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Our Rich History: Catholics in Newport, starting with single church, growing to 5 parishes; now one parish remains

By David E. Schroeder
Special to NKyTribune

Part 49 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

In the 1800s, the arrival of vast numbers of immigrants to Newport brought many Catholics. Beginning with a single church, Catholicism in Newport grew to five parishes by the 20th Century, each operating a parish elementary school. In addition, there were several Catholic high schools. Today, one Catholic parish remains, as well as one high school, indicative of the movement of many Catholics to surrounding suburbs.

The old Corpus Christi parish plant at Chestnut and Brighton Streets, Newport, pictured here in 1894, was later sold. The parish moved to a new campus at Ninth and Isabella Streets in 1903. Source: The First Century of Corpus Christi Church, Newport, Kentucky (Published by the Parish, 1944), p. 14.

The history of Catholicism in Newport can be traced back to the year 1844 and a missionary priest named Father Charles Boeswald. Boeswald, from Louisville, began organizing Catholics in Newport with the hope of establishing a congregation. In 1844, a lot was acquired on Chestnut Street in the city’s West End for the future site of a church and school. The Catholics of Newport began raising funds, and the construction of a small church commenced. The first Mass in the new church, which had been named Corpus Christi, was held on January 19, 1845. The building was officially dedicated on June 15th of that same year. Corpus Christi was the first Catholic parish to be established in Campbell County and from this small beginning, numerous congregations, schools and other charitable institutions followed.

Father Boeswald remained in Newport until early 1846 when he returned to Louisville. A number of priests succeeded him, including several Jesuits from Cincinnati. During this time, the Catholic laity of the congregation sacrificed greatly to expand their parish and to also assist in the mission work that was developing in other parts of the county. It was under the guidance of the Jesuits that the first parish school was established in 1848. A seminarian, fluent in German and English, became the first teacher. A permanent brick school building and rectory followed in 1849.

Much of the early development in the parish was made under the direction of Father John Voll, who served from 1853 until 1875. In 1853 the Diocese of Covington was established, and the people of Corpus Christi welcomed their new bishop, George A. Carrell. That same year, plans were underway for a new church to accommodate the rapidly growing immigrant population. The new Gothic Revival building, with a central bell tower and tall spire, was dedicated on December 24, 1854. The growth of the parish was so rapid that an addition of thirty-seven feet was constructed in 1876.

This 1886 Sanborn insurance map shows the old parish plant of Corpus Christi Church at Chestnut and Brighton Streets. Madison Street here was later renamed West Fifth Street. Source: Library of Congress.

The people of the parish were very dedicated to the parish school, and enrollment increased dramatically. A German-American sisterhood, the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, agreed to take over Corpus Christi School in 1863. A new three-story brick school building soon followed. In 1869, a parish cemetery was established under the name St. Joseph in John’s Hill (now Wilder).

As the city of Newport grew and more immigrant Catholics arrived, Corpus Christi Church and School could no longer accommodate their needs. In 1854, St. Stephen Parish was established to serve the growing German Catholic population, and Immaculate Conception Parish was established the following year to meet the needs of the English-speaking (primarily Irish) people.

In 1853, a group of parishioners living on Newport’s eastside met to discuss the establishment of a new parish. They identified about fifty Catholic families living in the neighborhood, almost entirely German-speaking. The leaders of this group approached Bishop Carrell for permission to establish St. Stephen Parish at the corner of Ninth and Saratoga Streets. The Bishop assented, and work on a new frame combination church, school and rectory began. The building was dedicated on May 28, 1854. In 1861, the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana, took over instruction at the parish school. They were replaced by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1876. That same year, the congregation purchased property on Alexandria Pike in present-day Ft. Thomas for cemetery purposes.

St. Stephen Parish grew quickly and by 1857, a new church had become a necessity. This time the congregation built in brick in the Gothic Style. The new church was dedicated on July 25, 1858. In 1869 the church was expanded with a new sanctuary. Two years later a new façade, tower and steeple were added. A new brick school for boys followed in 1870, with the girls taking over the original frame building. A rectory was constructed in 1872. A three-story brick girl’s school was added to the complex in 1896.

