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After in-person play canceled, ‘Via Crucis’ adapted for Spanish-language Catholic radio

Marshalltown parish’s Hispanic community tradition continues

MARSHALLTOWN — The parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Marshalltown recently used old technology to solve a new problem.

Every year, the parish’s Spanish-speaking community has a tradition of presenting the Via Crucis, or Passion play, on Good Friday evening with 35 parishioners dressed in costumes of all of the roles from Pilate’s wife to Mary Magdalene, from Jesus to the temple priests.

“It’s one of the highlights of the year,” said Father Alan Dietzenbach, pastor. “Last year was my first year at the parish, and I was blown away by the level of acting, creativity, costumes that was required to pull off the 45-minute play. It was also incredibly moving to see how those who packed church were moved by it.”

The Via Crucis participants were especially excited this year as both of the parish’s priests were set to participate, in the roles of Jesus and the beloved disciple.

However, with several weeks of practice under their belts, the coronavirus began to create complications. At first, the actors practiced at home in the hopes that the virus would pass quickly and they could move ahead with the Good Friday timeline. When it became clear that wouldn’t be possible, they started to explore other options.

They considered filming videos in groups of 10 or less and splicing the videos together; however, the director, Blanca Cisneros, had a better idea. She suggested they utilize the sound system at St. Henry’s, one of the parish’s churches, to reimagine the Via Crucis as a sort of “old time radio show.”

Father Dietzenbach explained: “We got the script down to 10 people who played various roles, used the various music microphones, and we also provided the sound effects! We had large sheets of cardstock to create the sound of thunder, dropped music books to make it sound like the cross falling to the ground, and we even found out that one of the actors could do a great rooster call. It was awesome!”

The recording was then touched up by volunteer technicians at the parish’s Catholic radio station and aired on Good Friday.

Cisneros has directed the play for the last five years and this year, for the first time, played the role of Mary. It was a role especially challenging to her as she lost her son Derek three years ago in a tragic car accident.

She explained what the experience of the Passion play means to her: “Personally, it fills me with blessings, because as Hispanics, the chance to represent a living Via Crucis is a great blessing. Through this play, God teaches us that nothing is impossible, he equips us so that we can act in his name, he fills us with hope. In the midst of so much precaution because of the coronavirus, he provided a way that all the community could still live it. I believe that now it meant more because we had that chance to really listen to it from our homes.

It strengthens us too as parishioners to have Father Alan and Father Michael work with us and to share our culture with the greater parish community.”

Father Dietzenbach said, “It was a situation where something really great grew out of a need. This year, perhaps more than others, we needed to be reminded that we aren’t alone and that Jesus suffers with us in our hurt and has conquered death. I can’t wait to do it live in person next year!”

An audio recording of the play can be found on the Marshalltown Catholic radio station’s website:

This article was contributed to The Witness by the pastor and parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Marshalltown. Blanca Cisneros’ comments were translated from Spanish to English for the article.


Cover photo:

Parishioners from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Marshalltown recorded a Passion play in Spanish for radio. The Hispanic community of the parish has a tradition of performing this live. The cast is shown together above in the parish church. (Contributed photo)