The Catholic Thing
Queen City Queen Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Over the Labor Day weekend, I was in Ohio – in Columbus, where I saw the Buckeyes whip the Zips in football, but mostly in Cincinnati, where my wife and I attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains. The last time I’d been to St. Peter (1974), I heard Mother Teresa speak, and every pew had been packed, including the balconies that look down on the altar. This time, however, the church was uncrowded. Indeed, in his homily the pastor begged those in attendance to urge their friends to come to Mass at the cathedral, so “the St. Peter’s community can grow again.”

I detected anxiety in his voice, and I can understand why. Up in Cleveland, where I’ve spent time recently (my younger son attended university there), the Catholic community has been rocked by church closings and parish consolidations, and Cincinnatians must worry about that too, especially at St. Peter in Chains. It’s hard to believe such a beautiful cathedral could be closed, sold, or razed, but these are parlous times for America’s urban Catholic churches.

History happens.

The cornerstone for the cathedral was laid in 1841 and opened its great bronze doors in 1845, at a time when immigrants from Ireland and (especially in Cincinnati) from Germany were streaming into southern Ohio. The foundation of the cathedral reversed once and for all the “unwritten prohibition” against the building of Catholic churches in the Queen City. But a century later, most German-Americans had fully assimilated and – in the anti-Nazi/anti-German climate of the day – began de-emphasizing their heritage. And, because they’d become prosperous, they moved out of downtown neighborhoods into more affluent, suburban enclaves. St. Peter in Chains is surrounded today by office buildings, parking lots, gentrified row houses, and by a large African-American (and a smaller Appalachian) population, among whom there just aren’t many Catholics.

Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (OTR), once the center of German Catholic life in the city, now has only a small German population. Old St. Mary’s Church (a ten-minute walk from St. Peter in Chains) still offers one Sunday Mass in German (and one in Latin too), but the character (if not the soul) of the area was long ago changed by “white flight,” by eminent domain (the construction of Interstates 71 and 75), which destroyed much of its architectural heritage, and by crime, which until recently was the highest in all of the city’s neighborhoods. Gone forever is its heyday, when OTR could boast thirty-six breweries and thousands of jobs: for brewers, hoopers, glass workers, and others. The last of those great companies, Hudepohl-Schoenling (the two having merged in 1986), is now essentially a microbrewery.

Despite all that, downtown Cincinnati is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, yet it is unlikely to experience a concomitant Catholic renewal. Hope for that, such as it is, lies in the suburbs and their vibrant Catholic schools.

Speaking of football, anybody who has played the sport in Ohio over the last half-century knows of Cincinnati’s perennial Catholic high-school powerhouses: Elder, La Salle, Moeller, and Xavier. All are ranked in the state’s top ten again this season, and each, by the way, is an all-male academy. (Xavier is #17 nationally, where nine of the top-twenty-five teams are Catholic schools.) The Cincinnati archdiocese, which comprises most of southern Ohio and includes Dayton, has twenty-three Catholic high schools and 115 parochial and diocesan elementary schools serving a Catholic population of half-a-million. By contrast, New York City has just fifty-eight Catholic high schools for 3,000,000 Catholics.

But what’s to become of St. Peter in Chains? As I say, history happens – even if you’re on the National Register of Historic Places. Although I was there on a day when many Cincinnatians were vacationing, it’s clear the cathedral is not so much a local parish church as it is a tourist destination, albeit one without the allure (or the crowds) of, say, St. Patrick’s in Manhattan. That’s a shame, because it’s a lovely structure. With its imposing Greek revival columns, its broad, rising steps, and its single, tall spire, your first impression of the limestone “White Angel” might be of a county courthouse (or of City Hall, which is next door), particularly so given that the small cross atop the Wren-like spire is two-hundred-twenty feet above street level: very “church-state,” as they say, and typical, apparently, of Protestant architect Henry Walter.

Inside, however, the feeling is less Greek revival and more Byzantine. There are even more Corinthian columns, but the space is dominated (for me at least) by the large Venetian-glass mosaic on the wall behind the altar, by the beautiful gilded coffered ceilings, and by the gorgeous marble floors. The Anton Wendling mosaic depicts a young Christ handing the keys to Peter. Inscribed below: “Et Petrus quidem servabatur in carcere vinctus catenis” (from Acts 12:5: Peter thus was being kept in prison . . .). The floors are made primarily of Italian verte issole, bordered in dolsetto perlatto: green and white. (You can see some of this in my slightly lopsided iPhone photo above.)

