Spirit of Cincinnati

Cincinnati draws many tourists, few of whom come here looking for churches.

The many don't know what they're missing.

This Ohio city, together with its next-door neighbor, Covington, Ky., is home to nearly 250 churches. Many house beautiful collections of liturgical art and priceless pieces of history.

The first place to start on your tour of city churches is the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, mother church for Cincinnati's 550,000 Catholics. Completed in 1845 under the guidance of Bishop Edward Fenwick, the cathedral (the second permanent one in the United States.) is considered one of the most handsome and monumental examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Designed by Henry Walter, architect of the Ohio State Capitol, its special treasure is a gold processional crucifix designed by Benevenuto Cellini.

The cathedral served the archdiocese for more than 90 years, but eventually it — and the neighborhood — deteriorated, so much so that the rank of “cathedral” was turned over to another church. However, in the 1950s there was a huge movement toward urban renewal and, soon after his arrival in Cincinnati, Archbishop Karl Alter began the renovation of St. Peter's. After adding transepts, sanctuary, sacristy and rectory to the building, he allowed it to resume its status as a cathedral in 1957. Soon, downtown Cincinnati also experienced a rebirth.

Wherever you go in this magnificent building, you are greeted with splendor. As you enter the atrium, walls of black marble and shimmering gold surround you. Cream marble flooring is inlaid with deep green marble in the design of crossed keys, the symbol of St. Peter. A towering mosaic, composed of thousands of pieces of Venetian glass, is visible behind the altar depicting Christ giving the keys of the kingdom to Peter. This mosaic was designed in Germany in Byzantine style. The sanctuary carpet, hand-woven in the Netherlands, bears the coat of arms of Archbishop Alter.

Dramatic Marble

In the Archbishop's Chapel, paneled in rich mahogany, is a wooden tabernacle, sheathed in gold-plated bronze, a gift from Pope Leo XII to Bishop Fenwick. It rests on the former main altar, fashioned from carrera marble in Genoa, Italy, in 1845.

The baptistery (in the right transept) is graced by a bronze statue of St. John Neumann, a gift by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, to commemorate the canonization of this saint who once served as a priest in this archdiocese. The baptistery also features a wall of stone tracery, dramatized by stained-glass panels with the theme of chains and crosses. Over the font is the bronze Risen Christ by artist Robert Koepnick. The font, constructed of marble and bronze, has a phoenix (a legendary bird which rises from its own ashes) on the base, symbolizing the resurrection from the dead.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the left transept displays a dramatic use of black marble, accented by panels of pierced gold leaf woodwork. The inscription reads “Heart of Jesus Burning with Love for Us.” A tall, magnificent monstrance for exposition is situated behind the tabernacle.

To me, the most unique devotional feature of the cathedral is the Stations of the Cross in the form of eight murals inspired by Greek pottery paintings from 600-400 B.C. These life-size figures are richly rendered in the classical colors of black, white and gold on a brick-red background.

The cathedral has a museum, open only by appointment, containing magnificent monstrances, relics, vestments and historic Church documents. The theme of St. Peter in Chains is carried out by windows reflecting the “chain motif” both here and throughout the cathedral. Here one finds the explanation of the Archdiocesan Coat of Arms — a plow (standing for the Roman farmer Cincinnatus) between three crosses (in honor of the Trinity) in the colors of red and gold, which are St. Peter's colors.

The cathedral, which remains the oldest cathedral west of the Alleghenies still in use as a cathedral, well deserves its designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

Awe-Inspiring Acoustics

Old St. Mary's is another Cincinnati church well worth a visit. In the 19th century, German immigrants settled across the canal in a neighborhood still known as “Over-the Rhine.” In the 1840s these Germans built this church by baking its bricks in their own kitchens. They used elaborate decorations in the church and installed huge pipe organs to recall the churches of their native land. The church's clock tower is the oldest in the city.

The parish has a reputation for inspiring music, aided by the state-of-the-art acoustics of its wooden interior. The venerable Austin organ has been revitalized with spare parts taken from an old music hall organ. At its 9:15 Sunday Latin Mass, both Gregorian chant and Renaissance liturgical music are performed by choir members from the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music.

This parish has always had a special devotion to its patron, indicated by the various shrines to Our Lady, under numerous titles, throughout the church. Every May there is crowning of the Blessed Virgin. The Vatican designated Old St. Mary's altar as one with “privileged status,” and a reliquary in its base holds the relics of an unnamed martyr ("St. Martura") found in the catacombs in Rome.

The parish today still ministers to the old, the sick and the poor. In 1982 the parish school became the new home of St. Joseph Social Service Center, providing food, clothing, counseling and temporary housing for the homeless.

Old St. Mary's, the oldest standing house of worship in the city, is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Masses are celebrated in Latin, German and English. Parish gatherings are occasions for feasting on bratwurst. Come during Octoberfest and you'll meet Bavarians who come all the way from Munich just for the occasion.

Going to the top of the city to the section of Mount Adams, you'll find “The Church of the Steps” (real name: Immaculata Church). This parish has traditionally been the scene for votive offerings for the safety of men at sea during visits back to Europe. Perched atop the city and looking over the beautiful Ohio River valley, it is a popular Good Friday pilgrimage site. Visitors kneel and say two prayers on each of its 100 steps as they ascend.

Across the Ohio River stands the crown in the jewel of the Diocese of Covington — the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. Built after 1895, it's a treasure-trove, both inside and out. Its central entrance features outstanding statuary and stone carvings by the famous American sculptor Clement Barhorn. At the summit of its twin-towered facade stand 26 gargoyles, keeping guard lest evil spirits enter. No wonder it has been described as a small-scale model of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral on the outside and, with its pure arched Gothic ceiling, St. Denis on the inside.

The stained-glass window in the north transept represents the fifth-century Council of Ephesus, which proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God. It is the largest handmade stained-glass church window in the world — and the window has never been finished.

There are also two outstanding rose windows and 82 other stained-glass windows from Munich, Germany, representing mysteries of our faith and Christ's miracles. Stations of the Cross based on original oil paintings of a Bavarian religious are executed in tiny porcelain tiles numbering over 80,000. The murals, organs and statuary in the basilica deserve special mention as well.

The Cathedral Basilica's garden displays a fountain by the renowned liturgical artist William Schickel.

Here is a place to pray, meditate or just relax. The day I was there happened to be the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the priest was carrying out the annual blessing of the animals, reading parts of Genesis as the animals — and their owners — patiently stood by. Another church of note in Covington is Mother of God, with its five large murals by Johann Schmidt, whose work is also displayed in the Vatican.

This is but a tempting taste of the churches in the Cincinnati area, today presided over by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk. Come and see them for yourself. You'll go away with fond memories and renewed faith.

Lorraine Williams lives in Markham, Ontario.