St. Joseph's Monastery Parish revives tradition of including mule in Palm Sunday procession

"It's a time of rebirth for us," says member of St. Joseph's Monastery Parish.

Palm Sunday, a day of tradition and ritual for Christian churches around the globe celebrating Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, reignited a lost custom for one Baltimore Roman Catholic congregation.

More than 100 members of the St. Joseph's Monastery Parish gathered around 10:30 a.m. for the Blessing of the Palms and a procession from Frederick Avenue along Monastery Avenue to the monastery's entrance at Old Frederick Road. The church's pastor, the Rev. Michael Murphy, mounted a mule (half-donkey, half-horse) named Harley— a first for the church in decades.

"Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest," the members sang with pieces of palm leaves in hand, following Murphy atop the brown mule to the monastery's doors.

The yearly procession, which is often held indoors on a smaller scale, hasn't included a donkey or mule since the 1970s, said former pastor, now parishoner, Fred Schneider. The donkey, a symbol of peace, was Jesus' choice of transportation on Palm Sunday, according to the Bible.

The upkeep of traditions have varied depending on the pastor's preference, Schneider said, and the church has experienced recent changes.

The parish suffered the loss of the Passionist Fathers in 2014, who left after 150 years at the monastery due to a decline in priests, turning it over to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The archdiocese then appointed Murphy, 51, who decided to bring back the animal, according to Schneider.

"It's a time of rebirth for us," Schneider said.

The altar service and members of the children's choir led Murphy and Harley during the procession, garnering attention from nearby residents.

Devyn Tracy, 13, of Catonsville, who has been a part of the altar service since she was 9, said it was her third time being involved with the procession for Palm Sunday. Typically she tends to the younger children and helps set the tables. Sunday, she led Murphy on the energetic mule, she said.

"He was breathing down my neck, and he was kicking my shoes," Tracy said of the animal.

Some parish members stayed behind to pet Harley before the 11 a.m. Mass, noting the dark cross he bore on his back fur.

Typically seen in the fur on Nubian burros, an African wild ass, the legend goes that the donkey Jesus rode on into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday later bore a cross after Jesus dismounted, Schneider said. Some believe these animals still bare the mark today.

It was safe to say that the mule was the main attraction this year, said Willie Kimbrow, 68, of Ellicott City, who has been attending the church for the past 10 years. But it was more than a mule ride. It was the sign of a revival in tradition, said his wife Kathleen.

Kathleen Kimbrow, 63, and four generations of her family attended the Mass Sunday. A member since she was 5 years old, Kathleen Kimbrow said she has witnessed the church's progression over the years. She remembers the days when the best pews were reserved for white families. She and her family, being African-American, had to sit in the side pews, she said.

"Now, we can sit anywhere. That's history," said Kathleen Kimbrow, who is happy to see Murphy recreating some of the church's best traditions.

"He's bringing everything back. ... It's the first time in a long time that we had a procession that long. I thought he was joking when he first said it would be this long. I said 'Are you serious?'" Kathleen Kimbrow said.

Murphy, who was appointed pastor around July 2014 after a lifelong membership, has been going above and beyond to invigorate its members and old traditions, according to Roseanne Metcalf, 61 of Arbutus, who has also been attending since she was a child. His enthusiasm and positive attitude have brought old parishioners back and have gotten more families involved, Metcalf said.

Schneider said around 40 members have joined since Murphy was appointed.

"It's things that bring people together, and it's a long tradition dating back to the Passionists," Murphy said of Sunday's procession. "We're building community the best we can. People think of traditions as old-timey things, but this is fun. We're excited about the parish coming to life."

Mass followed the procession, with more than 300 people in attendance for the liturgical dance performance, Bible readings and songs by the children's choir, prepping parishioners for the week of celebration ahead.

"Easter Sunday doesn't make sense unless we take to heart what's going on this week. … It is a time all of us should be together," Murphy told the church during Mass, referencing the upcoming Thursday Mass, a more robust version of the Passion Play on Friday along with an Easter Vigil and an Easter Sunday Mass. "The beauty of the rituals speak for themselves."

Murphy invited members to conclude the service with refreshments and cookies and an optional meet and greet with Harley.

"And if you want me back on the [mule], that is going to cost you," said Murphy.

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