In Cincinnati, they say Old St. Mary's is “as Catholic as the Creed and as German as the Rhine.” A peek into the city's oldest standing house of worship easily reveals how appropriate this saying is. The interior of the church is richly embellished with works of art and objects of devotion that reflect the deep faith of the Catholic people and the rich patrimony of traditional German craftsmanship.
In fact, Germans have been a significant part of Cincinnati's history from its very beginning when Benjamin Steitz led the first settlers here in 1788.
By 1840, 30% of the city's population was German-speaking, necessitating the publication of ordinances in both German and English. Of the city's 12,000 Catholics, 8,000 were German. Many of these immigrants settled northwest of the Miami-Erie canal, and the German character of the neighborhood earned it the nickname “Over-the-Rhine.”
It was here in 1841 that these German Catholics built St. Mary's. Because the members of the new parish had only recently come to this country, they had little money and did most of the construction themselves. Father John Martin Henni, who later founded both the Diocese of Milwaukee and Marquette University, was given the task of establishing this German parish in Over-the-Rhine. He chose Franz Ignatz, himself a German immigrant to Cincinnati, as architect for the new church.
The women of the parish baked the bricks in their ovens at home, while the men felled and hewed whole trees to form the mammoth beams that still span the church above the painted plaster ceiling. In this way, the immigrants preserved the memory of the great churches of Germany, characterized by their elaborate stained glass windows, massive pipe organs and intricate murals.
The 171-foot tower was built around a huge virgin tree trunk, which was cut out when construction was finished.
When the church was dedicated in the summer of 1842, it was the largest church in the Ohio valley. The dedication ceremonies lasted an impressive 11 hours, beginning with the first Catholic procession ever held in the streets of Cincinnati and including the confirmation of 362 youngsters.
A Mix of Styles
The architectural style of Old St. Mary's has always been a rich eclectic mix. The engaged pilasters and classical entablature are reflective of the popular 19th century Greek revival. The ornate round windows of the façade add a touch of the baroque, while the frames of the window and the quatrefoil openings in the tower show signs of the 19th century's growing interest in the Gothic language. The result is, amazingly, a unified masterpiece of German Catholic art.
In honor of the parish's golden jubilee of 1892, hand-carved wooden statues and several oil paintings were brought from Vienna and Munich as a part of a grand restoration effort.
Especially noteworthy are three oil paintings of the Blessed Virgin Mary above the main altar.
Fifteen feet high, the paintings are changed at appropriate seasons of the year by being hoisted into place by a system of pulleys.
Visible under the high altar below are the bones of a woman martyr discovered in 1844 in the Roman cata-combs and brought to Cincinnati by Father Clemens Hammer, first pastor of Old St. Mary's.
Marian devotion, which takes so many different forms, has played a very important part in the life of this parish.
Known as the “mother of the Marian churches” in the area, Old St. Mary's features six elaborate shrines of our Lady under her various titles, and 10 circular murals that depict saints, such as Dominic and Theresa, who were known for their Marian devotion.
In the 1954 Marian Year, Archbishop Karl J. Alter designated the church as the official pilgrimage site for the archdiocese. Each week pilgrims would circle the aisles making the “Pilgrimage of Grace” devotion, reciting prayers at each of the Marian shrines.
Each year the parish continues to celebrate a magnificent May Crowning on Mother's Day. This year the church also hosted the missionary image of Our Lady of Guadalupe during the first two weeks of the Month of Mary.
These Marian devotions complement the church's unique liturgical offerings. The unity of worship is apparent here through the beautiful celebration of the Mass. In fact, St. Mary's is well known for its commitment to preserving the rich liturgical, musical and cultural heritage of Catholic tradition. Each Sunday, for instance, Mass is offered in Latin, German and English.
“Language is not a barrier to participation in the liturgy at Old St. Mary's,” says choirmaster Don Barrett, who has served the parish as music director and organist for the past 15 years. Old St. Mary's 9:15 a.m. Sunday Latin Mass features Gregorian chant and Renaissance music provided by choir members from the University of Cincinnati's acclaimed College Conservatory of Music.
“The music program at Old St. Mary's is all about liturgy in the finest tradition of the Catholic Church,” explains Barrett. “We feature a wide variety of traditional Catholic sacred music in its proper liturgical setting, and there is a high level of congregational participation at each Mass.” The Latin congregation, for instance, chants the familiar Gloria, Credo and Sanctus along with the choir.
The church's formidable organ, installed in 1929, contains 2,275 pipes, including some from the organ once used in Cincinnati's Music Hall. It remains today the city's largest pipe organ.
Old St. Mary's is a living church, an integral part of the spiritual inheritance entrusted to the Catholics of Cincinnati, an enduring statement of faith, hope and thanksgiving bequeathed by past generations as a challenge to those for whom they kept the faith.
In many ways Old St. Mary's Church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, can be regarded as a shrine of the past, a powerhouse in the present, and a prototype for the future.
It is, and always will be, a unique part of Cincinnati's historical and architectural heritage.
Michael Rose writes from Cincinnati.