When Barb Skillings was asked to coordinate the Living Stations of the Cross at her church 25 years ago, she did not know what she was in for — literally.

“I had no clue what that was because I’m a convert” to the Catholic faith, Skillings said.

Now in her 70s, the Blaine resident still serves as coordinator for the Living Stations at the Church of St. Paul, 1740 Bunker Lake Blvd. NE, Ham Lake.

It has grown from a cast of 17 in its first year to upwards of 100 young people portraying the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ in 2020.

“It was pretty stark,” Skillings said of those first productions. There was no scenery. Soldiers were costumed in rudimentary tinfoil vests.

Skillings had no theatrical experience when she was asked to helm this ministry.

But even though the production has earned quite a reputation, it still isn’t about “theater.”

Fr. Jim Livingston calls it “a prayer experience.”

This version of the Passion of Jesus is set to music, and youth break away to share personal faith stories during the experience.

“They’re just creating this beautiful piece of art, but it’s a prayer,” Livingston said.

He said he gets “choked up” when after sharing their faith questions, dilemmas and milestones, “they turn around and go back to the cross,” back to the story, as if to say that everyone, no matter where they are in their faith journey, can be a part of Jesus’ story.

“My heart just goes crazy when I think about that,” Livingston said.

Jesus is cast for his character and leadership, rather than his dramatic or musical prowess. It doesn’t matter if he looks the part, though this year’s Jesus, senior Aaron Goldade, of Columbus, worked hard to fill Jesus’ sandals as best he could.

He grew his hair out for over a year and worked out, not excited about taking the stage shirtless.

When Goldade heard the news that the Living Stations performances scheduled later this month — March 25, 26 and 27 — were canceled following government recommendations to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, he easily could have been disappointed.

But Goldade’s first thought was “It’s OK. God probably has a bigger plan in store,” he said.

The cast of seventh- through 12th-graders look to Goldade as lead. Like the youth playing Jesus in years past, Goldade was hand selected to play the role of Jesus for two consecutive years.

Last year, he was focused on his lines, the staging — everything required of a thespian.

But in year two, “I really got to focus on me this year instead of my part,” he said.

The whole experience of the Living Stations jumpstarted his faith life.

And that is true of hundreds of Catholic youth involved in this tradition over the past 25 years, according to ministry leaders.

Angie “Ritter” Kucera was in the very first Living Stations production when she was in seventh grade. She participated through her senior year and volunteered as a young adult.

Last year, she traveled from Ely, where she now resides, so her infant son Gabriel could play the baby Jesus.

“It really influenced me starting my own prayer life,” she said of the Living Stations experience.

Students meet to rehearse only once a week for six weeks prior to the performances.

“No matter how much there was to do, we always started with prayers,” Kucera said.

Though this year’s performance was canceled, a homecoming reunion event still took place March 14, drawing a crowd of about 135.

The Living Stations is put on at no cost for the crowds that come by the busload, according to Livingston. Typically, about 2,000 attend one of the three performances.

All of the hard work is worth it “even if it just gives one person hope and brings them closer to the Lord,” Skillings said.

And she has heard stories that are evidence of just that.

As part of the Living Stations, the youth go out into the audience, make eye contact with audience members and close their hands around nails that they distribute to each person in attendance as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice.

One man told Skillings that he carries that nail in his pocket every single day.

“A lot of people are moved,” she said.

Skillings’ youngest son was 8 the first year the Church of St. Paul staged the Living Stations; her grandchildren were part of the experience this year.

The youth in the church grow up eager to be involved in the production.

“The youth are the future of the church,” Livingston said. And watching them in the Living Stations, one can see that they aren’t just the future: “The youth are the church.”

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