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Queen City Catholicism: The Heritage of the Church in Cincinnati
Fr. David Endres, Ph.D.
July 21, 2009 for Most Holy Rosary Assembly
I will begin this evening with a question, one which you may have been asked
when learning your Baltimore Catechism: “What are the four marks of the Church?”
Those who are quick students might be able to answer: The Church is One; Holy;
Catholic; and Apostolic.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest tonight a “non-official” but related
mark of the Church – and that is the Catholic Church’s enduring history. Like
the “four marks” of the Church that distinguish it from all others, our shared
history distinguishes us. As Catholics, ours is a history as long as Christ’s
presence on earth. For we can look to no other founder than Christ himself.
We were not founded by a Martin Luther, a John Calvin, or a John Wesley as in
the case of the Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists and their thousands of
offshoot congregations that continue to splinter at a rate of about 300 new
Protestant denominations each year. We are not 100, 500, or even a thousand
years old, but nearly 2,000 years old. We are the worldwide Church – the
catholic church (and here I mean catholic with a lower case “c”) – a church that
spans every continent and spans every age since the time of Christ.
But what does it mean to talk about the heritage of the Catholic Church in
America, and especially here in Cincinnati? Unlike in Europe, where parish
churches often celebrate 500 or even 1,000 years of existence, the Church in
America is still relatively young. Until 1908, America was considered mission
territory. We were not sending missionaries as much as receiving missionaries
and mission funds from Europe. The Church in this locality was built by
missionaries from Ireland and Germany and the generosity of Catholics in the Old
Though it is young by international standards, by America standards, our local
Church is quite old. The diocese of Cincinnati was established in 1821 – only
about three decades after America’s first bishop John Carroll was consecrated in
Baltimore. Though encompassing a smaller population today, the Cincinnati
Archdiocese is indeed older than the dioceses of Chicago, Detroit, and
When the Diocese of Cincinnati was founded it encompassed all of the old
Northwest Territory, including the entire states of Ohio and Michigan. The
diocese itself was created from the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky, which at one
time was the only diocese west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Catholics in Cincinnati began meeting together as early as 1811 – even though
there were no priests within one hundred miles. By 1818 Cincinnati had become a
stop along a Catholic circuit that stretched along the settlements of Ohio,
Kentucky, and Indiana. A year later a small group of Irish Catholics
successfully purchased land and built a church known as “Christ Church.” The
land on which the first Catholic church in Cincinnati was constructed is near
the location of St. Francis Seraph Church on Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine.
In 1819 when Christ Church was built that site was in the northernmost area of
the city; now it is but a few blocks from the denser part of downtown.
Despite that the Irish founded the first Catholic congregation in the city,
Cincinnati became recognized as a diocese with a large German influence.
Cincinnati was considered one of the three points of America’s German triangle –
the other points being St. Louis and Milwaukee.
At first there were only a handful of English-speaking Catholics in the city.
However, by the 1840s and 1850s waves of immigrants came ashore due to political
revolutions in Europe and the Irish potato famine. The first German-speaking
parish was organized in 1834 – Holy Trinity.
By the eve of the Civil War, there were numerous German and Irish parishes.
Most of the German parishes were named for saints like St. Paul, St. Augustine,
and St. Boniface and most of the Irish parishes were named for feasts like the
Assumption, Atonement, and Blessed Sacrament. This made it quite easy to tell
who would predominate at a given parish – Irish or German.
In these early years of the Church in Ohio, it is clear that both priests and
the lay faithful labored under much hardship. Such hardship included financial
distress, sickness, and discrimination. Catholics of the nineteenth century
were often “blue collar,” immigrants who might not have known the language, and
did not fit in with the then Protestant mainstream. I am always edified to hear
the stories of how men and women sacrificed to build the Church.
It is said that when Old St. Mary’s Church was built, the women of the parish
baked the bricks for their church in their ovens and the men did the
construction. We also have recorded in tradition the heroic deeds of priests
who sacrificed for the care of souls – often succumbing to illness such as
typhoid fever or cholera.
As the Church was gaining strength and membership in the nineteenth century, its
role in society was challenged. A Protestant majority with a militant minority
stirred up violence. In some eastern cities churches, convents, and religious
houses were burned. In 1853 in Cincinnati there was a wave of anti-Catholic mob
violence sparked by the visit of the pope’s representative, an Italian
archbishop. On Christmas evening hundreds of protesters marched towards the
Cathedral carrying signs, a scaffold, and an effigy of the Archbishop. Fearing
an attack on the Cathedral, the police attempted to turn back the demonstrators.
One protester was killed, fifteen were wounded and sixty-three were arrested.
Still the Church persevered and built an amazing network of schools, hospitals,
and charitable works.
To this day the Archdiocese maintains one of the most developed Catholic
educational systems in the world. Within the U.S., Cincinnati has always
boasted one of the largest per capita Catholic school systems. Currently it is
the eighth largest Catholic school system in the U.S. compared to it being the
26th largest diocese.
Cincinnati has also made important contributions to Catholic higher education.
Among other area schools, Xavier University was founded in 1831 by the diocese.
In 1840 the school was entrusted to the Society of Jesus and is considered the
fourth oldest Jesuit university and sixth oldest Catholic University now in
existence. Cincinnati’s seminary, known as Mount St. Mary’s – which is where I
graduated from – is the third oldest seminary in the country. It has educated
thousands of priests and more than fifty bishops.
This reflection on our local Catholic heritage reminds us that our Church is
much bigger than our own parish, the schools we may attended, and the fraternal
and charitable societies to which we belong. Yet it is through these local
organizations that the Church remains strong. As members of the Knights, I
thank you for being a part of the Church’s past and for your commitment to
continuing to build up the Church.
God willing the Church in Cincinnati will continue to be a vibrant source of
faith in the centuries to come.
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