The cathedral hosts a concert series and has, so I’m told, a fantastic choir. The liturgy and the organ music we heard were first-rate and included a processional (“Rhosymedre”) by Ralph Vaughn Williams. To be honest, I didn’t notice if the cross leading the recession on Sunday was the one bearing a golden corpus by Benvenuto Cellini, but it’s one of the many treasures you might see on a visit to Cincinnati.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. One of his books,
The Compleat Gentleman, was published in a revised edition in 2009.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Dave, September 14, 2011
Mr. Miner, thank you for this beautiful article.

When the Church rediscovers how to evangelize she will once again transform lives, families, neighborhoods, cities, and larger polities. Then the Cathedrals and parish churches will fill. I may be wrong, but I think our hierarchs spend great time on corollary issues without getting to the heart of the matter: the offer of salvation that Jesus Christ brings and the hope acceptance of the offer generates. So people tune out the Church because it appears she has little to say except for which social policies we should and should not support. We need more bishops like the Pope, and his predecessor of blessed memory, who never fails to preach Jesus Christ.

The issue in Cincinnati and elsewhere is not that the original population moved out: it is rather that the Church failed to evangelize those who moved in. The demise of the great urban churches is but a consequence of that failure, and no amount of fund raising to maintain them will address the root causes.

And how could the Church have evangelized, when in the wake of the Second Vatican Council chaos ensued and far too many people thought the ancient verities were no longer regnant. How could the Church have evangelized, when so many priests and religious simply abandoned the ranks, and lay people were not deeply enough catechized to take up the slack?

So we have to hope that the New Evangelization will indeed fill the churches once again, as we pray and sacrifice for our clergy, for ourselves, and for the neighbor whom we are supposed to love as we love ourselves. We have to catechize ourselves through the assiduous study of the Word of God in Scripture and Tradition as understood by the Magisterium, and we have to rediscover the power of the sacraments so deeply that we will be impelled to bring others to them. And this program presupposes, first of all, a deep and vibrant interior life. God grant us shepherds and teachers who can help us, and ears to hear and eyes to see.
written by Steve, September 14, 2011
I agree 100%. I despise church closing until I am convinced that all efforts to evangelize the Gospel are exhausted and even then I have doubts. This has been too much a business decision and not a faith decision. Here in Boston there has been too much of that going on. Of course the Priests shortage also plays a role in these closings. I have heard of an urban church in New York that was scheduled for closing and undertook a strong evangelization program and now has full pews and a vibrant congregation albeit with a different demographic.
written by M. Swaim, September 14, 2011
Next time you're here in Cincy, call us at Sacred Heart Radio and come visit us at our studios in Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Center, which used to house Mount St. Mary's Seminary of the West and now houses many statues, relics and other treasures from closed Cincinnati parishes.
written by Robert, September 14, 2011
Mr. Miner, the problems you describe facing St. Peter's in Chains are felt by many of the Archdiocesan suffragan Cathedrals as well. In Toledo, we have one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the United State, Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral. However, despite her unique place in artistic and architectural history (the only Plateresque cathedral in the world) we are challenged to fill her pews for Pontifical liturgies alone, not to mention Sunday Mass. Ohio is blessed with many churches of incredible beauty and grandeur, and their historic and cultural significance might one day be lost if care and attention is not paid them immediately. Please visit us in Toledo to see our beautiful mother-church, as well as our basilica in Carey, OH. But we, and many churches throughout the state, share your woes.
written by Brad Miner, September 14, 2011
I'm very grateful for these early comments about my column, and I'm mostly in sympathy with the opinions expressed. However, if I may address Dave and Steve, I think the loss (or lack anyway) of Catholic population in the catchment area of an urban cathedral is a very serious matter, although evangelization surely has flagged and would most certainly help remediate. That said, and having walked around downtown Cincinnati, it looks to me like St. Paul is needed: him or somebody with his charism. And yet (now augmenting you arguments) I must say modern Catholic evangelization (much of it superb, as in Fr. Barron's CATHOLICISM) is too oriented to electronic media and not enough on actual men and women proclaiming the Gospel on the streets of places such as OTR.
written by Dave, September 14, 2011
Mr. Miner, thanks for your response; and I think your last sentence is spot-on. Salvation is a personal matter; our Lord called people one-by-one and baptism is administered one-by-one. The Gospel spread throughout the world without benefit of electronic media because men and women with souls on fire could not but help declare the reason for their hope and joy -- which gets us back to our Holy Father's magnificent Spe Salvi, no? The second challenge is that when people are baptized, they are baptized into a relationship with Christ and His Church, which means that the local communities have to be ready, willing, and able to receive new members into their number. There are all kinds of reasons why historically beleaguered peoples may have been unable to receive new members; but those days are and have to be behind us. To your prayer that God raise up new St. Pauls should be added the prayer that He make "me" one, too: each of us is called to be an apostle. The task is daunting, but "greater is He that is in you..." This leads me back to my point on interior life. More of us need more of it. God grant we correspond to the graces.
written by Bill Beckman, September 14, 2011
I read this essay with interest because I'm an XU grad with fond memories of my years in Cincinnati. As I read the several comments touching on the vast problems faced by the Church in core cities, I couldn't help recalling with irony Joni Mitchell's lyric, "They pave paradise and put up a parking lot." I fear that with many of our urban sacred treasures "we won't know what we've got till it's gone." But as lamentable as that is, it will be even more so if we don't recognize the pearl of great price and hand it on through proclamation and witness of life.

