Good Friday Procession at St. Barbara’s in Bushwick

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04/15/2022

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Bushwick

Jesus meets Mary, El Grupo Dramatico de Santa Barbara 1994

In the 1970’s a group of mostly Puerto Rican parishioners, connected to the growing Catholic Cursillo movement, introduced a livelier more personal liturgy to their Italian-American and Irish-American fellow congregants at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church on 21st Street. The highlight of this group’s active devotion was their annual reenactment of the passion and death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday. Dressed as Jesus, Mary, Herod, and other New Testament figures, members of this group, informally known as de Colores, staged the traditional Stations of the Cross on the streets of the parish. Jesus was whipped, fell and met his Mother as hundreds watched. The first procession took place in 1974 and the last in 1981. 

While working in the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) Bushwick field office in 1994, my wife learned that a local church held an annual Good Friday procession. I was curious to see another one, and wondered if it would be as moving as the processions I had seen in the 1970’s. I hoped so, and on April 1st of that year brought two cameras with me to St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church on Central Avenue and Bleecker Street. 1994 was one of the rare years that Good Friday and April Fools Day have coincided – the last time 1988, the next time will be 2067. 

Completed in 1910 in the Spanish Baroque Revival style, St. Barbara’s is an incredibly beautiful church. It began as a “national parish” for German Catholics in the Bushwick-Ridgewood area but eventually became home to Italians, and in the 1960’s to Hispanic worshippers. 

What I saw that day exceeded my wildest hopes. I couldn’t believe my luck and realized that this was going to be a long-term photography project for me, not a one-day shoot.

Based on the Bible’s traditional 14 Stations of the Cross, El Grupo Dramatico de Santa Barbara (El Grupo) produced an elaborate and emotional reenactment of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. It began and ended on the large marble altar of St. Barbara’s Church, but most of the action took place along Evergreen, Central, and Wilson Avenues and their cross streets.  

It was no accident that the staging of the Stations of the Cross was so powerful. In the months leading up to Easter, El Grupo members devoted countless weekend and evening hours to rehearsing in St. Barbara’s school basement, and to making period costumes and props. Participation is an act of worship whether playing a major role such as Jesus Christ or a small one, like one of the serving girls at Herod’s court. There are parts for everyone: if there are more children one year, there will be more handmaidens and angels. If participants are scarce, members will play more than one part.

The group’s members have changed over the 20 plus years I’ve been photographing, but their faith and devotion have endured. 

El Grupo starts every meeting by holding hands in a prayer circle.

El Grupo Dramatico meeting 1997

On Good Friday participants spend hours putting on costumes, makeup and wigs in the Church rectory. They say a final prayer in the sacristy before starting the VIA CRUCIS (The Way of the Cross). It begins with the condemnation of Jesus on the main altar before a standing-room-only audience. Jesus is crowned with thorns, takes up his cross and leaves the Church. The procession continues down Bushwick’s streets where Jesus, followed by a huge crowd, enacts several Stations of the Cross including his three falls. In front of a building where Jesus has fallen, the late pastor Father John Powis would raise his voice to connect Jesus’ suffering with the pain caused by “the drug sales in this building” pointing to the building as he spoke. I was surprised when he did this. 

The Procession gradually wound its way back to St. Barbara’s for the last several Stations. The day’s highlight was the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves. I returned each year to a crucifixion scene that topped the year before: smoke, flashing lights and thunder enhanced the experience.

10th Station – the Crucifixion 2021

2022 will be the third year in a row that Covid-19 precautions have kept El Grupo from performing. Mario Trochez, the group’s former director who now lives in Pennsylvania, has been returning to Bushwick each year to direct, act, and help in any way he can. He is saddened by the recent cancellations of the procession, stating that “It needs to be done….it must be done” to honor Christ. He promised that next year he will organize a Good Friday procession in his Puerto Rican hometown.

The Via Crucis ends when Jesus is removed from the cross and taken to his tomb (the 14th and last traditional Station of the Cross). The dramatists slowly leave the altar, and return a few minutes later to cheers from the audience. Afterwards they pose for photographs with family and friends in the sacristy. Kenia Vargas, dressed as Mary Magdalene in a turquoise robe and white head scarf, stands directly to the left of Jesus in the photo below. She has played a variety of roles since joining El Grupo in 2000, and has missed participating because of Covid-19: “I’m praying to God that we can do it next year.”

“Backstage” in the sacristy 2007

Although El Grupo will not officially participate this year, members of the group will help the clergy and parishioners of St. Barbara’s with a modified procession on Good Friday, April 15th. Miguel David, who has provided professional audio direction and equipment to El Grupo since 1990, is lending a hand. He does not consider himself “a regular church-goer” but believes that it is important to continue the Via Crucis tradition.

For more information about this year’s plans, please contact the Rectory at St. Barbara’s: 718 452-3660.

***

Larry Racioppo returned to South Brooklyn in 1970 after two years in California as a VISTA volunteer. He took a course at the School of Visual Arts, began to photograph his family and friends, and has never stopped. 

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