I spent the morning thirty minutes to the South, in the Salmuenster half of the spa town Bad-Soden Salmuenster. This is a smallish village of 15,000 permanent residents. It’s Blutsonntag: Blood Sunday. I’m early, but Saint Peter and Paul church volunteer Johanna Korn has already been there for hours, laying out a design in fresh blossoms on the cobblestone stairs, a calling she’d inherited as a young girl. “All the flowers are donated from neighbors’ gardens,” says Korn with a bright smile. The floral designs are dictated by the resident priest, incorporating crosses and hearts crafted in red, white and pink roses on a bed of fresh cut grass. The letters I.H.S. are set out – Ieusus Hominum Salvator: Jesus the Savior of Mankind.
The Saint Peter and Paul church sponsors four big religious processions each year. Two are found in every other Catholic community large enough to support processions: Christi Himmelsfahrt or Ascension Day and Fronleichnam or The Eucharist. The other two: a pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Rengersbrunn in September and today’s Blutsonntag procession are unique to Salmuenster. Like the events commemorated on the Saint Michael’s Chapel slate, these celebrations date back to successive epidemics of the Black Plague.
The faithful assemble and Pfarrer Dr. Michael Mueller conducts a special mass inside the magnificently restored baroque church. I choose not to intrude on the worship service but can hear the organ music and smell the heavy, almost-cloying incense. Vans, fire trucks and uniformed officers from the town’s volunteer fire department begin to block off traffic control points, while maroon-jacketed members of the town’s brass band musikverein assemble in the church square. The mass ends. Over one hundred parishioners, carrying crosses and candles plus blue, yellow and white banners, exit through side doors, reserving the enormous center portals for the priest. The main door opens, then Dr. Mueller appears carrying a solid gold monstrance under a brocade canopy supported by six church faithful. He blesses the crowd and leads them in a hymn. Little girls begin spreading petals from little baskets of flowers and the procession marches off, tracing the same penitential route they’ve followed since 1555.
I’d never witnessed this particular observance before, but I’ve gotten close. Last year in November, I stopped in Venice and was visited with the Plague. Not the active virus, but the memories. These memories are so entrenched in the psyche of la Serenissima that thankful survivors erected grander and grander cathedrals then pledged annual celebrations in memory of the divine intervention which saved their world from pestilence and famine.
It wasn’t just Venice. In as many languages as there were kingdoms, duchies and city-states, stricken penitents begged for deliverance. “Save us miserable sinners dear Lord and we will build a magnificent Cathedral to your eternal glory,” they pleaded, heart broken but hopeful. “Save us miserable sinners holy Mother of God and the entire town will march in procession every year to Marian shrines. Save us miserable sinners and we will hold annual masses of thanksgiving until the end of time.” So, throughout Europe to this day, from the Doudou Ducasse de Mons in Belgium to the Saint Roche processions in Croatia and all parts in between, successive generations remember those desperate dark days.
Blood Sunday is both a religious event and a secular contract, written into the town’s civic codes in 1555 then observed by the Mayor and town legislature for almost 500 years. The procession winds for five kilometers to visit four stations – one directly in front of the courthouse.
I chatted with Salmuenster resident Bernd Berg as the procession filed by. According to Berg, it didn’t matter that the intricate tapestry of freshly cut flowers covered the entire church square twenty years ago, instead of just the immediate stair-front. Or that forty years ago the procession would have numbered one thousand church faithful, instead of the one hundred that turned out this year. “What does matter,” said Berg, “is that we can still experience centuries-old traditions that promote universal truths of faith, hope, and charity even in this modern age.”
In Salmuenster, a second annual plague-appeasing procession also survived the centuries. It dates back to the Thirty Years War. Successive waves of epidemics and famine called for even stronger measures, so the citizenry vowed to undertake a two-day and 37 kilometer pilgrimage through fields and forests to worship at the holy shrine in Regernsbrunn every September until the very end of time.
Religious observances celebrating Catholic holy days will continue as long as there is a Catholic Church: Easter, Good Friday, and Ascension Day. Yet, the promises made centuries ago by terrified citizens as they watched their world wither and die before their eyes are a bit more tenuous. The oaths made on behalf of survivors' descendants will endure only so long as those descendants endure – and remember. And the lineage grows thin.
My stopover in Salmuenster wasn’t accidental. I’d done my research online, specifically targeting church calendars. Let’s face it: travel is expensive. It’s a costly indulgence paid for in currencies of time, money and security with time being the most fleeting. I feel obliged to extract the utmost experience out of my travel currency. Looking into Johanna Korn’s eyes, as she stood over that carpet of flowers in front of the Saint Peter and Paul church, I experienced an approach to an ethereal something that has eluded me throughout childhood and all my adult life. It eludes me still, but feels somehow closer.
Mike Howard has traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the South Seas. His photos and articles have appeared in the Bonaire Reporter, Caribbean Beach Magazine, On A Junket (Bad Guys and Borders) and Hemispheres In-Flight Magazine.