ST. DONATUS, Iowa — While a large group made the traditional trek up the hill behind St. Donatus Catholic Church on Friday afternoon, the heavy wooden crosses stayed at the bottom of the hill.

About 100 people gathered to partake in the Outdoor Way of the Cross, the annual St. Donatus Good Friday tradition. On the way up the hill, the group stopped at 14 brick stations, each depicting a different moment for the final hours in the life of Jesus Christ.

However, COVID-19 noticeably changed the procession. Typically, people passing a heavy wooden cross to bear on their shoulders creates a striking image during the walk. This year, because of COVID-19 protocols, the cross was absent in an attempt to prevent close contact.

But those who gathered were just happy to partake in a Good Friday tradition.

“I loved it. It feels like we’re moving toward normalcy,” said Adele Nicks, of Peosta, who had walked in the Way of the Cross 15 previous times.

She and the typical crowd of hundreds didn’t gather last year, however, as the event was canceled entirely due to COVID-19 concerns.

“It was sad. I think we’ve probably done it every year since Father Flamming was here, except probably if there was a freak blizzard or something,” said the Rev. Dennis Miller, who led the Way of the Cross for the first time. “It’s definitely more of the exception than the rule when we don’t have it.”

Miller said the Way of the Cross was started in 1861 by the Rev. Michael Flamming, then-pastor of St. Donatus Catholic Church who ordered the construction of the stations.

While this year’s Way of the Cross looked slightly different, Miller said he was grateful for the opportunity to partake in the tradition with others. Last year, he noted he led Good Friday services online while he stood alone in a church, while this year he was able to lead an in-person service before the march up the hill.

“I’m really excited to be able to have some people back and being able to pray together again,” he said.

Miller added that he was initially nervous about holding an event that could bring so many people along one narrow path, but he anticipated that this year’s crowd would be smaller. Many people are still leery about going out to do things like attending Mass in person, he said, and he looks forward to the point when everyone feels comfortable attending again.

The Way of the Cross group said a prayer and sang a hymn at each station, ringing out the same words in unison. The procession ended with a final song at the Pieta Chapel, which was built in 1885.

Nicks said this walk seemed to go quite a bit faster compared to years past, perhaps due to the smaller crowd, but she was glad to participate in the meaningful tradition.

She also noted that she’s amazed people were able to haul rock all the way up the hill to construct the chapel hundreds of years ago.

She said that she used to walk the Way of the Cross with her mother, Gertrude Frommelt, who took the journey on foot all the way until she was 82 years old.

“It’s a beautiful experience,” Nicks said. “On Good Friday, I always think of her, and I want to make the journey.”

Nicks also brought her friend, Gloria Greenwood, of Peosta, who took part in the Way of the Cross for the first time. She remarked on the gorgeous view of the valley below the Pieta Chapel.

“It’s one of those things that you always meant to do,” Greenwood said. “It’s fabulous to be here.”

Jackie Duwa, of Lost Nation, attended the Way of the Cross for the first time in years.

She has completed the walk previously with family, but she had forgotten what the chapel and the view from the top of the hill looked like.

She was also happy to attend a church service before making the walk.

“Our church still didn’t have any services,” Duwa said. “It was a good Good Friday, it was a good Palm Sunday, and it’s going to be a good Easter.”

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