The 600 freshmen from Kellenberg Memorial High School, carrying crosses and flags, walked in procession along sidewalks for a mile-and-a-half on a pilgrimage to see a film about the city where Jesus was crucified 2,000 years ago.
It was Ash Wednesday, and school administrators wanted to make it a memorable one for the freshman class as the Lenten season began. Their foreheads daubed with ashes, the students journeyed from the Uniondale parochial school across Hempstead Turnpike and to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, where they watched the documentary film, "Jerusalem," in the IMAX theater.
"We teach our kids to be public about our faith," said Bryan Finn, Kellenberg's director of apostolic activities. "Being Catholic is not just going to church on Sunday. It's about how you live your life."
The event came as thousands of Catholics and other Christians across Long Island -- and millions around the country -- attended church services and received the ashes reminding them that they ultimately will return to dust.
Lent is the 40-day season of fasting, reflection and penance that culminates in Holy Week and the Easter Sunday commemoration of Jesus' Resurrection. Ash Wednesday is among the most heavily attended holy days of the year, church officials say.
Many of the students said they were thrilled to take part in the procession and watch the film. The movie, which came out last year, explores the religious history of the city of Jerusalem and how members of three faiths -- Jewish, Christian and Muslim -- coexist there, despite an often tumultuous past and present.
"I love this event. I get to come here with my family of Kellenberg and march together with the crosses and flags," said Chaz Rahynes, 14, of Freeport.
"Ash Wednesday reminds us we will return to dust as we begin our journey."
Liam Von Elm, 15, of Hempstead, called the gathering "fantastic. Getting 600 freshman to walk a mile to see a movie about our faith is incredible."
Some students were moved by the film, which is told through the eyes of three teenage girls of each faith.
"I thought it was amazing to see the different cultures," said Sydney Solferino, 14, of Merrick.
"I've taken a new perspective on the religions there, especially the Muslims, because they are easily stereotyped. It opened my eyes a little bit. I've come to respect them."
Deirdre Nelson, 14, of Merrick, said, "It was nice to see how culturally diverse such a small community is. It's cool, but kind of sad to see how separate" the religious groups live.
Brother Kenneth Hoagland, Kellenberg's principal, said the film underscored how "we are called to live with a peaceful, respectful understanding of each other in the world."
He said the film and the pilgrimage walk were a perfect way to start Lent, because it engaged "the mind, body and spirit."