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One night, seven churches: Ancient Holy Thursday custom makes a comeback

For decades, the custom existed mostly only in memory. On Holy Thursday, parents and grandparents would recall, Catholics used to pray at seven churches.

Holy Thursday is one of the most solemn nights of the liturgical calendar. Mass ends in stark silence, anticipating Jesus’ suffering and death. The main altar is stripped, and crosses are covered. The Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated bread Catholics believe is Christ’s body, is placed in a tabernacle on an elaborately decorated side altar, known as the Altar of Repose.

Traditionally, the church stays open late. People remain to venerate the Blessed Sacrament, and perhaps pray the Stations of the Cross, which chronicle Jesus’ journey to crucifixion.

The Seven Churches Visitation, begun in the 1500s in Rome by St. Philip Neri, built on that. After Mass, the faithful would visit six more churches, often on foot. In each church, they would kneel and pray for a short while, before moving quietly to the next.

In recent decades, the tradition faded. Churches closed, and parishes became farther apart. But the Renaissance tradition is having a renaissance.

This Thursday, area Catholic churches will be expecting visitors. And visitors will arrive.

By car, limo or even bike

Times have changed. Driving has replaced walking. Some folks go solo. Others pile into a car with family or friends. Last year, a group of women arrived at St. John Kanty in a limo.

The cupolas of Corpus Christi Church, top, and St. Stanislaus Church can be seen in this aerial photo from Aug. 19, 2014. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

And some arrive by bike. Last year, the Rev. Jud Weiksnar, a Franciscan friar and a regular on Buffalo's Slow Roll bicycle excursions, followed a suggestion from a 30-year-old fellow rider and led a bicycle tour of the seven churches. He jokingly dubbed it the Holy Roll. Though not sponsored by Slow Roll, 50 people participated. They were quite a sight, rolling up with lights and bells to East Side churches, crowding the narrow streets.

This year, the adventure will repeat. The Holy Roll, open to all, will leave on bike at 8:30 p.m. Thursday from SS. Columba and Brigid, 75 Hickory St., where Friar Jud, as Weiksnar is known around town, is pastor. Some riders will have attended 7 p.m. Mass. Others, the friar freely admits, will be coming from the beer blast celebrating the release of Slow Roll's season schedule.

Some churches are running bus tours, including St. Gregory the Great in Amherst and St. Stephen's on Grand Island, whose bus will visit Niagara County churches.

Groups make a night of it. In Cheektowaga, the Knights of Columbus are meeting for dinner, then attending Mass at St. Gualbert's, then proceeding to St. John Kanty, St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, St. Adalbert's, St. Stanislaus, Corpus Christi and Resurrection.

"We just started this last year," said one of the Knights, Paul Dlugosz. "Instant tradition."

The one rule that binds – and bonds – the Holy Thursday crowds is respect for the deeply spiritual occasion.

Friar Jud presents a lighthearted image, sporting friar's robes specially shortened to permit him to ride a bicycle. But he doesn't sugarcoat the solemnity of the night, and was happy with how things went last year.

"I was impressed by the reverence of the riders, some of whom may not totally appreciate the significance of Holy Thursday," he said. "They knew it was more than a tourism trip, that something else was going on. Even if they're not entirely familiar with it, they understand."

The Seven Churches Visitation has deep roots in urban areas, where churches were historically close to each other.

"When I was little I lived on Lombard Street, and my grandma could walk to seven churches," said Chris Cooley, the secretary of Corpus Christi Church.

Nostalgically, she listed the churches accessible to her grandmother from that Broadway Market location, including the former St. Mary of Sorrows, affectionately known as "Seven Dolors," and the recently shuttered St. Ann's.

Though options are fewer these days, the determined pilgrim can still do the pilgrimage in a couple of hours.

Oscar Parada, a University at Buffalo student from Long Island who attends the Latin Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church downtown, visited the seven churches in Buffalo last year. Parada, whose homeland is El Salvador, hitched a ride with a friend also trying the tradition for the first time.

"It was amazing to see so many people visiting the seven churches in Buffalo," he said. "In El Salvador, there is only one church in every town, so most people remain after Mass and there is a procession with the Blessed Sacrament and with an image of Christ dressed in white and blindfolded. Most people would stay at church until midnight. The seven churches isn't common."

Parada, 20,  first attempted to visit the seven churches in 2016, on Long Island, but was the only person doing it. In Buffalo, as he visited churches including St. Louis, St. Michael's, Holy Angels and St. Stanislaus, he loved being part of a crowd.

"I was awestruck by the beautiful Altars of Repose," he said. "Even though some people were only touring and weren’t there to worship, it made me feel great to see so many people in church."

Showcasing churches

Other American cities, including Charlotte, N.C., and Cincinnati, Ohio, also are revisiting the Seven Churches Visitation. It could be that Catholics, shaken by priest scandals and church closings, are seeking grounding in the roots of their faith, in exploring how things used to be. Another reason is likely a secular one – a renewed zeal for Buffalo's history and heritage.

Soaring, ornate Catholic churches are part of this heritage. The Seven Churches Visitation offers a chance to explore what has become exotic.

"I think now, since many people aren't regularly inside beautiful churches, it has an appeal it wouldn't have otherwise," Friar Jud reflected.

Whatever the reason for the renaissance, Christopher Byrd, the mastermind of the Mass Mob movement and a longtime champion of the Broadway-Fillmore district, rejoices in it. It occurred to Byrd as early as 2007 to promote a self-guided Holy Thursday journey to seven historic churches in Buffalo's Polonia and Kaisertown districts.

"My favorite place to go to is St. Luke's Mission of Mercy," said Christopher Byrd. "The whole church is dark. The Altar of Repose is the only thing lit up, by candlelight. "

"I did it when I was young, into my teen years. It kind of went by the wayside," he said. "I thought it would be a neat idea to reacquaint people with the tradition."

In the first year, Byrd recalled, he received about 50 requests for the information. Now, he said, the number tops 2,000.

"I didn't really understand the religious significance of it until I got involved in promoting it," he said. "The first time I went, I went away feeling uplifted for Easter. It really strikes home, the solemnity of heading into Good Friday. I like showcasing these churches in their intended purpose. It's easy to go when they're open to come in for a tour, but when you see them on Holy Thursday, it gives you a sense of these Catholic traditions that these immigrant families brought with them.

"My favorite place to go to is St. Luke's Mission of Mercy," he added. "The whole church is dark. The Altar of Repose is the only thing lit up, by candlelight. They sell candles, or they'll give you one if you don't have money. You go and place the candle at the Altar of Repose." He paused. "For me, Holy Thursday is full of theological significance, and this gets you in the mindset of the real reason for the season."

Byrd tries his best, he said, to communicate that to people of different faiths.

"I always mention, this is one of the holiest nights in the Catholic Church, and some of the churches you go into might still have Mass going on. Just be respectful and reverent."

Friar Jud, as he leads his Holy Roll bicyclists, will be offering similar encouraging words.

"In addition to looking at the beautiful art and architecture of these churches, also look at the faces of the people who are praying," is the advice he said he would offer newcomers, "because this is such an important night for them."

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