The Holy City of the Wichitas has hosted the 'Prince of Peace Passion Play' every Easter season since 1926
The Holy City of the Wichitas rises above the grassy slopes of the mountains outside of Lawton, Okla., like a mirage. The entire village is made from stacked fieldstones so the structures blend into the treeless landscape.
Upon closer examination, the rock castle is only a facade, stretching almost a mile from start to finish. On the two Saturdays before Easter the wall becomes the stage for the Prince of Peace Passion Play. Begun in 1926, this is the longest running outdoor passion play in America.
Nestled in the northeastern corner of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, the Holy City grounds are open to the public year-round. It's easy to imagine that an independent filmmaker could make good use of the stone towers, rock-rubble fort walls, and even a throne made of the native granite rocks. It's a little harder to visualize the story of Christ's death progressing from stage to stage in the vacant village.
"The actors pantomime the story while a narrator reads the story," says Sylvia Smith, as she watches over the small gift shop next to the chapel. "From Audience Hill, it's quite a dramatic sight," she says.
Audience Hill is separated from Holy City by a dry creek. On performance day, folks will come from as far away as Tulsa, Wichita Falls, and Dallas/Fort Worth to make a weekend of seeing the play. Smith advises to bring something warm because it gets cool in the mountains after the sun goes down.
"This year, we'll have at least a couple of hundred actors and actresses," Smith says. Most of the performers fill more than one role during the play. The attendance is projected at a couple of thousand for each of the two nights.
The annual production began when the Rev. Anthony Mark Wallock brought his Sunday School class to the natural amphitheatre in the mountains to stage an Easter play for his congregation. The event steadily grew during the Thirties. At its peak, the cast of 1,200 actors and singers attracted an audience of more than 40,000 during the Great Depression and was broadcast on national radio.
Given a special use permit by the national park service, the first seven buildings of Holy City were constructed using a federal grant and labor from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The other 15 stages and buildings were built with donations in 1936.
The grounds of the national historic site are watched over by an 11-foot-high white marble statue of Christ and also the Wallock Foundation. The nonprofit organization of volunteers maintains the buildings, produces the play, and rents out the facilities.
One of the most amazing structures at the site is the rock and timber chapel built to resemble America's oldest church, Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., where George Washington worshiped. Looking more like a gothic castle, the ceiling of the house of worship is decorated in beautiful murals. Smith says that the sanctuary is rented out for weddings two or three times a month on average.
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is the oldest managed wildlife preserve in the U.S. President McKinley set the land aside in 1901. The Comanches called it "The Big Pasture." President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it a game preserve in 1905.
Today, it is a 59,000-acre home to the largest wild herds of bison, Texas longhorn cattle, and Rocky Mountain elk. Wild turkey and prairie dogs survive in the park unmolested, along with more than 50 species of mammals, 240 kinds of birds, 64 different reptiles, and 806 plant species. Visitors can ride the miles of paved road, camp, fish, and hike the trails winding through the mountains in the park.
The Holy City of the Wichitas is open daily from 8am to sundown. The gift shop opens Monday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm, and Sunday, 2 to 5pm. Performances are held on the two Saturdays before Easter and typically run from 6 to 10pm. For information, call 580/429-3361 or visit www.holycityofthewichitas.org.
Begin any visit to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge at the Visitor Center at the intersection of highways 115 and 49. The headquarters can be reached at 580/429-3222, or for information go to www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/oklahoma/wichitamountains.
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