ESKASONI — Elders, children, and people from all ages in between gathered at the foot of the hillside in Eskasoni First Nation at 9 o'clock on the morning of Good Friday, as has been the tradition for almost a century.
This year, though, it was just over a dozen people that made their way up the steep and slippery path together, a stark contrast to the hundreds of community members that would normally join in.
Walter Denny Jr. explained that the priest of Holy Family Catholic church encouraged the congregation not to gather in large numbers this year because of the risk of COVID-19.
Denny is what is known as a King of Prayer, a community prayer leader that, for the Good Friday pilgrimage through the 14 stations of the cross, recites the prayers and sings the hymns in Mi'kmaw.
It's a role that's been passed down through his family, along with a Mi'kmaw prayer book from 1912 that belonged to his great-grandmother Jessie Gould, who was also a prayer leader.
As the group made its way up the hill on Friday morning, stopping at each numbered white wooden cross, they met a steady stream of others making their way back down the hill. Denny said people would have started going up at midnight and would continue until late into the night. Many of those same people have been making the trek daily for the 40 days of lent.
Elaine Denny, who is in her 50s, said Easter wouldn't be complete without a walk to the top of the hill on Good Friday.
"When we go up to the cross here, it's quite the climb, so we're trying to endure what Jesus went through before he died on the cross," she said.
When you ask anyone on the hill how long they've been doing this annual tradition, no matter their age, the answer is the same and always accompanied by a laugh: as long as they can remember.
It's been almost a century since the first wooden cross was erected at the top of the hill, overlooking the Bras d'Or lakes and the community of Eskasoni. These days, a huge aluminum cross that is lit up at night marks that same spot along the stations of the cross trail.
Denny says the community talked about grooming the trail and adding stairs to make the climb easier a few years ago, but the elders objected, saying the difficulty was a necessary part of the tradition.
Tom and Carol Anne Johnson are fluent Mi'kmaw speakers and took part in the prayers and hymns along with Denny.
They brought along their grown daughters Lainee and Kalolin and their granddaughter Grace.
"It's very near and dear to my heart because it's a tradition that I want to pass on, and it means a lot to me to carry down what my mother taught me, and her mother taught her. That's what we've been doing all our lives. It's not Easter until we go up to the cross," said Carol Anne Johnson.
Twenty-one-year-old Kalolin Johnson said the Good Friday tradition is something she knows she'll be doing for the rest of her life, and that it makes her feel good.
"I'm thinking about my community, everybody here, and I'm praying for everybody's peace and strength throughout the community so that we all stay strong," she said.
Carol Anne Johnson said she hopes the community is able to go back to their usual community gathering next year.
Ardelle Reynolds, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post