Traditions herald coming of Easter

Celebration: The religious mosaic and ethnic tapestry that is Baltimore prepares for the holiest day in the Christian year.

April 14, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In Mount Vernon, Greek Orthodox senior citizens dye nearly 1,000 eggs a brilliant red as a reminder of the blood shed during Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.

Polish families mob Ostrowski's Famous Sausage in Fells Point for the kielbasa to break their Lenten fast.

Several African-American churches move out of their sanctuaries and rent the city's largest venues for Easter morning extravaganzas.

And many choirs face their busiest time of the year, nursing sore vocal cords as they soldier through Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" and other seasonal pieces they'll sing during four services in four days.

This religious mosaic and ethnic tapestry reflects Baltimore as it commemorates Holy Week and Easter, the high point of the Christian liturgical year. The religious holiday is all the more festive this year as both the Orthodox, who reckon Easter by the Julian calendar, and Western Christians, who follow the Gregorian calendar, celebrate the resurrection on the same day.

In the basement of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Golden Agers wrestle with quality control. The eggs they are boiling in vats of red dye aren't bright enough, not like the ones they remember from childhood.

In goes another packet of the commercial Greek dye to achieve a shade of red reminiscent of blood. "Red is for the blood that Christ shed for us when they put him on the cross," said Rose Sitaras, an 82-year-old woman who hovered over the process. "Our eggs are always red."

For Greek Orthodox, red eggs are a powerful symbol of the paschal mystery, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The shell represents his three days in the tomb. At the Easter Vigil services that begin tonight and extend to the wee hours of tomorrow, the eggs are blessed by priests and handed to the faithful. They take them downstairs to the parish hall to crack them, the broken shell a symbol of new life through the resurrection. Then they break their pre-Easter fast with eggs and braided bread.

But first, the Golden Agers have to finish the process. After the eggs come out of the dye and cool, they are rubbed with a bit of olive oil to make them shine.

But not too much, cautioned Harriett Paulos, 79. "Sometimes the priests fuss," she explained. "One time, there was too much olive oil on them, and they slipped out of his hand when he would hand them to a parishioner."

Across town, the hustle and bustle is replaced by hurry up and wait.

The line begins forming at Ostrowski's Polish Home Made Sausage in Fells Point before the doors are unlocked at 8:30 a.m. In the days before Easter, the normally orderly Washington Street can be cluttered like a closet - cars double-parked, others jockeying for parking, people milling on the sidewalk.

"You'd think they're giving away something in there," grumbled one man as he took his place at the end of the line in a drizzle.

It's apparently worth the wait.

"Without the kielbasa, it wouldn't be Easter," said George Hammerbacher of Glen Burnie, who stood in line with his 11-year-old son, Nick. "This is a tradition - every year."

Many will pack a sampling of their Easter fare in a basket - the kielbasa, bread, butter shaped like a lamb - and take it today to churches like Holy Rosary in Fells Point, where the priest will bless it. Although many Ostrowski patrons said they would be eating their kielbasa for supper, it is the traditional staple of Easter morning, to break the fast.

"After Mass, you can eat meat," said John Ostrowski, whose grandfather started the sausage business in 1919. "It's time to start eating again!"

Ostrowski will have sold 20,000 pounds of sausage, smoked and fresh, by the time he closes this evening. In many ways, the ritual is as it was when he was growing up in the Fells Point rowhouse and his parents ran the business. But there is one notable change.

"Polish people used to be concentrated in this area," said Ostrowski, a striking figure with his bald pate and gray goatee. "Now the kids have grown up, moved out of the city, had kids of their own. A lot of them are retrieving their traditions and are trying to get their kids into it."

And that, he said, explains the line outside.

Ostrowski's isn't the only place attracting an Easter crowd. After the Blast's last shot on goal last night, the crew at the Baltimore Arena began taking up the Astroturf, the goals, the barriers and the flooring to prepare for the next big show. By tomorrow morning, the Arena will be the temporary home of New Psalmist Baptist Church.

New Psalmist is one of several churches that are moving from their sanctuaries to larger quarters to accommodate the numbers who want to attend Easter services. Among the others, First Mount Olive Freewill Baptist Church will set up at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and Israel Baptist Church will hold services at Lake Clifton High School.

The secular setting doesn't change a thing, said the Rev. David Blow, assistant pastor of New Psalmist.

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