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The ‘heart of the Over-the-Rhine’

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

St. Francis Seraph celebrates 150th anniversary

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

CATHEDRAL DEANERY — When St. Francis Seraph Parish in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine marked its 75th anniversary in 1934, Franciscan Father John B. Wuest, who penned a commemorative booklet for the occasion, wrote, “A parish is not a thing of brick and mortar. It is a living organism with a most complex life.”

Father Wuest’s words ring true in describing St. Francis Seraph today. The sense of faith and community and very presence of the parish in the surrounding neighborhood were celebrated on Dec. 13 as its 150th jubilee year came to a close. Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk presided at the closing Mass, with Franciscan Fathers Jeffrey Scheeler, provincial minister of the St. John the Baptist province, and Gregory Friedman, pastor, concelebrating.

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The interior of St. Francis Seraph church was decorated for Advent during the parish’s 150th anniversary Mass. (CT/Tony Tribble

Father Friedman spoke of how Archbishop John Baptist Purcell made it possible for the Franciscan friars to have a “permanent home in this sacred place.” The archbishop invited the friars from the province of St. Leopold, Tyrol, Austria, to come to Cincinnati in 1844 to help meet the spiritual needs of the great number of German Catholics who had been coming to the city since 1830. Because the Catholic congregation continued to grow so rapidly, Archbishop Purcell granted permission to erect a church on site of the former Christ Church, at Liberty and Vine streets. When the Diocese of Cincinnati was established in 1821, the small frame church had become the first cathedral in Ohio.

The cornerstone for the new structure was laid in November 1858, and St. Francis Seraph Church was dedicated on Dec. 18, 1859, the fourth Sunday of Advent. The parish was named for the mystical vision of the six-winged seraph that the Franciscan founder, St. Francis, had upon receiving the stigmata.

Since its founding, St. Francis Seraph has been a source of strength, guidance and service to the people of OTR and beyond. The face of the neighborhood has changed through the years, but the presence of Franciscan friars and the many groups and individuals that collaborate with them in carrying out their ministry remains steadfast.

“Over-the-Rhine underwent some major changes when the immigrants moved out into the hills of Cincinnati,” Father Friedman said. “My father had a grocery store there after the war, and his clientele was very much middle-class.”

The 1960s brought urban renewal to the neighborhood, the widening of Liberty Street and a “new wave of immigrants,” specifically Appalachians and African-Americans, Father Friedman noted. As the parish population decreased and needs of the neighborhood shifted from spiritual to more physical, the friars recognized the need to place more emphasis on social outreach.  The result was St. Francis Seraph Ministries, which today provides a variety of services geared toward addressing the immediate needs of low-income persons, as well as enhancing the skills and transforming the lives of those served. Ministries include the Sarah Center, an emergency assistance program and a soup kitchen.

Father Friedman stressed that the ministries are “bigger than the parish itself. It’s not just the friars, but all who are Franciscan at heart. The Franciscans and their friends have found ways to minister that have flourished and are helped by a broad community of support,” he said.

In the 1990s St. Francis Seraph underwent a spiritual renewal as the friars worked to build up the Sunday congregation and more fully integrate the life of the parish within the neighborhood. Today, the faith community serves some 150 parishioners, including a core group from OTR and downtown, along with members who travel to Mass from as far away as Loveland and Lawrenceburg. In addition, St. Francis Seraph School under the leadership of principal Wanda Hill educates some 150 students, a majority from families with incomes below the poverty level.

“People come from all over Cincinnati. They like the Franciscan spirit, which is based on community,” Father Friedman said. “Everyone here is very friendly. You don’t stay a stranger for long.”

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St. Francis Seraph parishioners Carrie Johnson and Burkes Menefield visit during the October street fair. (Courtesy photo)

In his homily Archbishop Pilarczyk, said, “Today we have a special cause for being joyful in the presence of the Lord. We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the life of this parish of St. Francis Seraph under the direction of the Franciscans of the St. John the Baptist province. For a century-and-a-half we Franciscans have been instruments of the nearness of the Lord in this part of archdiocese. For a ­century-and-a-half we have been inviting people to be joyful in the Lord. Today that mission of God’s presence and the joyfulness that is consequent to it is being given a heightened awareness in our anniversary celebration.”

The archbishop also shared what he described as “one of his little theological theories.

“I believe that there is a special place in purgatory (or elsewhere) for people who manage to make their Catholic faith glum or sad or joyless,” he said. “When judgment comes people will divided up according to their predominant sin. And there will be a group, somewhere over there, of people whose predominant sin was making religion sad. And there will be very few people in that group from St. Francis Seraph.”

As the Mass ended, Father Scheeler thanked Archbishop Pilarczyk for his presence, reminded the congregation of the archbishop’s affiliation with the St. John the Baptist province and noted that it has been 150 years of “great grace and blessing” to serve the parish and neighborhood. “You are people of great joy who really celebrate your Catholic faith,” he said.

The Mass brought to a close a yearlong celebration, the theme for which focused on St. Francis Seraph’s presence in the heart of OTR. Other anniversary events included a special banquet for all parishioners, a Corpus Christi procession around the neighborhood and street fair in conjunction with the feast of St. Francis on Oct. 4.

The anniversary celebration was also an opportunity for parishioners to reflect on what their parish means to them and what makes it so special.

“We’re a real community and there’s a sense of family here,” said Mary Schroeder, a parishioner for 35 years. “I’m a Franciscan at heart and am proud of them for managing to survive in a neighborhood that has changed so much. They’ve stayed through thick and thin, and when I look at what the parish has accomplished in terms of ministry, it’s amazing.”

Tom Candelaresi, his wife, Tina, and daughters, Lisa and Julie, have been members of the parish for just over three years and all are actively involved. “We came here after St. Bonaventure closed (in 2003), and it was the Franciscan presence that helped sway us,” Candelaresi said. “It’s a wonderful, consistent, energizing place and there is such compassion and care here. It seemed like such a natural fit for all of us.”

Martha Schuler, a parishioner for 16 years, added, “It’s a very open, welcoming parish and everyone cares about everybody else. The Franciscans and the parish have meant so much to the neighborhood and the city and are still making a difference.”

“Celebrating 150 years says that the Franciscans are a community that when inserted into a neighborhood like Over-the-Rhine are very open to the lives of the people there,” said Father Friedman. “For 150 years the Franciscans have been responsive to the spiritual, physical and social needs of the neighborhood around us. We’re concerned about our neighbors, interact with them and want to share community with them.”

“Anniversaries are an opportunity to remember the past, but in the end it’s not about the past but the future,” he said. “The Franciscans’ mission statement talks about facing the future with hope and that’s where we go now . . . into the future.”

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