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Mount Adams: Cincinnati’s Holy Hill

April 4th, 2017posted by Sarah L. Ater

Today is the first of two posts on the devotion of praying the steps to Holy Cross-Immaculata Church in Mound Adams. It was written by Fr. David Endres, Dean and Associate Professor at Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

Amidst the shops, restaurants, and pubs of the popular Mount Adams neighborhood, one might not immediately perceive that he or she is walking on holy ground. Yet since the mid-nineteenth century the site has been the location of a significant Good Friday religious devotion: the “praying of the steps.”

The hill, which offers picturesque views of the Ohio River and the city below, did not begin as a place hospitable to Catholics. In the 1840s Catholics were a small but growing minority in the city, growth which encouraged an anti-Catholic backlash from their mainly Protestant neighbors. Protestants feared that Catholicism was inimical to the American system of government since Catholics were not free but enslaved to a foreign power: the papacy. Catholics’ political servitude extended into the intellectual realm, in the minds of anti-Catholics, since the Church had condemned modern science, a largely false charge based on the Church’s initial failure to approve Galileo’s theory of a heliocentric universe.

View the 1848 panorama of Cincinnati online.

In 1842 former President John Quincy Adams came to Mount Ida, as Mount Adams was then known, to dedicate an astronomical observatory. By some accounts, the comments he offered at the dedication were anti-Catholic in tone, calling the observatory “a beacon of true science that should never be obscured by the dark shadows of superstition and intolerance symbolized by the popish cross.”[1]

John Quincy Adams

What is certain is that while in town Adams, an astronomy enthusiast, gave a two-hour lecture the day after the dedication, delving into the topic of the Catholic Church and science. In that speech he referred to the Catholic Church as an “engine of despotic power” which had deemed Galileo’s scientific discoveries “damnable heresy.” He said that unlike Galileo, Isaac Newton had the “good fortune to be born and to live in a country that had no college of Cardinals to cast him into prison . . .” The weekly newspaper, The Catholic Telegraph, responded that Adams’ remarks lacked factual basis: “Was the astronomical hypothesis of Copernicus taught by Galileo condemned by the Inquisition or by the Pope and Cardinals as a damnable heresy? No, never.” The paper concluded that Adams’ remarks were “a sad commentary on the astounding ignorance which prevails among Protestants.”[2]

Whether or not Adams predicted that the “popish cross” would never deface Mount Adams, the story began to circulate that Cincinnati’s Bishop John B. Purcell had publicly vowed in response to Adams that he would build a church on the same hill as the observatory. In 1848 Purcell purchased land near the observatory, the eventual site of Immaculata Church, but construction did not immediately commence.

Abp. John B. Purcell

When in 1854 Pope Pius IX declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary was free from original sin from the first moment of her conception, Purcell (by then an archbishop) was reportedly in Rome.[3] As Purcell returned to Cincinnati, his ship was caught in a violent storm. He implored the intercession of the Blessed Mother, promising her a church on the highest hill in the city if he survived the journey.  Archbishop Purcell was sparred and made good on his promise. On August 21, 1859, the cornerstone of Immaculata Church, named for Mary as the Immaculate Conception, was laid.

While the church was under construction, a large wooden cross was erected on the grounds. The archbishop asked the city’s Catholics to pray for the success of the endeavor. Soon people began to periodically assess the building’s progress and to pray there, wearing a muddy path from the city center up the hill. Within a year – partly because of safety concerns – a set of wooden steps was built to aid visitors in approaching the site. Soon the steps themselves became a means to devotion, offering the invitation to pause and recite a “Hail Mary” on each of the steps and an “Our Father” on each landing. Through the prayers and sacrifices of the city’s Catholics, the church was successfully completed in 1860, but the tradition of “praying the steps” continued.

Next week we will continue with the development of this devotion.

[1] John H. Lamott, History of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 1821-1921, 139-140, fn 79.

[2] [Cincinnati] Catholic Telegraph, November 17, 1843. Two recent histories question the supposed anti-Catholic comments of Adams at the dedication without mentioning his anti-Catholic remarks which were uttered the next day. See James Steiner, Immaculata on Mount Adams: A One-Hundred and Fifty Year History, 4-5; Don Nesbitt, et al., The Mount Adams Steps: 150 Years of Good Friday Pilgrimage to Immaculata, 8.

[3] There is no evidence that Archbishop Purcell journey to Rome in 1854, but he was present there in 1851 and 1862, among other trips to Europe.

Laboring on the Mission is a blog of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Archives. The title is taken from a letter written by Bishop Edward Fenwick, OP, describing his mission work in Ohio. Whether in the wilds of the 19th century or the baby boom of the 1950s, the Catholic Church continues the mission entrusted to her by Jesus Christ. Here we tell that story.