It is the 90th anniversary of the renowned The Passion Play at Union City's Park Performing Arts Center. This modernized version of the last days of Jesus Christ was first brought to Holy Family Church in Union Hill (now Union City) in 1915 by the beloved Rev. Joseph N. Grieff, and has since become the longest continuous-running Passion Play in the United States.
Joseph N. Grieff was born in Eschweiler, Luxembourg in 1855, and educated in Verona, Italy. Soon after being ordained a priest in 1878, Grieff immigrated to the United States, where he was accepted into the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and assigned to be the assistant to St. Boniface Parish in Paterson in 1881.
On Feb. 8, 1884, Grieff was appointed pastor of Holy Family Parish, which at that time served the large German-speaking community of the area.
"During the early 1800s, there was a large German population [in Union City], which also goes back to the growing embroidery industry at that time," said Father Kevin Ashe, the current director of the Park Performing Arts Center.
In 1915, in the midst of World War I, Pope Benedict XV issued a plea for world peace. Grieff envisioned an idea that would embrace the surrounding community through a "living prayer" based on traditional performance, which had originated in Oberammergau, Bavaria since 1680.
"Part of the German culture was to put on Passion Plays, and the one in Oberammergau goes back to the middle ages," said Ashe. "The parish got behind the idea."
Meant to illustrate Christ's sacrifice
The Passion Play, in its original German, interprets the last days of Christ. Catholics around the world observe this period during the Lenten season in preparation for Easter.
Grieff felt that the play's message of "Christ's sacrifice and death on behalf of all mankind" would be a positive influence during times of peace or war, Ashe said.
"In 1915 they had access to the original manuscript in German; [Grieff] had a teacher from Union Hill High School translate the first English version of the play," said Ashe.
Also, thanks to the growing Vaudeville circuit, actors were in vast supply. There was also assistance from the booming embroidery industry that helped make most of the costumes for the Passion Play.
Local artists even volunteered to paint the scenery.
"They all came together to stage the first production of the Passion Play," said Ashe.
Creating the Park PAC
The first productions were presented in the Holy Family School auditorium, which seated about 800 people. Eventually Grieff increased the auditorium capacity in 1922.
However, he also approached Archbishop Thomas Joseph Walsh about the possibilities of building a new theatre for the Passion Play. Walsh said he would only be able to approve an addition to the school for educational purposes, so Greiff presented the idea of a six-classroom and auditorium annex for the school.
The annex was constructed and eventually became the existing Park Performing Arts Center, including below-stage dressing rooms to accommodate the dominantly male cast.
"Grieff was a sharp businessman," said Ashe.
The theatre opened in 1931 as the home of the Passion Play, and since then, thousands of faithful followers have returned to the Park PAC every year, coming from all over the tri-sate area.
Community grew around the play
"[Grieff] was a real builder of the community," said Ashe. "He even used to give people mortgages to help them buy their homes, and was responsible for setting up a settling house for Germans, who were recently arrived to the area."
Throughout the 1930s at the peak of American Vaudeville, the Park PAC also provided a venue for other parish or community productions in between performances of the Passion Play.
Grieff became ill in early 1940, and died in 1941.
After Grieff's death, loyalists and parishioners of the Passion Play continued his legacy.
"It's a story that people just love; for years people have been intrigued, inspired and entertained by the story of the life of Christ, and throughout the years it has also adapted itself to each age group," Ashe said.
Although the audience began to decrease due to the rise in popularity of movies and television, the production pressed on. It also shared the theatre for school graduations, concert recitals, and for a short time an opera group.
In 1982, Ashe was assigned as pastor to Holy Family Church and temporary administrator for the Park PAC.
"I never realized that the jewel of the Archdiocese was here; it was the best kept secret in northeast New Jersey," said Ashe, who will also be retiring in about a year and a half.
Ashe helped revamp the space, and in 1983 the theatre was established as separate entity from Holy Family Church.
It has presented numerous theatrical performances, but always maintained the tradition started by Grieff.
Throughout the years the production has also adapted to the changing times with modern twists in the language and music.
"This play has probably introduced more people to the theatre than any other play in New Jersey," said Ashe. "Grandparents who first saw this play as children now bring their grandchildren, and every time it's always going to be a new experience because you get new insight into the story. It peaks the imagination which is what theatre is suppose to do."
The Passion Play will be running this year on Saturdays and Sundays from March 25 to April 23 with performances beginning at 2 p.m.
General admission is $23, students pay $15, and children under 12 pay $10. Different group rates also apply. For tickets call (877) 238-5596 or order online from SmartTix.