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Our Rich History: Historical, cultural reasons Catholic churches blanket landscape in our river cities

St. Boniface Church and School, 1916 (Photos from Kenton County Public Library)

St. Boniface church and school, originally built in 1872. (Photos from Kenton County Public Library)

By Dave Shroeder
Special to NKyTribune

The skylines of Northern Kentucky’s river cities – from Ludlow in the west to Dayton in the east – are punctuated by numerous church spires, domes and cupolas. Many of these are the finishing touches to Catholic churches that blanket the landscape.

When the river cities’ populations were at their height in the 1940s, there were 21 Catholic parishes and several dozen Catholic schools in the area (Ludlow had two parishes, Covington 11, Newport 5, Bellevue 2 and Dayton 1).

Prior to World War II, these parishes were among the largest in the diocese. Also, many of the parishes were very close together, for instance, St. Patrick and St. Aloysius in Covington or Sacred Heart and St. Anthony in Bellevue.

First St. James CHurch on Carneal Street

First St. James CHurch on Carneal Street

The question is why were there so many Catholic churches in the river cities? The answer is a little more complicated than you may think.

The first reason is simple. Early residents of Campbell and Kenton Counties settled in the river cities because this is where you could find a job. Proximity to Cincinnati, the early railroads and industry made living in the river cities advantageous. The large numbers of German and Irish immigrants – many of whom were Catholic – settled in these communities in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The second reason was cultural. Northern Kentucky’s Catholic population was comprised primarily of German immigrants and their children with a smaller number of Irish. Although mass for both groups was in Latin, the sermon, music and other devotional practices were conducted in the immigrant’s native tongue. This was particularly important for the Germans who worked hard to maintain their culture and language.

St. James Church, now St. Boniface and James Church, built in 1903-04

St. James Church, now St. Boniface and James Church, built in 1903-04

As a result, the Bishops of Covington, like many other bishops across the country, found it preferable to establish parishes for each immigrant group. Thus, two Catholic parishes a block apart in Bellevue.

Let’s use the two Ludlow parishes – St. Boniface and St. James as an example. As early as 1870, the German-speaking Catholics of Ludlow and vicinity began approaching the Bishop of Covington for permission to establish a parish and school in their community. Finally in 1872, the bishop gave approval and a two story brick building on Adela Street was constructed. The building had classrooms on the first floor for a school and a church on the second.

“St. Boniface School” was carved on the façade of this first building – in German. The early teachers were German laymen. Although the English language was taught, so was German – especially the catechism. German Catholics had a strong belief that their language, culture and religion were inextricably linked. Many believed if their children lost the German culture and language they would also lose their faith.

As a result, German parishes usually opened a school simultaneously with the church. In fact, all the German river city parishes did. Many German Catholics viewed public schools to be destructive to their culture. Here, they believed their children would lose their religion.

Window in German language at St. Boniface church

Window in German language at St. Boniface church

It also didn’t help that all the early Ludlow School Board members were Protestant and that hymn signing and Bible reading (from the King James Version) were commonplace in area public schools at this time. It was also generally understood that Catholic school teachers need not apply at many public schools. Thus, the interpretation of scripture had a decidedly Protestant air.

In 1893-1894, St. Boniface parishioners built a very large church next door to the school. The building’s spire was the tallest structure in the city and remains so to this day. Three years earlier, the laymen teaching in the parish school were replaced by the Sisters of Divine Providence in 1890. These sisters, along with the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Sisters of St. Benedict, typically taught in the river city German Catholic schools.

In the meantime, the English-speaking Catholics of Ludlow began planning for a church of their own. In most cases these were Irish immigrants or their descendants or those of mixed marriage – meaning the couple consisted of a German Catholic and Irish Catholic spouse!

In 1886, the pastor of nearby St. Ann Parish in West Covington was given the task to organize an English-speaking Catholics of Ludlow into a congregation. The new parish was given the name St. James and the parishioners purchased the old Armory Hall on Carneal Street and renovated it into a church. Irish Catholics could now listen to a sermon in town in English!

Because these Irish Catholics spoke the English language, many did not find it as objectionable to send their children to the public schools. Instead they held catechism classes for their young parishioners on Sunday mornings. It was not until 1893 that the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Kentucky (comprised primarily of American born, English speaking sisters) established St. James School.

In fact, the Sisters of Charity staffed all the traditionally English speaking parishes in the river cities.

In 1903-1904, St. James parishioners built a new church on Oak Street. An art glass window of St. Patrick was on prominent display. The exterior featured a tall spire complete with 3,000 pound bell. A new parish school followed in 1911-1912.

Interior of Sts. Boniface and James Church

Interior of Sts. Boniface and James Church

Anti-German sentiment during World War I eventually led to the discontinuation of the use of the German language in Catholic parishes in Northern Kentucky. St. Boniface was one of the last when they eliminated the teaching of religion in German in the parish school in the 1920s.

By this time, however, German and Irish parishes had existed in the river cities for over a half a century or more. Families maintained their allegiances to their home parishes and the German-Irish rivalry remained intact – if not so intense.

Ultimately, what broke down the system was the emergence of the suburbs. More and more Catholics moved out of the river cities and the need for so many parishes declined. Some were closed and demolished, others sold to different denominations and some were merged – like St. Boniface and St. James in 1980.

Despite the fewer parishes of today, these German and Irish Catholics created a magnificent architectural, religious and educational heritage in the river cities of our region

Dave Schroeder is executive director of the Kenton County Public Library. With other well-known regional historians, James C. Claypool and Paul Tencotte, he is a co-editor of the new 450-page Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015, now available at your local booksellers, the Center for Great Neighborhoods in Covington and online sellers.

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