The following is an excerpt from A Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati: The Catholic Church in Southwest Ohio, 1821-2021 by Fr. David J. Endres.
A group of four German Catholic families arrived in Cincinnati in 1817 as part of a coordinated migration. It was perhaps only coincidence that by the time they arrived, efforts to organize Catholics in the city intensified. Just weeks before the families arrived in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Western Spy and Dayton Ohio Watchman announced a meeting of area Catholics, to be held on October 12, 1817, to plan for the construction of a Catholic church, which would be named Christ Church. The note encouraged Catholics to “please note that a great deal of encouragement is already being offered to them.” Nine men, seven women, and four children attended the October 1817 meeting at the Michael Scott Home. Soon a campaign to raise funds for the construction of a church began.
In the spring of 1819, the Christ Church congregation, representing one hundred Catholics, was formally incorporated in the state of Ohio as a religious society with five lay administrators. With meager funds, Catholic pioneers bought land north of the city limits, in the “northern freedoms” (named because they were beyond “the law”) near what would later become the northwest corner of Liberty and Vine Streets. Although it has been claimed that the church was built outside the city limits due to an anti-Catholic ordinance banning a church in the city, it seems more likely that a city location did not was banned but that the land in the northern liberties was acquired more easily and under better conditions. This, however, has placed the property close to saloons, gambling dens, brothels, and other unwanted neighbors.
BUILDING THE CHURCH
Once the land was secured, Michael Scott drew up plans for a 55-foot by 30-foot single-frame church. The building was soon assembled and on Easter Sunday, April 19, 1819, Christ Church held its first religious service. Father Nicholas Dominic Young, OP – the nephew of missionary and future Bishop Edward Fenwick – celebrated Mass that day and continued, with Fenwick, to serve Catholics in Cincinnati. The church was quite modest, of bare wood, without plaster or ceiling. Perhaps because the building was not secure, members of the congregation brought “pictures, crucifixes and candles whenever they went to the chapel.”
A columnist, unimpressed with the structure and its location, said that this early Catholic church – if the barn-shaped plank hut can be called a church – was poorly located in the woods a mile from the town , so that in bad weather the “bottomless muddy path” from town to church was “almost impassable”.
While the attempt to form a congregation was ultimately successful, the shortage of Catholics in Cincinnati was pronounced. Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of Bardstown, Kentucky (then having jurisdiction over Catholics in Cincinnati), wrote in June 1819, as Christ Church began, that it was a “great misfortune” that so few Catholics had come together. settled in the city. He lamented that only a handful of Catholic “workers and clerks” and a mass of potential converts made up the population.
THE FIRST CATHEDRAL
Despite its humble Catholic beginnings, on June 19, 1821, Cincinnati was established as the center of a new diocese, with Fenwick as the first bishop. He, along with several other Dominican priests who arrived in March 1822, began to serve the Catholics of the new diocese. With the establishment of Cincinnati as a diocese, the humble Christ Church was elevated to the rank of cathedral and was the site of Ohio’s first priestly ordination when on April 6, 1822 Bishop Fenwick called to the priesthood Father Francis Vincent Badin, the younger brother of missionary Father Stephen Theodore Badin (the first ordained priest in the United States).
A BIG MOVEMENT
The city’s Catholics – regardless of their ethnicity – worshiped together in the new cathedral only until the middle of 1822. Although they only used the property for three years, it became apparent to Fenwick that the location of the northern freedoms was not appropriate. Against the advice of lay church administrators, he decided to move the church south of Sycamore Street, closer to the Bottoms neighborhood, where most Irish lived. The structure was moved with the help of oxen, but it collapsed along the way and had to be rebuilt at its new location. The next Sunday the first, the building began to visibly sway during mass. Michael Scott and another member of the ward jumped off their benches to secure the building, Scott climbing underneath and risking injury to stabilize the supports.
Pioneer Catholics continued to worship in the old building of the Church of Christ (then renamed Saint-Pierre-aux-Chains) after its move. However, the size of the structure was insufficient. In 1825, Michael Scott drew up plans for a new brick cathedral on the site of Sycamore Street. While Christ Church was renowned for its simplicity, the New Cathedral Church was a Gothic-inspired church measuring 110 feet by 50 feet with five 15-foot windows on either side. Once the new building was ready for worship, on June 29, 1826, the original Church of Christ was no longer used for religious services (but housed St. Francis Xavier Seminary when it opened in 1829) . The location of the cathedral would change again in 1845, when it was moved to its current location at Eighth Street and Plum Street. Sycamore Street would become the site of a Jesuit-staffed parish church for English speakers called St. Francis Xavier Church.
This article appeared in the June 2021 bicentennial edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your free subscription, click on here.