Pilsen Via Crucis Stations of the Cross draws biggest crowd in years

The annual reenactment of the last days of Jesus Christ’s life has long drawn crowds. In its 46th year, organizers said attendance was higher than it had been even before the pandemic.

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Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, is nailed to a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Harrison Park in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, is nailed to a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Harrison Park in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Death came at nearly every turn in Pilsen on Friday.

The hooded figure carrying a scythe stalked a dinner among (mostly) friends, took part in an agonizing walk down 18th Street and finally attended a mock crucifixion on Calvary, which was actually Harrison Park.

Juan Corral, a Pilsen resident, played the role of death in the neighborhood’s annual Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) procession. It wasn’t Corral’s first time participating in the event that attracts hundreds each year.

“Compared to when I played Jesus, it’s a big turnaround,” said Corral, 53. “It really hit me when I looked Jesus straight in the eyes when he was on the cross, and he looked back at me. With the music, it gave me shivers.”

The tradition dates back to 1977 when parishioners of Providence of God Catholic Church at 18th Street and Union Avenue began reenacting the final days of Jesus to mark Good Friday, the day when Jesus is said to have been killed before rising from the dead on Easter.

The day began at the church, in the basement auditorium where volunteers acted out iconic scenes, from the Last Supper through Jesus being crowned with thorns. Then the procession followed 18th Street for a mile to Harrison Park for the crucifixion and then finally ended at St. Pius V Catholic Church on Ashland Avenue for final prayers.

Priscilla Bonilla, 18, who portrayed Mary, helps Ernest Rionaula, who depicted Jesus Christ, get ready before the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday, April 7, 2023. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Priscilla Bonilla, 18, who portrayed Mary, helps Ernest Rionaula, who depicted Jesus Christ, get ready before the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday, April 7, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Isaac Barrera, who oversaw the procession this year, said it was the best-attended procession he could remember. Attendance had declined since 2020, but Barrera, 46, said the crowd on Friday was even bigger than when he played Jesus seven years ago.

About 40 people volunteered to act this year. In addition to Jesus, death and well-known figures such as Mary, Pontius Pilate and Judas, there were dozens of actors playing he roles of the apostles, women of Jerusalem and Roman soldiers.

In addition to Providence and St. Pius V, the third participating church this year was St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street, where the volunteer who played Jesus attends church.

Ernest Rionaula, an Austin resident, had never heard of the tradition but felt blessed to be offered the role, as it gave him a chance to deepen his faith.

“It does involve what you might call acting,” said Rionaula, 21. “But you go deeper into what this means for us as believers.”

Rionaula was unflinching as well over 1,000 people watched him haul the large wooden cross behind a Roman soldier on a horse. The crowd could hear his screams and the sound of a soldier along with religious songs that blared from a van at the head of the procession.

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, cries out in pain as he carries a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday, April 7, 2023. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, cries out in pain as he carries a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday, April 7, 2023.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The acting was enhanced by special effects that included a whip being dipped in a red liquid so that blood stains appeared when Jesus was scourged and a blood-squirting spear for when a soldier pierced Jesus side.

“It really makes you feel like you’re there,” said Elizabeth Lizzo, a Hinsdale resident who drove to the city with her husband Tom to witness Friday’s procession.

The pair began attending the event several years, first learning about it when Tom Lizzo worked on 18th Street.

“We don’t speak Spanish,” he said. “But we know the story.”

For others, the procession takes on a significance beyond religion.

“No matter your faith, it bring the community together,” said Isaura Salinas, a lifelong Pilsen resident.

The 37-year-old returned this year after missing it the past few years, and she brought her sons for the first time.

The boys seemed content after Jesus was taken down, because the crowd dispersed and room opened up for them to play soccer with an empty coffee cup, but she said she hoped the procession had made an impression.

“It’s an opportunity for me to get them exposed to these kind of things,” she said. “Let them see it’s not just corporate world out there. There are other things.”

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, reenacts the Last Supper during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Providence of God Church in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, reenacts the Last Supper during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Providence of God Church in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Alejandro Ramirez, who plays Pontius Pilate, washes his hands during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Alejandro Ramirez, who plays Pontius Pilate, washes his hands during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, reacts as a guard spanks him during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Providence Church of God in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, reacts as a guard spanks him during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Providence Church of God in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A person holds a rope as people dressed as guards stand outside Providence of God Church during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A person holds a rope as people dressed as guards stand outside Providence of God Church during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, carries a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, carries a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

People walk along West 18th Street during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

People walk along West 18th Street during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Eridany Ortega (in blue) carries her daughter Miliani Guadalupe Ortega during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Eridany Ortega (in blue) carries her daughter Miliani Guadalupe Ortega during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Szymon Kubik, who plays Simon of Cyrene, carries a cross along West 18th Street during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Szymon Kubik, who plays Simon of Cyrene, carries a cross along West 18th Street during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

People walk along West 18th Street during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

People walk along West 18th Street during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, carries a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, carries a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A woman stands along West 18th Street during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

A woman stands along West 18th Street during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A man dressed as a guard holds a piece of cloth with Jesus Christ’s image on it during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A man dressed as a guard holds a piece of cloth with Jesus Christ’s image on it during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A resident watches people walk along West 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, Friday, April 7, 2023. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A resident watches people walk along West 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Miguel Reyes, who plays a thief, is nailed to a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Harrison Park in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Miguel Reyes, who plays a thief, is nailed to a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Harrison Park in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

People watch as the man who plays Jesus Christ is nailed to the cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

People watch as the man who plays Jesus Christ is nailed to the cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, is nailed to a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Harrison Park in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ernest Rionaula, who plays Jesus Christ, is nailed to a cross during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, at Harrison Park in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Men carry Ernest Rionaula during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Men carry Ernest Rionaula during the 46th annual “Via Crucis: Living Way of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, in the Pilsen neighborhood, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

People gather for a final prayer at St. Pius V Catholic Church in the Pilsen neighborhood during the 46th annual Via Crucis or “Stations of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, Friday. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

People gather for a final prayer at St. Pius V Catholic Church in the Pilsen neighborhood during the 46th annual Via Crucis or “Stations of the Cross,” a Lenten tradition that recounts the passion and death of Jesus Christ, Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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