St. John Passion Play a pledge of prayer to protect service men and women

Church to host 107th play that began in 1918.

CINCINNATI — As bombs fell and bullets whizzed by Allied forces during the Great War, families here on the home front prayed for their son’s safe return from the front lines.

Father Richard Wurth, the Franciscan pastor of St. John the Baptist Church, read the headlines regarding World War I and the number of injured or killed on all sides of the ongoing combat. As the history of St. John the Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine goes, Father Wurth decided to honor Cincinnati’s sacrifice to the war with a pledge of prayer through a Passion Play.

“There’s pretty much a pledge or a prayer for God’s protection,” said Ron Hendershot, president of St. John’s Passion Play.

Hendershot has spent decades participating in the play, which began in 1918 and stands as the longest continuously-running Passion Play in America.

“The prayer for protection, that is how the play formed and started and so that was actually in 1917. But after that, third performance, they did three performances that year. That’s when he realized that nobody else had been lost overseas in war, World War I,” said Hendershot. “So that’s when they decided to, at that point, to create the St. John Passion Play, and going forward that shall let you know for that promise and a prayer was made for at that point.”

The play has moved around to different churches throughout the years either due to closures or other logistical issues.

However, preparations and rehearsals are underway ahead of this year’s four performances at Lockland Christian Church. Endless racks of costumes, some decades old, are mended and cared for by parishioners. Swords and spears along with authentic replicas of leather Roman armor are touched up and recreated in some cases to preserve the look of the play.

Hendershot is focused on keeping the play going, but also holding onto the memories of the past preserving an original chalice used in the 1918 production, along with costume items from some of the earliest productions.

“I also want to create an archive, to where this can be preserved in a manner that it should be,” Hendershot said.

He showed us a large collection of newspaper clippings and stacks of photos taken over the years of different parishioners. He’s working to identify not only the year of the photographs but the people in them to create a better timeline through the years of production.

While the St. John Passion Play is centered on religion, Hendershot said the underlying mission of the play continues to this day.

“It’s a Christian play clearly, and depicting the passion of Jesus’s last days, hence, death and resurrection,” Hendershot said. “But the whole start of it and still, you know, the emphasis of it is for the protection of our military around the world.”

The military those prayers are meant to protect will be at the forefront of Lockland Christian Church on the final performance date of this year’s play. Hendershot says the National Guard will have static displays outside, an honor guard will present the colors and the pastor will take a moment to honor those in the crowd who have served or are currently serving in the U.S. military.

Hendershot says he’s proud to be able to continue a pledge made in 1917 by Father Wurth.

“I think he would be completely shocked that 107 years later, it’s still going on what he started,” Hendershot said.

How to go

What: The Passion Play

Where: Lockland Christian Church, 231 Mill St., Cincinnati

When: 3 p.m., today, March 17; 7 p.m. March 23 and 3 p.m. March 24. A special salute to the military will take place as part of the March 24 performance

Cost: Free; It is recommended to go to the St John Passion Play website at to reserve a ticket in advance

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