As the season of Lent progresses, so will a Lenten tradition at a Southern Tier parish. For years, Holy Name of Mary Parish in Ellicottville has maintained a yearly Lenten prayer cross, which remains common among the parishioners as well as visitors to the region's popular ski resorts. The cross, which was erected on Ash Wednesday, will remain in the church through the end of the Easter season.
The prayer cross, which is put up on the right side of the church's sanctuary, consists of one large 7' by 5' cross, made entirely of wood. People pin, onto it, small, purple paper crosses on which they have written prayer intentions. This symbolizes pinning of wishes, worries, dreams and needs onto Jesus Christ. During each Mass during Lent, the church prays for the intentions during the Prayers of the Faithful.
"It started about 15 years ago. It was the brainchild of our parish liturgy committee, to involve people more actively in prayer during the Lenten season," said Father Ronald Mierzwa, pastor of Holy Name of Mary. "We constructed a rough-hewn cross using the trunks from Christmas trees, to show the connection between Christmas and Easter. Jesus was born for our salvation, and this is how it ended up, achieving our salvation."
The parish originally found the prayer crosses in a catalogue, which prompted the development of the tradition. However, since the company has since discontinued the prayer crosses, Father Mierzwa said the parish now has the crosses printed locally. Each paper cross has a purple side with the words "Lord Hear My Prayer," and a blank side where people write their personalized prayers.
Father Mierzwa said his parish is in a unique position because it gets many visitors from out of town, due to people who come in for skiing and other winter sports that take place in Ellicottville.
"Everyone gets very involved, both parishioners and seasonal visitors," Father Mierzwa added. "Before and after Mass, people congregate around the cross and write down their intentions, petitions or prayers on the white side of the prayer crosses."
During the season, the prayer cross becomes so popular that by the end of the Lenten season, there are often more than 700 paper crosses pinned to the large one. At Eastertime, all of the small crosses are taken down and the large cross is used as the centerpiece of the church's Easter exhibit. The small crosses are put into a crystal bowl at the foot of the exhibit, where people of all ages can see it.
"One person called it the 'cross of pain,' because so many of the intentions are so heartfelt. They're real problems, real issues in people's lives, and they're praying for him," Father Mierzwa said. If they cannot come, some people will ask someone else to write their intention on a cross.
Each year, the parish makes a new cross, because the wood dries out and the sap makes it impossible to pin the crosses to it. When choosing the trees to be made into the cross, the parish also tries to choose trees with softer wood in order to make it easier to shape the wood into the desired form.
In the time Holy Name of Mary has had this tradition, Father Mierzwa said he has heard "remarkable stories of success" from people who have had their prayers answered after they pinned them onto the prayer cross and the congregation prayed for those particular intentions.
These included one woman whose brother reportedly suffered a stroke. Once she found this out, she put a paper cross with her intentions on the prayer cross, and later discovered he never had a stroke at all, but rather a minor health problem that was easily treatable. Another woman asked for her uncle, who was in a hospital bed in critical condition, to get better. He was able to go home within three days.
When asked how the prayer cross project reflects the spirit of the Lenten season, Father Mierzwa said people are asked to voice their concerns, and the entire community joins in asking for their petition. "It gives them something physical to do. They actually write out what their concerns are, and they pin it to the cross, and we pray over it every day during Lent, a truly Lenten experience of prayer," he said.
"Lent is a time of intensified prayer, and prayer for ourselves and for others, so the prayer cross is a way of illustrating that," Father Mierzwa added. "By praying for our own intentions and those of our fellow Catholics, and even non-Catholics, who put their intentions on the prayer cross, one of the themes of Lent is prayer for the good of our soul. This is a way of illustrating that."