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Curious Cbus: What's The History Of Catholics In Columbus?

J.W. Winder
Library of Congress
"Father Fenwick's discovering of the first Catholics in Ohio."

This story is part of the Curious Cbusproject. You ask the questions, you vote for one of the questions and we answer.

The Catholic Diocese of Columbus just celebrated its 150th birthday in March. Inspired by a Curious Cbus question from David Patrick, we decided to delve into the history of Catholicism in Columbus.

Pope Pius IX approved the Diocese on March 3, 1868. But what led to its existence, and how the Diocese evolved afterwards, are far more interesting. 

“The history of Catholicism is really tied to the history of Columbus,” says Father Joshua Wagner, the pastor of two churches in Columbus.


When the U.S. celebrated its independence in 1776, the country had only about 30,000 Catholics among 4 million people, according to Patrick Mooney in Religion in Ohio: Profiles of Faith Communities.

“The story of Catholics in Ohio, from a tiny minority to a significant presence, in many ways parallels the development of Ohio and our nation,” wrote Mooney, who was also the former chair of the Catholic Record Society.

Now, Catholics consist of 20 percent of the American population. In 2014, 18 percent of Ohioans were Catholic.

And in Columbus, there are currently 278,528 Catholics and 105 parishes.

But in the early 1800s, Ohio Catholics did not have a priest or clergy to help them practice their faith. The country also only had one Diocese in Baltimore, led by Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the U.S.

The Dittoe family from Somerset, Ohio (in today’s Perry County), asked Bishop Carroll to send their German Catholic community a priest.

There was one nearby in Bardstown, Kentucky, so Bishop Caroll summoned Dominican priest Edward D. Fenwick to minister in Ohio.

Credit Ohio History Connection
Portrait of Edward D. Fenwick, the first Bishop of the Diocese of Cincinnati, which in 1822 included all of Ohio.

“They had mass in a barn, and eventually, very quickly by 1818, they built the first Catholic Church,” Wagner says.

Named St. Joseph’s Church, it was the fist Catholic church in Ohio.

As immigrants arrived from Europe, Ohio’s Catholic population grew. Irish Catholics arrived during the early 1800s to flee the potato famine. German Catholics immigrated in the 1830s to avoid political and economic hardships.

“There are Germans and Irish who do not know any English at all,” Fenwick wrote in a letter to a friend in England. “Hence you can well imagine the pains I have to take, and the efforts I have to make to be understood by them and to understand them, and to offer them some spiritual help.”

Since Columbus was then still part of Cincinnati, Fenwick became the first Bishop of Cincinnati. Before he died in 1832, Fenwick managed his enormous Diocese – which spread all the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin – founded Ohio’s first Catholic schools and a newspaper, all while traveling by horseback.

Not all Catholics came from Europe, though. From the 17th to 19th centuries, Catholic missionaries converted Native Americans in the Midwest. Several Iroquois tribes arrived into Ohio in 1650, and a small group of Mohawks and Onondagas converted to Catholicism.

Later, Columbus would attract African-American and Latino Catholics as well.

Credit Works Progress Administration / Ohio History Connection
Ohio History Connection
St. Joseph's was the first Catholic Church in Columbus, although it was rebuilt several times. This Gothic structure was erected in 1843. Seen here circa 1935-1943.

A Capital Attracts Immigrants

Once Columbus split from Cincinnati and was designated the capital of Ohio in 1816, the Catholic population boomed in the city.

Before then, Wagner says, “Columbus wasn’t really that great of a town.”

The city boasted only a few chapels, including St. Remigius Chapel, which could hold 10-20 people.

“When Columbus was made the capital city, that’s when people started coming in,” he says.

St. Remigius was torn down and replaced by Holy Cross Catholic Church, the oldest standing church building in Columbus.  

During the 1800s, German and Irish immigrants, and eventually Italians, came to America looking for jobs on the canals and railroads. In Ohio, they quickly formed their own ethnic parishes.  

“In those days, the Germans would have their mass and the Irish would have their mass…because nobody spoke the same language,” Wagner says.  

The Irish settled north of the Ohio Statehouse; they rapidly outgrew Holy Cross and built St. Patrick’s Church in 1853, run by the Dominican Order.

Credit Wdzinc and Thomas Aquinas Burke / Wikimedia Commons and Columbus Library
Wikimedia Commons and Columbus Library
Holy Cross Catholic Church is the oldest church building in Columbus. Here it's seen in 2011 and 1848.

