Clermont County’s Oldest Parish Gets New Upgrade
By John Stegeman
STONELICK, Twp. — St. Philomena church in Clermont County has a long and storied history of serving its community and a recent addition to the historic church building demonstrates the parish’s desire to serve its elderly and disabled members.
Father Jerry Hiland, who is the pastor of the four-parish Clermont County pastoral area, wanted to provide those in wheelchairs or those otherwise unable to use stairs a better access to the church and its undercroft community center. With the help of parishioners, and an anonymous donor, Father Hiland’s dream became a reality when the church recently excavated the adjacent hillside to provide a fully handicapped accessible ramp from the parking lot to the undercroft. From the undercroft, a small elevator leads upstairs to the main church.
“We’ve been talking about it for years,” Father Hiland said. “We had a minimally adequate ramp in the back up on the hill for people to come in, but it just didn’t work. People couldn’t get into the body of the church, only the sacristy. And they couldn’t get down to the undercroft.
“It was important for our senior citizens and disabled folks and for visitors,” he added.
When aiming to make St. Philomena, built in 1905, fully handicapped accessible, a major concern was preserving the appearance of the oldest Catholic church in Clermont County.
“A ramp in the front would have really cost a lot of money and it would have made the church look bad,” Father Hiland said. “We looked at maybe knocking a hole in the side but because of the construction with the columns the way they’re made and small arches, if you knocked a hole in these walls the whole building would come down.”
The solution came when someone realized that the bottom of an unused stairwell in the undercroft was only about three inches above ground level, as the church is built into a hillside. The ramp was built in that place.
That side of the church is adjacent to a Mary grotto and a historic cemetery.
Larry Sandfoss, a member of St. Philomena’s budget committee, said the total cost of the renovations, which will also include landscaping the area around the recent construction and adding rod iron fencing, is expected to cost around $60,000. The parish came up with half, and an anonymous donor contributed an additional $30,000.
Emma Yeager, 92, is believed to be St. Philomena’s oldest parishioner. Yeager spoke highly of the elevator addition and of the parish.
“I think (the addition) is wonderful,” Yeager said.
Yeager has attended St. Philomena for her entire life. The Yeagers are one of the founding families of the church, and now have four generations attending each Sunday.
“I love (St. Philomena),” Yeager said. “I’m not leaving it. I’m dying here, I mean, not at this moment. I just think it’s a wonderful place.”
Joe Drilling, who with only five years as a parishioner is considered a new member, was an engineer and project manager on the renovations along with Lee Ottaway.
“We’re engineers by trade and we build machinery here locally and we gravitate toward machinery like an elevator,” Drilling said. “We were able to work with Lee Ottaway. He and I reviewed a couple of designs of elevators … We tried to use as many local contractors as we could because we have a good relationship with them and they stand behind their work.”
Father Hiland consistently praises his parishioners, who he said performed much of the work related to the renovations, as always willing to step up and do what was needed.
During the course of the excavations, workers came across a large stone, which had to be broken in order for it to be removed. Upon closer look, however, the stone was the cornerstone of the first brick church built at the site. It bore the inscription “St. Philomena, 1869.” There are plans to restore the stone and perhaps display it again. The first St. Philomena at the site was a log church built in 1839 along the picturesque Stonelick Creek. It burned down in 1868, and was replaced by a new structure. The present church was built in 1905.
While St. Philomena is small, roughly 100 families, it is a thriving community that Father Hiland said has nearly 95 percent Mass attendance each Sunday. The dedication of the community was made evident by how many parishioners donated time, money or skills to the new additions. The new ramp entrance and elevator provide access to the church for all people regardless of disability, and do so without diminishing at all the historic look and feel of St. Philomena.
“We have this unique position of being the oldest parish in the county,” Sandfoss said. “We take great pride in that and try to preserve that aspect of our community.”