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Our Rich History: St. Patrick in Covington was once a thriving Irish-American parish in the West End

By David E. Schroeder

Special to NKyTribune

Irish Catholics settled in Northern Kentucky as early as the 1830s. In time they established parishes and schools throughout the river cities in Northern Kentucky. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine swelled those numbers. Originally, Covington’s Irish population was served by the Cathedral Parish. The rest of Covington’s early Catholic churches and schools were created for German-speaking immigrants.

St. Patrick School, Covington, Ky., with church in background. Courtesy of Kenton Co. Public Library, Covington.

By the time of the Civil War, Irish immigrants had settled in Covington’s West End, north of 6th Street and west of Madison Avenue. After the war, these residents approached Bishop George Aloysius Carrell, himself of Irish descent, for a more conveniently located parish of their own. Property was purchased at the corner of Philadelphia and Elm Streets, but before further steps could be taken, Bishop Carrell died in 1868. Covington’s second Bishop, Augustus Maria Toebbe, arrived on the scene in 1870 and established St. Patrick Parish that same year

The assistant pastor at the Cathedral, Father James Smith, became the first pastor of St. Patrick. Smith had been born in Ireland and was ordained for the Diocese of Covington in 1866. His initial duties were to organize the people and to begin raising money for the construction of a church. The cornerstone of St. Patrick Church was set in place on August 28, 1870, with dedication ceremonies on August 22, 1872. The Gothic Revival brick building cost $40,000 to construct and was designed by Louis A. Picket, a local architect of some renown.

Parish group on church steps, circa 1935 – Monsignor Thomas J. McCaffrey front row, center. Courtesy of Kenton Co. Public Library, Covington.

The congregation flourished and in 1875 constructed a two-story brick addition to the church to serve as a rectory. One year later the first attempt to establish a parish school was begun on the first floor of this new building. Laywomen were the teachers. The school lasted for a decade, but eventually closed due to low enrollment and financial difficulties. St. Patrick Parish continued to grow, and by 1887, membership had increased to 300 families.

A second attempt to sponsor a parish school began in 1891 under the direction of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky. A new two-story frame schoolhouse with four classrooms was constructed on a lot adjacent to the church. In the first year of operation, St. Patrick School enrolled 234 pupils. This school proved a success.

Catholic churches in the United States were typically a work in progress. This was certainly true at St. Patrick. In 1897, the parish installed eight new stained-glass windows in the church. The windows depicted the Immaculate Conception, Jesus and the Little Children, St. Margaret Mary, St. Anne, St. Martin, the Holy Family, and the biblical Mary and Martha. Other improvements at this time included new Stations of the Cross and frescos.

Interior of St. Patrick Church, Covington (St. Patrick statue on high altar). Courtesy of Kenton Co. Public Library, Covington.

The initial frame St. Patrick school soon became obsolete. The congregation began plans for a modern structure in 1905. These efforts were encouraged with a donation of $2,000 from local distiller Nicholas Walsh to the building fund. Before the new school could be completed, Father Smith died on February 28, 1908, and was laid to rest in a special crypt in St. Patrick Church. Smith was succeeded by Father James Cusack as pastor. Father Cusack’s pastorate was cut short by his death in 1913.

Father Thomas J. McCaffrey, St. Patrick’s third pastor, was a native of Ireland. Under McCaffrey’s guidance, the new St. Patrick School was completed in November 1913. The school contained six classrooms, an auditorium and a gymnasium and was located just to the north of the church facing Philadelphia Street.

With the new school building completed, the parishioners turned their attention to improving the church. The church had been built with brick which had deteriorated due to several devasting floods in 1883, 1884 and 1913. In 1917, stone was placed on the exterior brick walls of the church as a stabilizing force. In 1921, the interior underwent a complete restoration. The project included new pews and tile floors, frescos by artist Nino Passalaqua, and two large murals by Charles Svendson. The cost of the restoration reached $16,000. The beautifully redecorated edifice was ready for the golden jubilee of the parish in 1922. At this time, parish membership had grown to 450 families.

