By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
For four years, St. Francis of Assisi Church has presented “Journey with Jesus to Calvary,” a play written by Jane Keppers.
“The play was written as an alternative to just reading the story to the elementary religious education students,” Keppers said. “The first year, one character spoke to the students each week during Lent, to tell the story of their encounter with Jesus.”
“After the first year, it was presented to adults in the parish too, and then one thing led to another and it has grown to the performance it is today,” said Keppers. “I never imagined I would someday be a director of a play at church,” she said.
“Each year as high school students graduate and move on to other things, new people come forward to take their places,” said Keppers. “Every year we figure out the new little pieces, fit them together, and make sure everything flows.”
The play is continually growing. “This year a few more characters were added,” said Chad Koopmeiners, who has the role of Pontius Pilate. “Some of the songs the choir sings have been changed, with additional music. There will be a violinist this year, too.”
Koopmeiners has played the same role all four years. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into the first year. But it was the second year, when my understanding began to deepen, that I had a really hard time playing the person who actually condemned Jesus.”
For the fourth year, Bob Theisen has the role of Jesus. “I’m humbled about playing the part of Jesus,” he said. “It is still hard to put myself in His shoes; to say I can play His part is overwhelming.”
“The first year we just read from scripts for the students,” said Theisen, “but the second year we did a full presentation and put our whole heart and souls into it and tried to live our parts. It’s very emotionally draining.”
LeRoy Pflueger played Simon of Cyrene for two years before taking the role of Judas last year. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to play the betrayer, but knew it had to be done,” he said.
“It was a learning experience to see how happy Judas was to receive the 30 pieces of silver,” said Pflueger. “Then when he saw what was actually going to happen to Jesus, he threw the money away in disgust and remorse. In the end, he tells the audience, ‘Don’t betray Jesus the way I did.’”
The characters featured are Donkey, Judas, Peter, Pontius Pilate, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, Mary the mother of Jesus, John the apostle and Jesus. About 75 people are involved in the production.
“This is an opportunity for people to be Jesus’ companions on His journey to Calvary,” Keppers wrote in the play. “They will see that Jesus came to serve, and never acted as if he were better than others.”
Pflueger said, “Almost all of the characters ask the audience to consider what they would have done in each instance.”
What has influenced Pflueger the most is how moved people are who come to see the play. “There is dead silence — everyone is riveted on what is happening,” he said. “Often, they are brought to tears. I encourage people to come; it will bring more meaning to Easter.”
Theisen said, “Older gentlemen come up to me and tell about having to take out their handkerchiefs at the carrying of the cross, and the soldier whipping Jesus. They’ve heard about it all their lives, but to actually see it makes it more real.”
“A lady came up to me one year and said that during the part where Jesus was on the cross, she could hear my labored breathing,” said Theisen. “It brought her to tears as she listened to me fighting for breath, and thought about Jesus having to actually endure that.”
Keppers describes the light in people’s eyes as they walk out. “It is very rewarding to see how the play inspires people, to know they received the message,” she said.
“We all know the story,” said Keppers, “but actually seeing it happening makes more of an impact. We have found that once someone has seen it, they like to come back for another presentation, often bringing friends, grandchildren or neighbors with them.”
People recognize Theisen throughout the year. “They have told me that they will come back every year for as long as we’re doing it,” he said.
“Journey with Jesus to Calvary” will be presented at St. Francis of Assisi Church in St. Francis, Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 1 at 1 p.m. St. Francis is located on Highway 238 one mile south of Upsala or 14 miles north of Albany.
Anyone with questions may call Jane Keppers at (320) 573-4176.