Bridgetown parish celebrates 150th anniversary
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, the predominantly German farmers who populated what is today Hamilton County’s Green Township, tired of the weekly trek to Mass at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Delhi Township or St. James in White Oak. “Back in that time, it was still horse and buggy. You couldn’t pop into your car and go,” said Paul Ruffing, parish historian at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parish in Bridgetown, where the past year has been spent celebrating the church’s 150th anniversary. “It was an hour or more with horse and buggy and, if it was summer, the air was dusty; in winter there was snow or it was wet and muddy. It was not a pleasant experience to go to Mass. And, it’s hilly out here.”“So, the local farmers banded together to try to start a parish nearer to them,” Ruffing said. They petitioned the bishop — Most Rev. John Baptist Purcell — who gave his nod and his blessing.
On July 8, 1866, a small group met at the home of Peter Liedel near Harrison Pike and today’s Grace Avenue. They organized and purchased nine acres of land for a church, school, and cemetery. The first Mass was celebrated in Liedel’s home in 1867 by Father E. Stehle who assisted the founders in organizing the parish. The privilege of naming the parish was given to a person who bid $51 to name it in honor of his grandfather. This past year — from June 21, 2015 to June 21, 2016 — feast days of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the parish has had a series of occasions to remember the anniversary. Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr celebrated the anniversary year’s closing Mass.
“We started with a Mass and had various things over the year,” said Michael Match, parish music director for the last seven years who helped coordinate the anniversary celebration. “We raffled off two dinners with our pastor, Father Michael Hay, in the rectory. We did one in August and one in April. The rectory and offices are a part of the parish campus but people never get to see them. We really wanted to open that up and show people the house the need to maintain it. “Our biggest fund raiser was installation of a new memorial garden dedicated to the Blessed Mother. We created it at the back of the old sisters’ convent, now called the Oldenburg Annex. There is a space down there where we have a large statue of the Blessed Mother and people bought bricks that were inscribed with family names or tributes. It has become a beautiful place to pray and meditate. When we christened it in August of last year on the eve of the Assumption we prayed the rosary out there and we are planning to have another one of those events this August,” Match said. “It’s a secluded, private place adjacent to the lower parking lot behind the church and it sits next to the cemetery, a lovely location. When we had the blessing and dedication we had about 100 people there.”
Today the parish numbers 1,400 families and primarily serves part of Green Township — a small parish in geographic area. It wasn’t always. Ruffing said the first church building was dedicated in November, 1868. The school started a couple months earlier. “It was not unusual then to have church buildings where the school took the bottom floor and the church took the upper floor,” he said. “By 1900, streetcars came to the Westwood and Cheviot area and St. Aloysius covered all of that territory. Streetcars came to all these hilltop suburbs and people started moving out of the valleys up to the hills. When the population in the area increased, the church was too small so they decided to build a second church in 1912 due west of where the original church was. There’s nothing left of the 1912 church. It was demolished in 1960 when structural defects were found in the ceiling and walls. The choir loft collapsed and that was it. They tore it down and built the present church on that site.
“In 2003 there was a major renovation inside the church: new pews, lighting, lowered altar. They brightened the color, exposed the organ pipes,” Ruffing said. “The year of 1899 was a defining moment when three Sisters of St. Francis from Oldenburg, Indiana arrived and that began almost 100 years of teaching at St. Aloysius School. I believe the last teaching nun left in the 1990s but there was a Sister of St. Francis of Oldenburg who was principal from 2001 to 2007,” he said. Population growth from 1900 into the1970s resulted in the formation of other parishes. “The first spinoff church carved out of St. Aloysius’ territory was in 1903 –St. Catharine of Sienna in Westwood. Then, in 1911, St. Martin of Tours in Cheviot was formed. There were a series of six parishes in all taking parts of St. Aloysius Gonzaga’s original area,” Ruffing said. “We are not growing in the sense that we are surrounded by all of these other parishes,” Ruffing said. “There are four parishes within 2.5 miles of us. All of this area has grown up. It’s all built out. So it’s not growing in terms of number of people. It’s a changing neighborhood. It’s an aging congregation. West-siders, once they live here, don’t move. And, we are now in a pastoral region with St. Jude..”
Money from the year-long fundraisers was used to create the memorial garden and other improvements. “We made some repairs to the church interior. We repainted the interior, cleaned carpet installed a chair railing,” Match said. Any leftover funds will be used to create a legacy fund to be maintained and used for future parish needs. “Remember, the school is 150 years old, too. There are 132 students in the school today and the school was one of the reasons the parish was incorporated,” Match said.