When the ecumenical "Lenten Journey" started in West Seneca, organizers did not know what to expect.
The idea in the 1970s was to get people from different churches and denominations together for worship and fellowship to discover what they had in common. St. David's Episcopal Church offered to host the first one, fliers were put up in stores and other locations around town, and organizers waited.
"We were going to get some doughnuts, put some coffee on," recalled Mary Lou Dietrich, who now directs the West Seneca Food Pantry. "When people started coming, we had not enough chairs, not enough doughnuts."
They ran out for more coffee and doughnuts during the service, had to call police for traffic control and "we realized we were on to something good," she said.
Forty years later, participants still think they are on to a good thing.
This year's West Seneca's program, with "On the Way to the Cross" as its theme, will take place at 7 p.m. each Wednesday in Lent at a different church. In keeping with the spirit of ecumenism, the clergy leading the service on any given evening is a visitor in a church outside his denomination. Each service reflects the traditions of the church that is hosting it.
Bishop R. William Franklin of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York will kick off the 40th anniversary of this tradition on March 8 with a service at Queen of Heaven Catholic Church.
"Each church writes their own liturgy," said the Rev. Edward Ihde, rector at St. Nicholas Anglican Church. "In our church, we would bring in vespers."
The service could include anything from guitars and lots of singing to a formal liturgy with incense. They don't need a traffic cop anymore, but services usually draw more than 100 people. The program is sponsored by the West Seneca Community of Churches, a group of about 14 churches of different denominations.
"Which is part of the attraction of it, you experience different traditions in the different churches, and yet you're all worshiping together," Smith said. "I think that's good."
"We are all different flavors," Ihde said. "West Seneca Community of Churches gets along because we basically ignore differences, I think."
"It's always wonderful to see so many people from different churches coming together," said Lynne Smith, a member of St. David's.
Some religious traditions in communities have disappeared over the years. About 70 percent of Americans in 1977 said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to a Gallup poll. At the end of 2016, that number had dropped to 56 percent, according to Gallup.com.
"People are in and out," Dietrich said. "If families join parishes now, kids are in hockey, kids are here, kids are there, your time is so many different places."
But this Lenten tradition continues.
Within the services, there are also traditions, including a collection. This year half of the funds will be given to an orphanage in Haiti supported by Trinity Lutheran Church, and half will be donated to agencies in Buffalo dealing with issues of the homeless.
The second tradition is refreshments after the service.
"That's an important part of it, because that's when you get to visit," Dietrich said.
Services are scheduled:
March 8: Queen of Heaven Catholic Church, 4220 Seneca St.
March 15: Ebenezer United Church of Christ, 630 Main St.
March 22: St. Peter's United Church of Christ, 1475 Orchard Park Road.
March 29: New Hope United Methodist Church, 2846 Seneca St.
April 5: St. John Vianny Catholic Church, 2950 Southwestern Blvd., Orchard Park.
A Good Friday service, "Seven Last Words," will take place from noon to 3 p.m. at Covenant United Methodist Church, 539 Main St.