Each Lenten weekend for the past 84 years, people from Pittsburgh's neighborhoods join others from as far away as Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia who climb the steep South Side Slopes on foot, by car or chartered bus to marvel at a production of America's Passion Play, “Veronica's Veil.”
The production portrays the legend of “Veronica,” who wipes Christ's face with her veil as He travels to Calvary. His image is left on her veil.
Now, a small band of dedicated volunteers are planning their own version of another story with biblical roots, “David and Goliath,” as they strive not to destroy the giant, but revive it into a beautiful, productive being. “David” in this case is the double handful of people who comprise the Veronica's Veil Players Board of Directors and “Goliath,” the huge building at 44 Pius Street that houses former high school classrooms and offices, and the nearly 900-seat auditorium that has been home to the passion play for more than three-quarters of a century.
About three years ago, Prince of Peace Parish, which assumed ownership of the building when seven South Side parishes were merged into one several years before, decided it could no longer afford the building's upkeep. Wanting to preserve the passion play tradition if possible, the parish Real Estate Committee offered the aging structure to the Veronica's Veil Players, volunteers who annually produce the Lenten play and mount four others throughout the year.
“We wanted to keep the show going,” said Dennis M. Thumpston, 43, who grew up in South Side but now lives in Beechview and has been Veronica's Veil Players' managing director for the past ten years. “It's been around for 84 years and we wanted it to continue for another 84.”
“A hundred and fifty,” corrected Frank J. Szemanski, 37, of Pleasant Hills, the company's technical director who's played the role of “Judas” for 18 years. “We enjoy doing it.”
But it soon became apparent that dedication to the plays and their production would not be enough. The parish committee promised to work with the players to set up a four-year plan for the building's takeover, and it was clear from the beginning it would be a starting-from-scratch proposition.
Most of the core volunteers who stage the productions have worked on them for years. Thumpston, a math teacher in the Pittsburgh-Mount Oliver Intermediate Unit at Bishop Leonard School started his association in the role of a slave when he was 13, and worked his way up to play “Caiphas.” He gave up the part this year to devote more time to the building itself.
But there never was a formal organization structure. People pitched in wherever they were needed: stuffing envelopes; building sets; selling refreshments; acting as ushers and in the plays. Now, there would have to be a deeper commitment.
An interim board composed of long-time players wrote by-laws and policy statements, came up with a mission statement, secured an IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit designation and began fundraising in earnest. They contacted the Community Technical Assistance Center for help in structuring the organization and Conservation Consultants for advice on building renovations.
Last year, the parish accelerated the four-year plan and turned over most of the building's upkeep to the players. The volunteers were faced with moving their own development program forward or losing the building. They chose the former.
They asked new people, most without previous ties to the productions, to join the board. Tom Tripoli, a South Side developer; Ed Jacob Jr., founding president of the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association and this writer, who had appeared in several smaller VVP plays, joined Thumpston, Szemanski and other production regulars Tony Polito, Colette Hucko, Paul White, Dolly Senn and mother and son Wanda and Eric Jankoski to give the board a broader perspective.
Last summer, stress levels among the players rose as they anxiously awaited word from the parish that the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh accepted the deal for the sale of the building to them for a token $1. July 1, 2002, their waiting ended.
Michael Healey, who chairs the parish Real Estate Committee, entered the room where the committee and players would meet, produced a bottle of champagne, and said, “No other words are needed. The building is yours.”
“All this and heaven too,” Thumpston exclaimed.
“All we ask,” added Father Bernard M. Harcarik, pastor of Prince of Peace, “is that you maintain the historic integrity of the building.”
With an eye to preserving that integrity, sprucing up began in earnest with first attention to cosmetics: the painting of the entry façade (in shades of blue and lilac that would be at home in the East Carson Street Preservation District) and restrooms. Plans call for further improvements to public spaces next year.
Following the Diocese approval in July came the signing of a sales agreement in November and, after a final suggestion by VVP attorney Susan Bowman to change the sale price from a flat $1 to a combination of cash and tickets in exchange for help with financing closing costs, the closing took place on St. Patrick's Day.
Thumpston held an impromptu celebration after a Sunday passion play performance, but reality quickly closed in. Mounting a production in someone else's building is a far cry from producing one in a building for which you have total financial responsibility. Two months' gas bills of more than $11,000 and a roof not far from leaking brought that message home rather quickly.
“We started paying for utilities last summer,” said Szemanski. “No one was thinking about heating bills.”
How will the still-volunteers manage these latest challenges and those the future will surely bring? It won't be easy, Thumpston and Szemanski admit, but they believe they'll be up to the job. They're counting on income from more fundraisers like those dances and fashion shows they've already had; on foundation grants they've applied for and donations from cast members, patrons, businesses and neighbors like City Council President Gene Ricciardi, who grew up a stone's throw from the auditorium and who has already pledged a $1,000 grant from his council funds.
And rentals. With 14 classrooms, a reception hall that can seat 200 and the 839-seat theater, board members feel they have something to offer a community starved for hall rental space.
“We've had some rentals already,” Szemanski said. “We had the Little Shakespeare Theatre here last summer and fall, some other theater groups, a twelve-step program…there's room for lots more.”
Brainstorming sessions produced suggestions for such rental uses as those for small weddings, showers, graduation and communion parties; exhibit space for artists and photographers; rehearsal and performance space for dance studios and martial arts schools and conference center uses. The building has a small off-street parking lot.
What Thumpston believes will help most of all is for people in the neighborhoods surrounding the building to begin coming to see the year-‘round productions and supporting the efforts of the volunteers…and maybe becoming volunteers themselves.
Standing on the steps outside the building with Susan Bowman after the closing celebration, admiring the lights of the city from the hilltop vantage point, he said he calls Veronica's Veil a “Pittsburgh tradition.”
“People come from hundreds of miles away to see it,” he said, “but there are thousands of people living within five or ten miles who haven't been inside to see any of our plays. If those people, our neighbors, would just take the time to come and see what we have to offer, see even one of the plays, we would have no trouble getting the [financial] support we need.”