In the heart of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton lies the Holy City of the Wichitas, an area that replicates Israel during Biblical times and is home to what organizers say is the longest continuously running Easter pageant in North America. The Holy City’s history spans over decades, but in recent years, it has struggled to remain open due to financial struggles.
The 66-acres of the Holy City features stone-covered structures like Herod’s Court, the Lord’s Supper building, Mary’s Garden and the Gateway to Jerusalem. These provide the setting for the 96th annual “Prince of Peace” Easter pageant, telling the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
“When you come to the Holy City, you kind of feel a peace and calm that is not really anywhere else…,” James Britt, president of the Board of Directors for the Wichita Mountains Easter Sunrise Service Association, said. “I really think that God blesses that place.”
Many of the cast and crew have participated in the pageant for decades alongside family members.
The actors play multiple characters throughout the three-plus hour pageant, changing costumes and moving hundreds of yards outside in the pitch black to get from scene-to-scene.
People in a control room voice the lines over a speaker as the actors gesture to the words.
In recent years, 2,000-5,000 people attend each pageant, one taking place the weekend of Palm Sunday and another the weekend of Easter Sunday, spreading their blankets and lawn chairs out on the hill across from the giant natural amphitheater.
In 2019, the Holy City was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
History Of The Holy City
The first Easter pageant took place in 1926 a few miles east of the current Holy City grounds at Medicine Park when the Rev. Anthony Mark Wallock, an Austrian immigrant and Lawton pastor, took his Sunday school class up a mountain on Easter to portray a Resurrection scene as a violinist played.
In the years following, Wallock added more scenes, music and props, drawing a larger crowd each year. By 1934, the pageant had outgrown its location at Medicine Park.
Word of the Easter pageant made its way to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who granted a use permit for the pageant to be moved into the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
In the mid-1930s, The Depression-era Works Progress Administration was tasked with constructing the stone covered buildings and facades that would be used in the Easter pageant. By then, more than 100,000 people would come to watch the pageant, which started at 2 a.m., allowing Jesus’ resurrection scene to take place at sunrise.
Jonna Rhoades, whose late mother wrote a book about the Holy City, said there were up to 3,000 cast members then. This led to the sewing department running out of fabric, which was in short supply due to the Depression. She said people at the Holy City found an alternative.
“The KKK loaned their white robes to the Holy City, and they turned them wrong side out so that the KKK emblem was not showing, and that’s what the angel's wore,” Rhoades said.
The Easter Pageant Hits The Big Screen
The Easter pageant eventually caught the attention of a Hollywood film company in the late-1940s, and “The Lawton Story” was produced.
The Easter pageant portion of the film was shot on the Holy City grounds and starred an all-volunteer cast from Oklahoma.
The producers disliked the casts’ Oklahoma accents and redubbed the voices during the editing process.
The film gained international attention, but Rhoades said the Holy City never received a penny for the movie even though a $100,000 payment had been agreed upon.
Financial Struggles For The Holy City
Decades later, Britt said money continues to be a struggle for the Holy City since it depends only on donations, grants and gift shop sales. The financial situation worsened last year when the free pageant was cancelled due to COVID-19 and instead took place in October, leading to a significant drop in attendance.
“At the end of the pageant in October, effectively the treasurer said, ‘We can't pay the bills. We got $2.97 in the general account,’” Britt said. “The Holy City was going to have to shut down if we couldn't find some funds… People...effectively made it possible for us to present the greatest story ever told to you this Easter because of the donations and the love that people have for the Holy City.”
The 96th annual "Prince of Peace" Easter pageant takes place Saturday, April 3.
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