Brad Miner is right: we need basic, person-to-person evangelization. Freely we have received; freely we must hand on (cf Mt 10:8). The Acts of the Apostles must again be our model, but where do we see this in the Church of today? I dare say if we canvassed diocesan and parish evangelization plans and programs, we would find few that urge 2x2 street evangelization. One group that regularly engages in this method is the Neocatechumenal Way and with demonstrable results. Unfortunately, some voices in the Church are so busy criticizing the Way, they miss the point that this Vatican approved and papally praised charism is producing good fruits with ancient methods. I think it is long past time to end the insanity of "circular firing squads" in the Church and get on with the work of evangelization (see Redemptoris Missio 3).
written by Louise, September 14, 2011
I attend a parish that, 25+ years ago had 300 or so parishioners, all of them elderly, Polisih immigrant or first-generation offspring of POlish immigrants. A late-vocation priest arrived, found the facilities in total disrepair and no money to restore anything. He held novenas, 40-hour devotions, all the traditional devotional and cultural practices of the Polish people and Catholicism at large that were abandoned as out of date and passe by the post-V2 priests and bishops. He never once asked for money from the pulpit. When the technology arrived, he had a website, and televised the Mass on community TV. None of the statues, icons, paintings, banks of candles, niche shrines, confessionals, were removed. Confessions are still heard EVERY day before Mass. Only one day in all those years has there not been a Mass celebrated, and that was because a substitute priest became ill just before Mass. No days off for this priest. He wears clerics all the time. I have never seen him otherwise. No altar girls ever. The altar rails are being returned to the Church. The tabernacle is veiled.

A little more than 25 years later, I believe the number of registered parishioners is higher that 1400, and people come from three states--young people with lots of children--a great many from other parishes. Midnight Mass is held at Midnight.

Isn't this what you are looking for, Mr Miner? It is the Faith and the Mass in all beauty, depth, devotion but also intellectual challenge. Forty-hours devotion is this weekend if you're interested.

It begins with the priests.
written by Steve Feldmann, September 14, 2011
A little more perspective on the situation in Cincinnati.

The oldest part of Cincinnati is in the "Basin," an area (including Downtown) that borders the Ohio River and is almost completely surrounded by hills. At the end of the 19th Century, the vast majority of Cincinnatians lived in the Basin.

In the Basin, there are several major areas - the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine, and the West End. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century, The CBD had six parishes; OTR had six; the West End had eleven. Added to these parishes were numerous parishes along the Mill Creek Valley (which flows out through the West End and north between two of the hills), others just up on the hills surrounding the Basin, and still others just over the Ohio River in Covington and Newport, Kentucky.

Then, as was mentioned, the population starting moving up the hills and out. It wasn't a religious thing. Folks just decided that the suburbs were a better and healthier place to live.

By 1938, the situation had gotten so bad for St. Peter's that Archbishop McNicholas decided to replace St. Peter's as the Cathedral with St. Monica, which is located on top of one of the hills (Clifton Heights). After Archbishop McNicholas came Archbishop Alter who wanted to move the Cathedral back to Downtown. After a restoration project, the Cathedral was moved back to St. Peter's in 1957.

But the move of the Cathedral back to the Basin didn't mean that the population loss had reversed itself. Folks just kept leaving the central part of town. As noted by Mr. Miner, it didn't help that urban revitalization efforts eliminated entire neighborhoods and cut others off from one another. The population moved; it didn't matter the religion.

Of course, Catholics could measure the move by the diminishing number of parishes. Whereas the Basin used to have 23 parishes, it now has six. The CBD now supports three parishes; OTR supports two; the West End is down to one.

With this said, there is a great deal of hope, so it will be interesting to watch this area of the Church in the next decade or so.
written by Matt, September 15, 2011
It would be a great shame if anything would ever happen to St. Peter in Chains Cathedral... it is a bulwark of faith. Mass and Confession are offered several times a day there. I know of no other place where Catholics can have their spiritual needs cared for so frequently and conveniently. It's the closest thing I can think of to a 24/7 spiritual marketplace. I'll be sure to include its revival in my prayer intentions.

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