Exterior of St. Patrick Church, Covington. Courtesy of Kenton Co. Public Library, Covington.

In 1928, the parish constructed a new convent for the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth on 4th Street near the school. The two-story brick home included a private chapel for the sisters. Prior to this time, the sisters lived at La Salette Academy on Greenup Street and travelled each day back and forth to St. Patrick.

The 1937 flood caused severe damage to all the buildings of St. Patrick Parish; the church, school, rectory and convent were all flooded with many feet of muddy water. It took months for the parish to make the necessary repairs to all the buildings. It was also at this time that the neighborhood around the church began to change. The flood made the area less desirable for homeowners. Many parishioners left for higher ground In Covington. The Great Depression and World War II also brought many newcomers to the parish from the Appalachian region of Kentucky looking for work and affordable housing.

In the years following World War II, the parish made efforts to reach out to the growing Appalachian population of the neighborhood. These efforts ultimately found little success. The newcomers had little familiarity with Catholicism and were reluctant to send their children to the parish school.

Detail of St. Patrick statue now at St. Patrick Church in Taylor Mill, Ky. Courtesy of Kenton Co. Public Library, Covington.

In 1957 Monsignor Thomas J. McCaffrey died. Monsignor McCaffrey had been pastor of the congregation for nearly 45 years. His loss marked the beginning of the end for the parish. His successor was Father Raymond McClanahan who did his best to adjust to an ever-changing environment. The construction of the Internal Revenue Service building and Interstate 75 in the 1960’s destroyed much of the remaining housing stock surrounding the church. By the mid-1960s, parish membership had declined to 150 families, and many of these no longer lived in Covington.

In 1967, Bishop Richard Ackerman officially closed St. Patrick Parish. Parishioners were encouraged to attend nearby St. Aloysius Church and School. The grand old church that had stood on Philadelphia Street for more than a century could not escape the changing demographics of the West End. St. Patrick Church, School, rectory and convent were demolished to make way for a service station.

Very few items from St. Patrick church survive. One item that has stood the test of time is a statue of St. Patrick that once stood on the high altar. When the parish closed it was moved to nearby St. Aloysius Parish. It survived the disastrous fire at St. Aloysius in 1985 and was moved to Mother of God Parish. It then found a home at the Cathedral. Finally, the statue was restored and moved to St. Patrick Church in Taylor Mill where it still stands today, one of the few reminders of a once proud West End congregation.

David E. Schroeder is Director of the Kenton County Public Library, the author of Life Along the Ohio: A Sesquicentennial History of Ludlow, Kentucky (2014), and coeditor of Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (2015).

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  1. Lyn morris says:

    Great job dave

  2. Van Collins says:

    Very good article on St Pats. I enjoy reading about the once flourishing catholic parishes of covington and northern ky. Even the ones that are still here. Thanks

  3. Mary Ann benson says:

    We lived on western ave and I remember as a child walking to school at st. Patrick. I attended first grade there. Moved away and then returned to attend 3rd and 4th grade also at St. Patrick. Moved to Ludlow and started 5th grade. Maiden name is Schaffner. Loved st. Patrick school and church. Thanks David enjoyed the article.

  4. Betty and Orville bryant says:

    While I was and still am a Protestant, I lived on Elm street just 2 doors from St. Patricks church until I was 3 years old. Father McCafferty was a dear man and would “invite” me to help him eat his lunch which was served in the small garden behind the church. After moving to “country” in Elsmere, Ky for year because of my brothers asthma, we moved back to Elm Street further down the street. I have wonderful memories of St. Pats bell ringing at 6-12-and 6. The nun used to make doll clothes for us from the ribbons of funeral baskets. We were a very poor neighborhood, but certainly had the things that mattered. Every mother was our mother and neighbors cared for each other. We had the wonderful Goebel park to play in with 2 pools, one for boys and one for girls. The “West End” of Covington, while mostly poor, was a wonderul place in which to grow up.

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