Bringing the Passion Play to Augusta

1968 was a tumultuous year in our country, with protests over the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, and demonstrations and even riots following the shooting death of Dr. Martin Luther King, and presidential candidate, Senator Robert Kennedy. I recall our seminary Rector, Fr. William Coleman, being so upset about the MLK killing that he was visibly in mourning, wearing a black arm band to show his solidarity with the work and life of MLK.  In later years, Fr. Coleman left the priesthood to start a mission in Mexico to minister to those in poverty, to help change lives. Dr. King’s example was a likely a catalyst to Bill Coleman’s work serving the poor.

Former classmate and current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was so upset about his fellow student’s offhanded and negative comments about MLK upon his assassination that he decided to quit Immaculate Conception college seminary in 1968. Clarence returned home to his grandfather, only to be thrown out of his grandfather’s house for quitting the seminary.  That’s another story for perhaps a later writing. 

Back to Savannah and the seminary, change was in the air in 1968. Our junior class size was down to just five of us, having mixed emotions about coming back our senior year to graduate, In the Spring of 1968, Fr. Coleman, trying to hold back his tears, announced to the students in our assembly in study hall that St. John’s would close, and our junior class thereby lost the choice to graduate in 1969.  In retrospect, I wish sometimes that I had been more adamant in expressing a desire to return to finish high school at St. John’s. The following school year, I had little choice but to move to Aquinas High School in Augusta, and complete my senior year, which was so different, and lacking the freedom and inspiration that we had experienced on the Isle of Hope in Savannah.  

On a brighter note, before we left St. John’s for good, Fr. John Fitzpatrick, our Dean of Students, and later the principal of Aquinas High School, produced a stage play, depicting the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, called our Passion Play.  A decision was made to bring this amazing stage production to Augusta’s Bell Auditorium in May 1968.  My mother Audrey saved letters and a program of the play, as well as a color photograph of the marquee announcing the Passion Play outside of Augusta’s Bell Auditorium where this production took place.   

I had the privilege of playing various roles in Fr. Fitzpatrick’s earlier stage plays, including “Submerged”, “Mr. Roberts”, and “Julius Caesar”.  We had the benefit of a large stage at the Camp Villa Marie auditorium, which shared the grounds of St. John’s, where “Fr. Fitz” held many rehearsals and live productions. The idea of a Passion Play came to fruition successfully on the Camp Villa Marie stage, which gave Father the confidence to take his production on the road. 

The planned Augusta production required much more logistical planning, including the challenge of moving to a much larger and complex stage at the Music Hall of Bell Auditorium, and housing the many students involved either backstage or performing the various parts. I remember several classmates spending the night at my parent’s South Augusta home. In the Augusta production, I was given the role of Judas Iscariot, which included throwing the “thirty pieces of silver” back at the religious officials, which I can remember to this day.

My dad was involved, along with parents of other Augusta seminarians, to help make the Passion Play production a reality.  According to several letters my mom kept in a folder, including one from Fr. Fitz, the acting was good, yet there were several glitches in the live program, which had to do with the use of a professional stage and settings, as compared to the simple Camp Villa Marie auditorium stage in Savannah. Fr. Fitz apologized for the problems, although for me, the memories of being on stage before a home audience remain quite positive.

At the close of the 1968 school year, several of us received trophies or “Oscars” for our performance in the Passion Play. In 1970, Fr. Fitzpatrick joined the faculty of Aquinas High in Augusta, eventually becoming the school principal, and continued his art of producing and directing student plays and musicals, including one in which my sister Barbara played Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof in the 1970’s.  I had the pleasure of serving on the Aquinas school board in the early 1990’s when our first daughter was a student, and Fr. Fitz and I shared our memories of our experiences at St. John’s.       

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