St. Stephen parish, circa 1913, showing the new school building on Washington Street. The old church pictured here was located on the corner of Ninth and Saratoga Streets. From a postcard courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

In 1855, the English-speaking Catholics of Newport approached the bishop for permission to build a parish of their own. A lot was purchased on West Fifth Street and the new church was dedicated on December 23, 1855. Father Patrick Guilfoyle, a native of Kilkenny, Ireland, was appointed pastor of Immaculate Conception in 1857. His tenure marked a period of both growth and near financial ruin. In 1857, the first parish school was constructed for boys, which was under the direction of lay teachers. That same year, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (Kentucky) arrived in the city to teach in the girl’s school which was located on York Street. At the same time, the Sisters of Charity established Immaculata Academy just east of the church building.

Father Guilfoyle, with the best of intentions, began a land development project that he hoped would provide housing for the working class in Newport. Over time, this venture resulted in the construction of perhaps 500 homes in the city. The project was financed with investor and parish funds. Initially, the project seemed successful. As a result, the parish was able to construct a new church, designed by architects Anthony Piket and Son, in the Gothic Style between 1869 and 1873. Before the façade could be constructed, the land development project became insolvent due to the national financial collapse of 1873. Many investors in the plan lost all their funds, and the entire parish plant was set for foreclosure. Only the financial assistance of parishioners Peter O’Shaughnessy and James Walsh saved the parish. Investors filed suit to try and recover their assets. These suits lasted for more than a decade.

Father Guilfoyle left the diocese and was replaced by Father James Bent. Under Bent’s leadership, the façade of the church was completed. A new parish school was completed in 1893, with both boys and girls being instructed by the Sisters of Charity.

St. Vincent de Paul Church, in the Clifton neighborhood of Newport, early 1960s. Photo by Raymond E. Hadorn in the collection of Paul A. Tenkotte.

The 20th Century brought many changes to the Catholic churches in Newport. In 1911, the people living in the Cote Brilliante neighborhood (southeast of the city and later annexed by Newport), began plans for a parish of their own. (See NKyTribune History column here.)

Ground was broken for a combination church and school building in 1911, and the completed brick St. Francis de Sales building was dedicated on October 13, 1912. A school opened that same autumn. The first pastor was Father Edward Klosterman. Under his guidance, a rectory was built.

In 1921, Father Carl Merkle received permission to add a second story to the parish convent which housed the Sisters of Divine Providence. The original structure contained only two rooms for the four sisters. At the same time, a two-classroom addition was made to the school to accommodate the upper grades.

As St. Francis de Sales Parish grew and flourished, the need for a fifth parish in the nearby city of Clifton (later annexed by Newport) emerged. The residents of the neighborhood, a mixture of German, Irish and Italian immigrants and their descendants, were initially members of St. Stephen Parish. However, as their numbers grew, they desired a church and school in their own community. (See NKyTribune history column here.)

The new Corpus Christi church and school, Ninth and Isabella Streets, circa 1909. From a postcard courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

Residents began meeting in 1913 to make plans. They approached Bishop Camillus P. Maes for permission to establish a new parish. The bishop consented and placed the congregation under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul. Progress was slow. It was not until 1916 that construction on a combination church and school was underway on Main Street. The building was dedicated on September 17, 1916, and the Sisters of Divine Providence were placed in charge of the school.

During the 1920’s, St. Vincent de Paul parish grew quickly. In 1922 a parish rectory was constructed. A year later, the basement level of a new church was completed with a seating capacity of 420, and in 1927, a wing was added to the new school and a convent was constructed. The new upper church was not completed until 1960. Designed by the architectural firm of Betz and Bankemper, the building featured a laminated wood ceiling, as well as stained-glass windows imported from Europe.

