The Good Friday procession through the streets of Toronto’s Little Italy has been a tradition since the 1950s. Photo courtesy Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Toronto Good Friday procession cancelled in wake of COVID-19

  • March 20, 2020

The annual Good Friday procession through downtown Toronto streets is another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nearly seven-decade-long tradition that for three hours each Good Friday brings to life the Stations of the Cross and Jesus’ final steps to the cross will not be gracing the streets of Little Italy this Easter. 

Fr. Francis Walter pulled the plug on this year’s procession March 18. It’s likely that health officials and city authorities would have done so in any case and Walter had received a letter from the Toronto Police Service saying it wouldn’t be able to provide security for the event.

“These are unusual circumstances,” said Walter, adding that the cancellation of the April 10 event comes with great sadness but which has been met with understanding from parishioners.

“They understand, it’s all circumstances. There hasn’t been any protest,” he said. “We have many elderly people that come to that procession and I just don’t want to put them in any danger. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins said it’s sad to see the cancellation of an event that draws thousands to the streets around St. Francis of Assisi Church to celebrate the faith, but it’s where we’re at in trying to combat COVID-19 that has brought the cancellation of Sunday and daily Mass in churches nationwide.

“We would never normally do it but this is not a normal situation,” said Collins. “We have to follow wisdom in this case (and) cooperate for the good of wider society.”

The procession has grown into one of the largest of its kind since its humble beginnings in 1953 (or 1955, no one is quite sure which year is correct), often drawing near 100,000 people from Toronto and beyond. When it first started — out of St. Agnes Parish just up the street from St. Francis of Assisi — it was a much smaller affair, with a procession of priest, altar boys and the congregation following, ending up in the church. But it’s grown beyond its origins as a family affair and taken on a higher profile in ensuing years, with bands and actors portraying all the people in the Passion story, from Jesus and Mary to the Roman centurions. 

Where only a portion of College Street was shut down for the procession in its early days, now the whole street is closed and streetcars re-routed so that the thousands can line both sides of the street to witness the procession.

Vincenzo Pietropaolo has been attending and photographing the Good Friday procession since 1969, only missing it twice. St. Francis of Assisi was the family’s parish, moving from neighbouring St. Agnes Parish after it became the de facto Italian parish of the archdiocese. He’s since turned his photography hobby into a career and those photos into a book that celebrates the annual event.

Pietropaolo has seen the evolution of the procession, from the small scale to the massive production it has become. Yet he wonders if the COVID-19 crisis might “hasten the procession’s decline.” He noted last year’s procession — one of the two he didn’t attend — had smaller numbers in attendance due to the cold and rain on Good Friday, and now there’s an outright cancellation. Plus it’s always been a traditionally Italian procession (though the Portuguese influence has grown in recent years) which brought many back to the old neighbourhood for a “spiritual homecoming,” he said.

 But now it’s an area that is only nominally linked to its Italian heritage, more diverse and with fewer Italians remaining, many having moved to Vaughan north of the city. It’s always been driven by the elders, he said, yet they are not as prevalent in the parish community today and their offspring have moved on.

And it’s lost much of its origins as a religious procession. Where once all gathered would be part of the procession, he’s seen it take on the aura of spectacle over religion.

“I wonder if next year there will be enough strength in the community to restart it,” he said.

But Walter, the pastor at St. Francis of Assisi since last summer, is confident all will be back to normal for 2021.

“The nuts and bolts of it are always in place so we can always have a procession. It’s just a suspension,” he said. “We’ll have it next year, God willing.”


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