“The Dominicans faired very importantly in the history of the church in Columbus,” Wagner says. “Almost immediately, by 1870, just 15 years after the church was built, the Dominicans took over St. Patrick’s, and they are still there.”

Father Wagner calls the church “Irish Paradise.”

Similar to the Irish, German Catholics outgrew their church and built St. Mary’s in German Village in 1865, the third oldest church in Columbus.

After the Columbus Diocese was founded in 1868, Licking County native Sylvester Rosecrans eventually became the first Bishop of Columbus. He led the building of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, but died of a massive stroke the day after the Cathedral was dedicated.

“It was some party,” Wagner jokes.

When Italian immigrants arrived, they too needed their own parish and built St. John the Baptist in Italian Village in the 1890s.

“That’s one of the national parishes,” Wagner says. “That parish at Italian Village still has an Italian identity to it.”

The last oldest church town is St. Francis of Assisi, built in 1896. It originated from a community named Sacred Heart, a diverse parish.

“It was the one parish that was French, Italian and Hungarian, and it stayed ethnically mixed its entire life,” Wagner says.

Catholic Backlash

“Catholicism in the United States has not always had an easy ride,” Wagner says.

Credit Ohio History Connection
A ticket for the Know-Nothing Party in Ohio, which in the 1840s and 1850s fronted candidates on an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant platform.

Wagner mentions President John F. Kennedy, who people once believed would be influenced by the Pope.

This was not the first occasion in which people distrusted Catholics, of course. Ohio’s Catholic population surged in the 19th-20th centuries and was subsequently met by anti-Catholic attitudes, according to Mooney.

Most white Ohioans were Protestant and believed Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than to the United States. They also disliked that Catholics taught their children in parochial schools instead of public, secular schools.

Soon, Catholics became victims of The Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s, named such because it was a “secret organization” whose members, when asked about their affiliation or beliefs, would say, “I know nothing.”

The Know-Nothing Party publicly opposed immigrants and Catholics in particular.

“The party is intended to prevent Catholics and immigrants from being elected to political offices, deny these people jobs in the private sector, arguing that nation’s business owners needed to employ true Americans,” Ohio History Connection documented.

The party wielded some power in Ohio, especially in northern cities like Youngstown and Cleveland. For instance, Know-Nothings allied with the Fusionist party, a precursor to the Republican Party, and helped Fusionist Salmon Chase win the Ohio gubernatorial election in 1855. Chase later became President Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury.

Nonetheless, even as Protestants founded the American Protective Society in the 1890s and the Ku Klux Klan ramped up attacks in the 1920s, more and more Catholic immigrants made their way to Ohio and built communities.

Credit Thomas Aquinas Burke and Nheyob / Columbus Library and Wikimedia Commons
Columbus Library and Wikimedia Commons
St. Mary's (c. 1891) and St. Dominic Church (c. 2014) exhibit the architectural differences of first- and second-generation Catholic immigrants in Columbus.

Still, compared to large populations in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Wagner says, “Columbus hasn’t been a Catholic town.”

Second Generation Of Churches

The first generation of churches in Columbus, such as Holy Cross and St. Mary’s in German Village, were more plain and rudimentary by design. As more Catholics arrived, though, the city saw a fundamental shift in the architecture of churches.

“Everything changed and it became not boxes and steeples but magnificent,” Wagner says.

The Holy Rosary & St. John Catholic Church, for instance, has glaze-faced brick, transepts, stain glass windows and double giant towers.

Holy Rosary and others, like St. Dominic in Mt. Vernon, were built by children of immigrants, who had more money and could build nicer churches.

“The first generation of Catholics built the most basic church that would function,” Wagner says.

In contrast, the second generation of Catholics built opulent churches. 

Credit Nheyob / Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Holy Rosary-St. John Catholic Church in Columbus.

African-American Catholics

In Columbus, about 28 percent of the population is African-American. But the Black Catholic population is small: statewide, 93 percent of Catholics are white while less than 1 percent are Black.

Still, African-American Catholics in Columbus boast their own unique history.

St. Dominic primarily has African-American worshippers. According to its website, its story cannot be told without understanding the history of St. Cyprian and “the long and arduous struggle of the African American people to be allowed a place in the Catholic Church.”

By the early 20th century, Columbus didn’t have many Black Catholics, and St. Dominic was primarily populated by Irish Catholics.

