The annual Good Friday procession through Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood has been cancelled for the third year running. COVID uncertainty didn’t give St. Francis of Assisi Parish enough time to plan this year’s event. Register file photo

Little Italy Good Friday procession a no-go again

By 
  • March 31, 2022

For the third straight year, the annual Good Friday procession through the streets of Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood is cancelled.

While large strides have been made towards pre-pandemic normalcy throughout Ontario in recent weeks, the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions was needed months ago to revive this long-standing tradition in time for April 15.

“Planning the procession needs to begin in the fall,” said Fr. Francis Walter, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish which has hosted the Good Friday tradition for years. “COVID-19 restrictions at the time prevented that from occurring.”

Parishioners were aware of the procession’s negated state from the beginning. No social media post or parish bulletin notice to officially announce the cancellation was required.

Dating back to either 1953 or 1955 (no one is quite sure of the origin year), the Good Friday procession evolved from a simple march featuring parish priest, altar servers and congregants into an audio and visual cornucopia, highlighted by actors breathing life into the Passion of the Christ.

Attendance figures flirted with 100,000 many recent years as the dramatization of Jesus’ final hours drew a robust out-of-town crowd. Only a portion of College Street was needed in earlier years, but as the procession morphed into a spectacle from its humble beginnings, eventually this main arterial road and neighbouring streets would be completely shut down to accommodate the large crowds.

Walter, assigned to St. Francis of Assisi parish following the 2019 procession, awaits the opportunity to bring the Good Friday tradition back to the streets of Toronto. The desire to reboot in 2023 is there, but Walter said “it all depends on the status of the pandemic.” He alluded to recent headlines about the reported new COVID-19 BA.2 strain, an omicron subvariant. And in late February, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam suggested a fall wave might necessitate the return of some currently scrapped public health measures.

Back in 2020, when the procession was cancelled for the first time, The Catholic Register spoke to Vincenzo Pietropaolo, an attendee of nearly 50 Good Friday processions since his first in 1969. He wondered if the epidemic would “hasten the procession’s decline” as the neighbourhood’s Italian heritage roots were already waning due to families moving away and other cultures taking the Italians’ place. 

Despite the significant mass exodus over time, Walter said a strong core Italian tradition at St. Francis of Assisi Parish remains. However, he added, “it is certainly not what it used to be.”

Restriction relaxations did not arrive in time to aid the Good Friday procession, but conditions did improve in time for many parishes across Canada to reintroduce in-person Stations of the Cross liturgies for Good Friday.

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