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St. Michael Parish in Ripley celebrates 175th anniversary

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The steeple of St. Michael Catholic Church in Ripley, Ohio. (Courtesy Photo)
The steeple of St. Michael Catholic Church in Ripley, Ohio. (Courtesy Photo)

As with most towns along the Ohio before the river was harnessed by reservoirs to control high waters, floods often forced residents to seek the high ground.

The early history of St. Michael Parish in the Brown County river town of Ripley was affected by high waters, too.

“In 1840, the first church was built up on North Main Street and floods would get into it from a nearby creek,” said Greg Haitz, a Ripley native, teacher, and unofficial church historian. “The water would get into the church; so in 1864 a new brick church was built on Fourth Street which, if you think about it, was done during the Civil War. Trying to get labor had to make it difficult to get a church built then. Today that building serves as the parish hall.”

The 300 families comprising St. Michael Parish today have been reflecting on the church’s history lately as the very active faith community still thrives 175 years since its founding. A year-long celebration was held last year that included a visit and Mass celebrated by Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr.

Today, St. Michael is part of a cluster of three parishes under the stewardship of Father Dohrman Byers. The other parishes are St. Mary, Armheim, and St. George, Georgetown.

Ruth Allen, a 15-year parishioner and parish pastoral associate for the past three years, said, “The original church was founded in a dwelling house which is no longer standing. A small number of Catholics were served by missionary priests who were basically circuit riders at that time. There wasn’t a Mass every Sunday by any means but the families that gathered could petition for a priest. They did. One was sent. What is now currently the parish hall was built.”

Haitz said the in the current church was built in 1890. “We are still in that building. We put a copper roof on it recently. But, no flooding affects us way up on the hill. There has been a problem parking in the area. There’s no parking lot really — just the playground that goes with the school.”

The historic 1937 Ohio River flood “did not bother us,” Haitz said. “The school was used back then as a distribution center for aid. The school sits behind the church and is even on higher than ground.” Today, the school serves about 70 students and is housed one of the area’s oldest remaining school buildings.

“There have been renovations over the years,” Allen said. “We rebuilt our bell tower two years ago and the church has been repainted and re-carpeted. We have beautiful murals that we are in the process of cleaning and restoring.”

“One thing that pops into my head,” Haitz said, “is that Cincinnati Archbishop (Emeritus) Daniel E. Pilarczyk spent a couple of months in the 1960s filling in as our pastor. We had a Knights of Columbus meeting one time and he came and he sat there and talked to us about his time here.

“We had a parishioner maybe 10 years ago who had a hobby of collecting Procter & Gamble stock and Coca-Cola stock and she left the P&G stock to our church… The P&G stock had not been touched in many, many years and it had split four times. It was worth between $11-$12 million and we have about eight of it left. The parish is in financially good health thanks to that woman. She loved the school. She was a former student there,” said Haitz, who teaches social studies and American government at the Georgetown Career Center serving all of Brown County…” where he has been for 29 years. “I’ve also taught at Maysville Community Colleges for about 18 or 19 overlapping years.”

“We have beautiful paintings inside of the church that were done in the 1920s… and we have beautiful stained-glass from Innsbruck, Austria. We remodeled the inside of the church and made it very modern looking. They took out the old altar and had wood paneling installed in the early 70s and many parishioners today wish we could go back to the way the church looked originally… There is a prayer garden next to the church that was added several years ago. The school has been modernized with air-conditioning new slates and desks.

The anniversary celebration lasted several months. beginning in May. “We did an old-time movie night with a film shot partly here at Ripley.  It was ‘Father Was a Bachelor’ with William Holden, shot in the late 1940s. It was a fun night,” Allen said.

“We had a parish picnic and had about 80 for that — something we had not done for many years. The last official event was a special children’s Mass where the children served as ministers. The final element was hosting the community Thanksgiving service for everyone in Ripley. There were about 100 attending.”

While St. Michael is a very vibrant and active parish “we are actually it’s shrinking in numbers. We are an old river town. There are very few job opportunities here so young people grow up, go to college, and move away,” Allen said. “There are a few who commute; but it’s a long commute to Cincinnati.”

This feature first appeared in the February 2016 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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