It took then-Bishop James Hartley and Saint Katharine Drexel to form St. Cyprian. Drexel was a wealthy heiress-turned-nun who used her fortune to convert and support Natives and African-Americans, especially in Ohio. She founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to help her in this endeavor.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Saint Katharine Drexel, who helped found the first African-American church in Columbus.

The Catholic Record Society recounted the story of St. Cyprian in their 2004 bulletin through the eyes of octogenarian Ethel Jennings. Jennings grew up on the East Side of Columbus, where her entire family was Baptist. But racism and segregation led her brothers instead to the Catholic Church.

They attended to Eastwood Elementary in 1931 with only about 12 Black kids in the school.

“The principal, in my estimation, as I look back on it, she was prejudiced,” Jennings wrote. “She wasn’t really pleased with these little Black kids that were in her school.”

The principal sent Ethel’s brothers to a “special” class for “slow learners” in the basement of the building. So Ethel’s mother sent the boys instead to Catholic School at St. Cyprian.

“Mother Katherine sent her nuns here and they virtually went up and down the street and encouraged people to allow their children to come to their school,” Jennings said.

“At that time that was the only church where Black people, as Catholics, were welcome,” Jennings said.

If people wanted to become Catholic, they were told to “go out there on Hawthorne Avenue and see that priest.”

The Jennings boys came home from St. Cyprians and discussed catechism, inspiring Ethel’s mother to learn what they were learning. Though raised as staunch Baptists, Ethel’s parents converted to Catholicism.

“The best way to convert adults is to convert their children,” Wagner says.

Credit Kenneth W. Hauer Collection / Columbus Library
Columbus Library
Bishop Michael Ready, the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Columbus, helped form St. Dominic Catholic Church.

In 1957, urban resettlement forced St. Cyprian to close. Irish Catholics left St. Dominic’s when the Pennsylvania Railroad closed. Bishop Michael Ready combined the two parishes, sending the African-American community to St. Dominic’s.

The first Black Catholics were baptized there in 1958.

Dorothy Ann Blatnica wrote a 1994 journal documenting African-American Catholics in Cleveland. She argued Black Catholics were perceived as a separate category as white Catholics and often had to reconcile their race with a Catholic identity. Still, Blatnica says that Catholicism offered education, upward mobility and a value system for African Americans.

“The Catholic church provided an opportunity those kids did not have because Catherine Drexel’s sisters were directly interested in ministering to the Black population,” Wagner says. “These kids were getting great educations, of course, with a little Catholicism thrown in there.”

Wagner says some of these families are still in his parish, including a 104-year old altar boy, Melvin Harris.

Latino Catholics

In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Latin-Americans began their own wave of immigration to the United States. A majority were Catholic.

The rapid rise of Latino populations changed the landscape of Catholic parishes. In Columbus, 5.3 percent of the population is Latino.

Wagner says Latino Catholics have four communities inside of I-270: Santa Cruz on Patterson Ave., Holy Name Catholic Church; St. Stephens on the West Side; and Christ the King on Livingston Ave.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Holy Name Catholic Church in Columbus.

Christ the King was founded in 1947. In 2001, the pastor allowed a Spanish Mass every Sunday afternoon.

“Only a few families participated at first. However, steadily, the number of Spanish-speaking parishioners grew over the years,” said Father David Shalk, the current priest of Christ the King, in an email. “Now there are approximately 1,000 people attending one of our two Spanish masses at Christ the King every weekend; our church is one of the hubs for Spanish-speaking Catholics in Columbus.”

Like the German Catholic immigrants who forged their own identity, Latino Catholics maintain their culture through their unique parishes.


Wagner see the impact Catholicism has in Columbus through education and industry.

Ohio Dominican University, for instance, was founded by the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs. The Pontifical CollegeJosephium, the only pontifical seminary outside of Italy, was founded in Columbus in 1888 by Joseph Jessing for German-speaking Catholics.

Credit Columbus Library
The Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus was founded in 1888, and is the only school of its kind in the Western hemisphere.

Companies like Cardinal Health and Cardinal Transportation are also named after the mascot for St. Charles.

And the influence of Catholics can be seen especially in areas like Italian Village, German Village and Merion Village.

“We’ve built whole neighborhoods that still have a lot of prominence today,” Wagner says. “Huge burgs that were built by Catholics, just for Catholics.”

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