175 years in Over-the-Rhine
Old St. Mary’s keeps it’s German roots while focusing on the future
If any edifice in Cincinnati bears testament to the work ethic and craftsmanship of the city’s German immigrants, it is Old St. Mary’s, an Over-the-Rhine (OTR) landmark dating to 1841.
It rose under the backbreaking work of German Catholic families. “The women made bricks for the church in their ovens when they were finished baking bread every day. The men went up to Mount Adams and Mount Auburn and cut down trees and dragged them back to make the beams and ceiling for the church. It was pretty much built from the grassroots up,” said Jeff Herbert, 57, a General Electric engineer who researched the church history for a book celebrating Old St. Mary’s 160th anniversary.
This year the church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1970s, commemorates 175 years of Catholic faith in its original building.
“The first cornerstone was laid in March 1841, on the feast of the Annunciation. It was called St. Mary’s of the Annunciation and is the oldest church dedicated to Mary west of the Allegheny Mountains. Today it is the oldest standing church of any denomination in the City of Cincinnati,” Herbert said.
“It is one of the few churches in the archdiocese that offers Mass in Latin and is the only parish in the United States that regularly offers a Sunday Mass in German.”
German immigrants lived outside the city limits in an area dubbed “Over-the- Rhine, because it was past the Miami & Erie Canal, (now Central Parkway). “The Germans wanted their church and school close by. They asked for permission and the archbishop at the time gave it, but there was no money to build a church,” Herbert said.
The determined residents didn’t let the lack of funding deter them. A series of property sales and transfers yielded the land for the church and parishioners provided most of the material and labor themselves.
Old St Mary’s was then the largest church in the Mississippi Valley — 142 feet long and 66 feet wide, with the tower reaching 170 feet. The parish grew rapidly, beginning to build the school in 1843. By 1846, there were two confraternities, the “Living Rosary” and the “Precious Blood,” with a combined membership of 2,500. There were 432 baptisms, 188 marriages and 250 funerals that year.
“The church was expanded in 1862, during the middle of the Civil War,” Herbert said. “Another 25 feet was added to the back of the building, which is the sacristy today. It gave a little more room for the sacristy and the sanctuary. The interior was redecorated and repainted to a more modern Romanesque style in the 1890s, but everything else is pretty much original. The paintings above the altar are unique. There are three paintings of Mary and they are on a pulley system and rotated three times a year.”
Father Jon-Paul Bevak, the church’s pastor, said the anniversary was celebrated with a July 3 Mass followed by a reception and dinner. The parish numbers about 250 families, he said. “They are coming from primarily everywhere. There are some from Over-the-Rhine and more are coming here as the neighborhood continues to change. Primarily, it’s a commuter parish. People come for specific things, whether it’s the Latin Mass, the German Mass, or for whatever reason,” he said.
Many families who call Old St. Mary’s home have deep love and lasting memories of their church.
“We travel 30 or more miles to go to the Mass downtown,” said Marge Wilke, 79, of Fairfield Township in Butler County, who has attended Mass at Old St. Mary’s with her husband, Franz, since the 1960s.
The parish offers a sound foundation in the faith, Wilke noted. “They have things like the Tuesday evening Holy Hour — personal adoration with the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. First Fridays there’s always a High Mass with a choir. Then there’s the music. We have seasonal music programs throughout the liturgical year and other concerts are sponsored by various area musicians, including our son, Christopher.”
Charlie Zix, 97, began his long connection to Old St. Mary’s when he enrolled in school there. “I went to school there for first and second grades,” said Zix, who now resides at a Deer Park nursing home, but still attends Mass at Old St. Mary’s. “The boys and girls were combined in first and second grade on the first floor of the building, and then when the third grade came along, the boys were transferred over to the boys school at 12th and Clay streets.”
“When my wife (Helen) passed away a couple of months ago, she was buried from there,” he said. “The church has been in my life from the day I went to school until the day my wife went to heaven, except for three years when I was in the service and when we were at St. John’s in Deer Park.”
Former parish council president Bob Dehner, 53, of Clifton Heights has been a parishioner since 1996. “I went to Easter Mass in 1994, and I started attending more frequently, and then joined the parish,” he explained.
“They have a very good reputation for orthodox liturgy, outstanding music and great acoustics,’ said the mechanical engineer. “I go there because of the history, the very workmanlike liturgy, the community, the young priests. A lot of neat things are going on. There’s outreach to the community; our German Mass; and it’s a really good group of parishioners. We are from different backgrounds but very united as far as Old St. Mary’s.”
One of the new developments for the parish was formalized earlier this year, when it became the site of new Oratory of St. Philip Neri. Begun in 1575 in Rome, Oratories are now found all over the world. Their priests serve as the local bishop appoints them, but live together in a permanent community. While each Oratory has a different focus, part of its mission is to evangelize the area where it is located.
“Over-the-Rhine has had a Catholic identity,” Dehner said. “It diminished a little bit, but I think we are reaching out to the community. People are moving into Over-the-Rhine. We have folks walking to Mass, now. That’s a good sign.”
One person who didn’t walk to the anniversary Mass was Alexa von Kuensberg. A parish council member from Old St. Peter’s Church in Munich, she flew in to bring a gift from the parish, a statue of Mary as the patroness of Bavaria.
The two churches have been sister parishes since 1992, but the connection between them goes back much further.
After World War II, Old St.Mary’s helped the German parish rebuild. When Old St. Mary’s sent a note asking for a message to read at the Mass, the parish sent her to renew the friendship.