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MELROSE -- Every student at St. Mary of the Annunciation School looks forward to participating in the live Stations of the Cross when they reach the eighth grade. But this year, in light of pandemic restrictions, the grade eight students took a new approach to their annual tradition: instead of dressing up and pantomiming the stations for an assembly in the church, they used film, hand drawings, and a single actor to create a video of their Living Way of the Cross.
Normally, eighth-grade teacher Mark Flint would have his students sign up for their desired roles, and they would rehearse for six or seven weeks. They usually hold the living Stations of the Cross once for the school community, and again for the parish on Good Friday.
Last year, the eighth graders were at the point of holding dress rehearsals when schools were abruptly closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As St. Mary's switched to remote learning, they were unable to plan an alternative method of holding the stations. But this Lent, they had some advantages: the school was open, classes were in session, and they had time to brainstorm in advance and plan a way to hold the stations safely.
"Even though we weren't able to do it in church this year, I was thrilled that we were able to do it in another way, to get it out there," Flint said in a March 4 interview.
They obtained the principal's permission to hold the stations so long as Jesus was the only character featured and six feet of distance was maintained. That would mean no weeping crowds or Roman guards, no Pontius Pilate washing his hands, no Simon of Cyrene helping carry the cross, no St. Veronica wiping Jesus' face.
"It took a lot of rethinking this year," Flint said.
He opened it up to brainstorming at a class meeting in early January. Since the students in this year's eighth grade are, in his words, "particularly known for artistic ability," he suggested incorporating art.
"They are really gifted when it comes to their creativity and their artistic talent," he said.
Fifteen students drew illustrations -- one for each station, including the Resurrection at the end. Flint told them they could look up depictions of their station on the Internet, but then they had to create their own interpretation.
Michael O'Leary volunteered for the role of Jesus -- the only character they could portray with an actor.
The remaining students took turns reading the reflections and prayers for each station. The readings convey themes of social justice, which Flint said is a large part of their religion program.
Flint filmed Michael and the readers in the Annunciation Chapel in the parish center -- a space that was no longer in regular use, since the pandemic had forced the junior high school and religious education program to move to the main building's larger classrooms.
Because there was only one actor, they had to improvise scenes involving other characters. Michael held a cloth to his own face in Veronica's stead. For the fourth station, when Jesus meets his mother, Michael looked up at the chapel's stained-glass window depicting the Virgin Mary. For the 11th station, they positioned a hammer to rest on Michael's arm as he lay down on a cross, and the readers offscreen made pounding noises to suggest the hammering of nails.
"As a teacher, I liked that it made the kids think out of the box," Flint said.
When they had all the pieces they needed, Flint emailed them to the principal, Christopher Beza, who edited them to create an 18-minute video presentation. The video was published on YouTube on Feb. 18, and was shared on the school's Facebook page, the parish's website, and the parish's Facebook page. Later, Superintendent Thomas Carroll shared the video with all the archdiocese's Catholic schools via email.
"It really is beautiful to do it in church on Good Friday, but we did the best we could this year with what we were given, and we were all pretty pleased with the result," Flint said.
St. Mary of the Annunciation School's Living Way of the Cross can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZvuwFbmLUQ.