St. Joseph Parish is focal point of faith in south Hamilton
The spire of St. Joseph Church is a landmark in south Hamilton, where it has pointed heavenward for 150 years.
When Fran Meehan attended the parish elementary school some 80 years ago, “every other house around here was a St. Joseph house,” she said.
“We were a very large parish then. I remember all the Masses being packed. We had four Masses on Sunday, and the last one — the 11:30 Mass — we had to pay ‘pew rent’ to get a seat. There were people of every age, from teenagers to old people. A lot of the people I grew up with are still there.
“We were very much a family-oriented parish community. We had our corner stores and pharmacies and farms, of course. My dad had a service station. I lived two blocks away, and I walked to school every day and back home for lunch, and back to school and home again. “
Today, St. Joseph has 320 families and a highly respected school shared with St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Shandon. The church is part of the three-parish region with St. Julie Billiart and St. Peter in Chains parishes, also in Hamilton, under the leadership of Father Rob Muhlenkamp. In September, Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr celebrated a Mass celebrating its milestone anniversary.
Meehan’s son, Pat, is the unofficial parish historian. He said the 150th anniversary is a time to reflect on the past and the lasting faith of Catholics in south Hamilton.
“We remain in the original church built 150 years ago,” he said. “It’s a beautiful building — the tallest structure in the city. It’s a really nice, red-brick structure with some copper cladding on the steeple at the top.
“The spire, at 175 feet, dominates the landscape of south Hamilton. At night, it is the accent of the city. There was a tornado in 1879 that knocked out the steeple and that set the parish back pretty well. By the time the parish was 24 years old, they were able to rebuild the tower and steeple. We don’t even know what the old one looked like.
“By the turn of the century, they had fitted out a lot of the statuary and beautiful ornate mosaics, and put in all of the stained glass windows,” Meehan added.
St. Stephen Church, the first Catholic church in Hamilton and the third built in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, was formed in 1834 to serve all Catholics in a growing German-speaking population.
St. Mary Parish was formed in 1848 to accommodate the English-speakers, and the German population expanded so rapidly that they required a second German parish at the southern edge of town: St. Joseph. “The parish, when founded, was totally German,” Meehan said. “They spoke German and did not convert to English until after the First World War — just like most every other German parish.
As Hamilton continued to grow, St. Joseph Parish was followed by St. Veronica in east Hamilton, (1894), St. Peter in Chains, on the west side (1895), and St. Ann in the Lindenwald area, (1908). But by 1988, demographics had changed. St. Stephen, St. Mary, and St. Veronica parishes merged to form St. Julie Billiart Parish.
“This left St. Joseph as the oldest surviving parish in the city,” Meehan said, “and one of the first parishes in the archdiocese to operate without a resident pastor. In 1995, Father Jim Elsbernd became the sacramental minister, working as chaplain of Bethesda Hospital during the week while celebrating Mass and the sacraments at St. Joseph.” In 2016, the Hamilton Catholic Pastoral Region was formed and the next year, Father Muhlenkamp became its first pastor.
At the advent of 2018, St. Joseph has become a small community in the heart of the city. “It is an older congregation, but then there are a lot of families who support the school. The school brings people here,” Meehan said.
“There are people like me whose families have been there for generations. My mother and grandfather were here before me, and my wife Dottie’s family goes back to the very beginning. A lot of us can trace our roots to this parish.”