St. Mary Parish in Arheim celebrates 175 years of faith
September 6, 2012
By Eileen Connelly, OSU
St. Mary Parish in Arnheim, one of the oldest parishes in the state of Ohio, marked its 175th anniversary June 10 with a special Mass at which Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr presided. Concelebrating the Mass were a number of priests who have served the parish through the years. The church was filled to capacity with parishioners and guests who came to share in the joyous occasion.
The beautifully simple country church stands as a testament to the faith of the generations of Catholics who have been part of the parish. Catholic families originally settled in the area around Arnheim as early as 1827. Missionary priests celebrated Mass in the home Wendel Klein, whose daughter married John Ernst, Jr. (their descendents are still parishioners). The couple’s first child became the first Catholic baptized in the area. When that child died in 1837, Klein donated a half acre of land for the cemetery and the construction of a church. The parish was founded a year later, and the first church was a log structure named for St. Wendelin.
By the 1850s, the original church had become too small for the growing faith community. In 1858, the present church was built in the village of Arnheim. The bricks were handmade and fired on the nearby farm of Jacob Kelch. The church was spared when Morgan’s Raiders swept through Arnheim in 1863, but the town itself never recovered. On Jan. 9, 1865, Bishop Sylvester Rosencrans blessed the church in the name of St. Mary.
During this time, the parish continued to be served by missionary priests, who celebrated Mass monthly and spent the week giving religious education to the children. The parish received its first resident pastor in 1882. From 1896 until 1954, St. Mary was served by Benedictine priests from St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala. Women religious also served St. Mary over the years. In 1832, the Ursulines of Cincinnati began coming to Arnheim to instruct the children of the parish, using the former one-room Arnheim District School #5 for religion classes. The Glenmary Sisters took over the parish’s religious education program in 1955.
Various physical changes have occurred at St. Mary over the years to meet the needs of the times, while never losing the sense of faith and history. The church was renovated in 1988 in honor of the parish’s 150th anniversary, and a year later, St. Mary Hall was erected to serve as space for both religious education classes and social functions.
With the closing of St. Elizabeth Parish in Sardinia in 2009, its people and territory became part of St. Mary. To mark the joining of the faith communities, the hand-carved statue of St. Elizabeth was brought to St. Mary. At the same time, St. Mary began to share its pastor with St. Michael Parish in Ripley and St. George Parish in Georgetown, creating a new network of relationships and enriching the faith of all parishioners.
St. Mary continues to be an active center of Catholic life in Brown County, while remaining its close-knit sense of community and deep faith. Both longtime parishioners and those who are newer to St. Mary can attest to what a special place it is.
Father Dohrman Byers, pastor since 1996, recalls first arriving at the parish on a mild spring evening after a gentle rain. “…I could smell the earth,” said Father Byers. “Arnheim has felt like home ever since.”
A self-described “city boy turned country priest,” he realized he didn’t need to become a farmer to serve the people of St. Mary. “I just needed to be a priest and a pastor and to love my people, which they made very easy,” he said, noting that their faith, love and readiness to always reach out to others, which he discovered early in his pastorate, “have supported me both personally and in my ministry.”
“St. Mary Parish has been a huge part of our lives,” said Janet Rockey, who was among the many parishioners who shared her memories of the parish in special booklet published to commemorate the anniversary.” Her parents became parishioners after setting up housekeeping on the Arnheim farm where her mother still resides. Rockey made her first Communion at the parish, married her husband, Stephen, there in 1974, and all of the couple’s children attended religious education classes and received the sacraments at St. Mary. Her father is buried in the parish cemetery.
“St. Mary’s parishioners are like extended family,” she said. “They are there in times of all celebration and great support in times of sorrow.”
Marilyn Fryer, who serves as pastoral associate at St. Mary, entered the Catholic Church in 1989, and admits she spent some time searching for a parish she could call home. She finally tried St. Mary and said, “I will be eternally grateful to my guardian angel who persistently guided me here. I entered the Catholic Church in Cincinnati, but it has been at St. Mary in Arnheim where the people have taught me what it means to be Catholic.”