roaming about the park were vendors hawking cotton candy and treats, on a day of fasting.
After the actor playing our crucified Lord was taken down from the cross, the procession turned north towards Pilsen’s cavernous, crumbling, beautiful, soon-to-be-closed St. Adalbert’s parish for a “reflection.”
Alas, the priest who spoke from the pulpit offered no Good Friday reflection, just some remarks thanking the volunteers. Meanwhile the church organ played in the background, in what struck me as a discordant violation of the prohibition on music from Holy Thursday to the Easter Vigil.
The priest concluded his remarks without even so much as a blessing or wishing of a Happy Easter. We all sat in our pews wondering what to do. After a few moments, we realized it was over and started to leave.
I couldn’t locate the altar of repose. As I passed through the narthex, there were individuals handing out parish bulletins. I asked no less than three of them, “Where is the altar of repose?” Not one of them could tell me. One young man shrugged, said he didn’t know, and turned away from me.
Food vendors encamped the sidewalk, tempting the weak flesh.
As I walked back to catch the CTA, I took note of all the Mexican restaurants open on 18th Street, the smell of cooked meat in the air.
Pilsen’s named after the Czech city of Plzen. For the first half of the 20th century, it was home to a large population of Central European immigrants – Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians. As they graduated up the economic ladder, Mexicans moved in and Pilsen became known as one of Chicago’s most Mexican of neighborhoods, if not a hotbed of gang violence and shootings.
In recent years, however, 10,000 of its Mexican residents have left, as the neighborhood’s close proximity to downtown attracts yuppies and gentrification, while its reasonable rents attract hipsters and artists. Its five or so Catholic parishes face closure, consolidation, and likely extinction. How long before Via Crucis is just a memory?