A longstanding tradition at St. Peter in Slinger is getting a bit of an update this year — not unlike the parish church itself, which underwent a $5 million renovation to its worship space last year.

The changes included expanded seating, new meeting spaces and upgrades to other facilities — all welcome developments to the 161-year-old parish, and all integrated seamlessly into the church’s existing cream city brick structure.

But, the new space necessitated some alterations to the beloved annual reenactment of the Passion of Jesus Christ, staged on Good Friday by local youth.

The renovations would allow a larger audience for the play, which in the 1990s got so popular that, for a time, the parish put on two showings. But the sets and staging for the production, used by the parish since at least 1979, no longer worked in the new space.

St. Peter’s Parish Director of Religious Education Eileen Belongea works with students to get the most out of their efforts in their new production of “The Passion.” (Catholic Herald photo by Jack Hamilton.

“With a new worship space, it really just opened up the church to something greater,” said director of religious education and youth minister Eileen Belongea, one of the directors of the play.

The previous production was based on the script “His Incredible Love,” written by Audrey Taylor of St. Theresa Parish in Palatine, Ill. The new play, written by Belongea and her co-directors Mike Desmond and Cindy Rogers, was created specifically for the new sanctuary. Where “His Incredible Love” was “more of a living stations of the cross,” said Belongea, the new Passion play is more of a traditional theatrical production — “constantly moving,” she said. “Once we looked at what we were getting for a worship space, we decided to really expand it.”

The production features a cast of about 30 local teens, many of whom are religious education students but also others who are from the community or neighboring parishes.

This will be the fourth year that 16-year-old Matthew Rogers will be appearing in the play. He first participated in the production in middle school, when students are allowed to fill the roles of extras in the crowd scenes. “It really captures everything that’s going on (in the Bible reading). It’s a good visual to everyone else. New people come every year to watch it,” he said.

“We get people, not just from the parish, but from around the community who look forward to it every year,” said Belongea. “We pack the house. All the young kids sit in the aisle or up front so they can see what’s going on.”

This year, Rogers volunteered to portray Jesus Christ. It’s been a desire of his since he was inspired by his friend’s performance in the role a few years ago. “He told me the cross was going to be heavy,” he said.

Being a part of a production like this, said Belongea, gives the kids “a firsthand look at what our Lord did for us and a greater appreciation of his sacrifice for us.”

Jane Schaub, a sophomore at Slinger High School, played Mary, Mother of Jesus last year, and will reprise the role this year. “It was a really powerful experience,” she said. “I’m not an intensely religious person, but it was really amazing doing it. At practices we all had fun, but when it got to having everybody in here (for the performance), it was really amazing — it was more serious. My mom said she definitely shed a few tears.”

“When they actually have to act it out and say the words, it’s amazing how it really drives home,” said Belongea of the students. “I don’t think most of us take the time to really think about and appreciate what Our Lord went through for us on Good Friday.”

“When you’re playing it, acting and having to be the mother of Jesus, imagining seeing your son die right in front of you — it makes you really think about it, how big of an experience it really was,” said Schaub.

“It got me closer to God,” said Andrew Wachtel, 15, of his experience in last year’s production, when he portrayed Barrabas. “I liked it a lot, just being able to be in it, and experience it up-close, actually being a part of it.” This year he will be playing a Roman guard, mocking and abusing Jesus as he carries the cross — actions that he said will help him understand better what it felt like for Jesus to bear those indignities.

“Sometimes, we read the Bible like a history lesson, and we don’t realize that everything He did, it wasn’t just for the people back then,” said Belongea. “It was for us, today. It was for everybody.”

The performance will be held at St. Peter Catholic Church, 200 E. Washington St. in Slinger, at 7 p.m. on Good Friday, April 14. Admission is free, but goodwill offerings are accepted to cover the cost of the production.

“It’s a good thing for families to come out to see,” said Wachtel. “I think it’ll be great because of the big expansion we’ve had.”