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Bishop Edward Fenwick, O.P.

August 16th, 2018posted by Sarah L. Ater

Bishop Edward Fenwick, O.P.

This Sunday, August 19th, is the 250th birthday of the first bishop of Cincinnati, Edward Fenwick, O.P. He is also the founding of an American Dominican Priory at St. Rose, Kentucky. A missionary priest with a passion to bring the sacraments to a pioneer and scattered people, he lived a life of exemplary service, humility, and determination to serve the needs of his diocese. Today we give a short biography with some suggested further reading.

Edward Fenwick was born August 19, 1768 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. The fourth of eight children of Ignatius Fenwick and Sarah Taney, Edward’s father served as Colonel during the Revolutionary War. During that time his mother died and was followed soon after by Ignatius in 1784. It was that same year that Edward traveled across the ocean to attend Holy Cross College in Bornheim, Belgium. It was here that he discerned his vocation with the Dominican Friars and entered the community in 1788. His time at the seminary was interrupted due to the unrest of the French Revolution. Despite this, he was ordained to the priesthood on February 23, 1793. One year later he was arrested by revolutionary French troops but released when they discovered he was an American. With fellow displaced Dominicans, for ten years he served and taught in Carshalton, England.

Desiring to establish a Dominican community in the United States, Fenwick was granted permission in 1804 to return to America and establish a community. Thinking he would be situated on the east coast, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore had other plans and assigned him to establish a priory in the then-western part of the country, Kentucky. Reaching Kentucky in the summer of 1806, Fenwick built a convent, chapel, and college, called St. Rose. Father Fenwick quickly took up the activity closest to his heart: being a missionary priest in the wilds of Ohio and Kentucky. Called “the Apostle of Ohio,” Father Fenwick sought out Catholics and fallen away Catholics, bringing to them the sacraments. In fact, he established the first Catholic Church in the state: St. Joseph Church, Somerset, in 1819.

Athenaeum, Cathedral, and Bishop’s residence, Sycamore Street, Cincinnati

It was his knowledge of Ohio that made him a top candidate for the newly created Diocese of Cincinnati in 1821. Not wanting the task, he declined and protested he lacked the education, skills, and holiness for the office. Eventually he did accept the position, but only after commanded by his superior and also Bishop Joseph Flaget of the Diocese of Bardstown. Father Fenwick was consecrated Bishop Fenwick on January 13, 1822 at St. Rose’s Church in Kentucky. In his first letter to the Cardinal-Prefect of the Propaganda, he describes the diocese as being 264 miles long and 281 miles wide, with 581,434 inhabitants of which 6,000 were Catholic.

Bishop Fenwick quickly went to work setting up the new diocese. The first church in Cincinnati, Christ Church, was moved from Liberty and Vine to a newly purchased lot on Sycamore Street and its name changed to St. Peter Church. A tour of his diocese in 1822 showed the real needs of the pioneer church. Bishop Fenwick left one year later for a year and a half tour of Europe, begging for priests, sisters, and financial assistance. After this successful trip, Bishop Fenwick arrived home to a new residence and plans for a new cathedral. Dedicated in December 1826, the cathedral was Gothic in design, measuring one hundred feet by fifty feet and included paintings given by Cardinal Fesch, including one of St. Peter in Chains, the future full name of the cathedral.

Knowing that the best way to get new priests was to establish a seminary, the theological seminary next to the cathedral was opened May 11, 1829 with ten students. Accomplishing another goal two years later, the establishment of The Catholic Telegraph, a weekly newspaper published by the diocese, would be a method for the local Catholic Church to explain the faith to non-Catholics, as well as expound the faith for the faithful.

A missionary at heart, Bishop Fenwick died of cholera in Wooster, Ohio, on September 26, 1832. One year later the body was disinterred and buried at the cathedral. With Bishop John Purcell built the new St. Peter in Chains Cathedral on Ninth and Plum in 1845, Bishop Fenwick’s body was moved to that location in 1848. Lastly, Bishop Fenwick was moved once more to St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Price Hill, in 1916.

This short biography is but a glimpse into the life of Bishop Edward Fenwick, O.P. Many more topics deserve attention, such as the establishment of the Dominican priory in Kentucky, his ministry among the Native Americans, efforts to bring women religious communities to the Diocese of Cincinnati, and efforts to establish a diocese in Michigan. He was filled with concern his entire episcopate that he was unworthy of the task and sought to have it removed from him. We’ll close with an excerpt from a passionate May 1825 letter of Bishop Fenwick to the Association for the Propagation of the Faith.

“We have everything – every task imaginable ahead of us in Cincinnati – everything in the spiritual and temporal domains….These tasks take up much of the energy which I ought to expend in favour of so many wandering and famished sheep who yearn for the Bread of Life. I am truly anguished at not being able to feed them, unable to take on half the needs of my Diocese…Nevertheless, it is consoling and marvelous to behold the daily growth of our holy Religion in this rough region. All that is needed are evangelical workers and donations. Conversions are frequent, we lack the time to visit and instruct all those who call upon us. How many the poor Christians scattered afar in field and forest whom I have not yet been able to visit, not to mention the Indians to whom I have been able to send only rosaries and crosses which I brought from France.”


Further Reading

McNamara, Pat. “The Apostle of Ohio: Bishop Edward Fenwick, O.P.”

Petit, Loretta, O.P. Friar in the Wilderness: Edward Dominic Fenwick, O.P. Chicago: Project OPUS: History of the Order of Preachers in the United States, 1994

Tancrell, William Luke, O.P., ed. Edward Dominic Fenwick Papers 1803-1832: Founding American Dominican Friar and Bishop. New York City: The Dominican Province of St. Joseph, 2005.