Queen City Queen

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 the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.