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A Portrait and a History

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, rich in history and sprawling in geography, is a microcosm of the Catholic Church in the United States – and of the nation itself. In its 19 counties one finds cities and towns; suburbs and rural areas; farms and factories; affluence and poverty. In some reaches of the Archdiocese the Catholic population is heavy, in others it is sparse. But in all of them, the local church is a venerable presence and a continuing influence for more than half a million Catholics and their neighbors through its churches and chapels, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and retreat centers. It has been that way almost from the beginning of the diocese.

Early 19th century Catholic settlers to what is now Ohio were under the spiritual care of the Diocese of Bardstown, Ky. Priests from Kentucky occasionally went north of the Ohio River on missionary visits. One such missionary was Edward D. Fenwick, a Maryland-born Dominican priest who had established a province for his order in Kentucky. His efforts on behalf of the growing number of Irish and German Catholic immigrants in the Ohio Valley led to the creation of the Diocese of Cincinnati in 1821, with Father Fenwick as its first bishop. It was just two years after the first Catholic Church was built in Cincinnati at what is now the corner of Liberty and Vine Streets.

Many of Bishop Fenwick’s visionary actions are still bearing fruit more than 180 years later. For example, he founded a diocesan newspaper called The Catholic Telegraph. Stagecoach and riverboat carried it throughout the diocese and beyond. Today, the Telegraph is the oldest continuously published Catholic newspaper in the United States. And its reach extends worldwide through the archdiocesan web site.

Bishop Fenwick opened a school for the rapidly growing diocese in 1824 with 24 pupils under the direction of a Sister of Mercy from France and a lay woman. In the 21st century, the seed that he planted has grown into the ninth largest federation of Catholic schools in the country. These Catholic schools are everybody’s schools, welcoming students from different academic, social, economic and religious backgrounds. In the urban areas of Dayton and Cincinnati, where special funds make Catholic education available to families of limited means, half the students are not Catholic.

Also still flourishing is the Athenaeum of Ohio/ Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, the first Catholic seminary built west of the Alleghenies and today the third oldest in the country. It has its roots in St. Francis Xavier Seminary, which Bishop Fenwick began in 1829 with four seminarians. In a long history involving several names and locations, almost 60 bishops received their priestly education at what is now the Athenaeum. Today this institution also trains men and women for lay ministry.

The Archdiocese is fortunate to have four other Catholic institutions of higher learning: the College of Mount St. Joseph (Sisters of Charity) and Xavier University (Jesuit) in Greater Cincinnati; Chatfield College (Ursuline Sisters) in Brown County; and the University of Dayton (Marianist). Although none of them is owned or operated by the Archdiocese, each is an important Catholic presence under the spiritual leadership of the Archbishop of Cincinnati.

The original Diocese of Cincinnati was massive in geographic size, including all of Ohio, Michigan, and part of the Northwest Territories. By the middle of the 19th century, the diocese was confined to the southwestern corner of Ohio but elevated to an archdiocese.  Today it encompasses about 220 parishes in 8,500 square miles administratively divided into three areas – Cincinnati, Dayton and the Northern Area.
The central administrative offices for the Archdiocese are located in Cincinnati at 100 E. Eighth Street, with other offices at Dayton and Sidney. Supported by these offices, parishes and schools operate with a measure of autonomy.

Also located in Cincinnati is the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, the most important church in the Archdiocese. A cathedral is important because it holds the cathedra, or chair, which is the symbol of the bishop’s teaching authority in the local Christian community. In a sense the Cathedral is the bishop’s church, although it also has a rector. Many of the key rites of a diocese, such as the ordination of new priests, take place in the cathedral. The Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, at Eighth and Plum Streets, was the biggest cathedral west of the Alleghany Mountains when it was built in 1845 to serve a rapidly expanding immigrant Catholic population. One architectural authority called it “the handsomest and most monumental of Greek Revival Churches.”

Dayton is the second largest industrial and population area of the Archdiocese, with archdiocesan branch administrative offices at Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk Center on Needmore Road. It was the birthplace of two recent archbishops of Cincinnati, Daniel E. Pilarczyk and the late Paul F. Leibold.

The most heavily rural portion Archdiocese lies to the north of Dayton. In the northernmost counties, Mercer and Auglaize, the most significant features of the landscape are the farms and the steeples of the many Catholic churches. In fact, west central Ohio is well known as the Land of the Cross Tipped Churches.  Many of the towns have the same name as the local Catholic parish – St. Anthony, St. Henry, St. Joseph, St. Peter, St. Rose, St. Sebastian and St. Wendelin. This area of the diocese is also home to the Marian Shrine of the Holy Relics, a beautiful chapel which pilgrims visit to see its collection of more than 1000 relics of holy men and women.

Amidst this grand diversity of the archdiocese, the uniting force is the leadership of the archbishop. The See of Cincinnati has been blessed with nine worthy successors to Bishop Fenwick. Today Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr is leading this local church with the help of a strong tradition of Catholic community leadership and the prayers of the faithful.