Meanwhile, Corpus Christi Parish experienced significant growth and major building projects in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1900, the Ursuline Sisters returned to Louisville and were replaced by the Sisters of Divine Providence. At that same time, the pastor and people of the parish were raising funds to relocate the entire parish plant to higher ground. The floods of the 1880s had severely damaged the original buildings, and this coupled with their age, resulted in the need for more stable facilities. Property was purchased at the corner of Ninth and Isabella Streets for the construction of a new combination church, school and rectory. The new stone structure was dedicated on October 4, 1903. In 1922, a high school building was constructed across the street from the church. The parish high school operated from 1923 until 1933, first as a four-year coeducational school and for the last several years as a commercial school for boys. It was under the direction of the Sisters of Divine Providence. When the high school was closed, the building was turned over to the parish elementary school.

St. Stephen also underwent dramatic change during this time. In 1910, property was purchased on Washington Street for the construction of a new school, which was dedicated on July 7, 1913. The old St. Stephen Church was showing its age by the 1930s. The building was deteriorating, and estimates for repairs were exorbitant. Property was purchased across Washington Street from the parish school for a site for the new church. The parish commissioned architect Edward J. Schulte to execute plans for a new church, with attached rectory and convent wings. Ground was broken for the new structure in 1937, and the magnificent new edifice was dedicated on March 12, 1939. The brick exterior featured a beautiful rose window and art deco spire, and the colonnaded interior was finished with a splendid altar and carved wooden reredos.

Immaculate Conception Church, West Fifth Street, circa 1930s. Photo courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

Despite the construction of the new St. Stephen Church, the 1930s were difficult for two of Newport’s Catholic parishes. The Great Depression and the 1937 flood took a devastating toll on Corpus Christi and Immaculate Conception. At the height of the flood, seven feet of water entered Corpus Christi Church and School, completely destroying the pews and other furnishings. At Immaculate Conception Church, eleven feet of muddy water inundated the parish church and school, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

At St. Frances de Sales, the school grew quickly in the years following World War II. Eventually, a frame schoolhouse was added to accommodate the growing school enrollment. This structure was replaced by a brick school and gymnasium in 1950. This growth, however, was short-lived. Newport, like most urban areas in the region, was being impacted by the flight of residents to the suburbs. These departures would result in a slow but steady decline in the Catholic population of the city.

Parish school enrollment in Newport began a significant decline in the late 1960s as large areas of the city were cleared for urban renewal. Immaculate Conception parish suffered greatly due to these changes. As a result, parish membership declined at a rapid rate. In 1967, the state fire marshal declared the school building unsafe. In January of the following year, the pastors of the five Newport parishes gathered to discuss the fate of Immaculate Conception School. The clergy not only recommended the closing of the school, but also the suppression of Immaculate Conception Parish. The school closed at the end of the 1967-1968 academic year. Immaculate Conception Church was officially closed on July 31, 1969. The historic parish church, school and rectory were all demolished.

St. Stephen’s new church on Washington Street was dedicated in 1939. From a postcard courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

In the spring of 1984, a proposal was brought before the Diocesan School Board to merge the four Newport Catholic schools into one. Newport’s remaining four Catholic elementary schools officially merged at the beginning of the 1984-1985 academic year. The lower grades were housed in the former St. Stephen School and the middle school grades at the former St. Francis de Sales School. The new institution was given the name of Holy Spirit Elementary and Junior High School. In 2002, Holy Spirit School merged with St. Michael School in Bellevue and St. Bernard in Dayton to form Holy Trinity School. Two campuses were maintained, one in Newport at St. Stephen and one in Bellevue until the 2019-2020 school year when the entire school was moved to the Bellevue location.

The Catholic parishes in Newport suffered lower attendance, along with the schools. Within a two-year period, three of the four pastors in Newport retired. The diocese simply did not have an adequate number of clergy to replace them. In 1996, Bishop Robert Muench requested the leadership of the four Newport parishes to plan for a future with one resident priest in the city. The outcome of these discussions was the decision to merge the four parishes into one under the patronage of the Holy Spirit in 1997. The facilities of the former St. Stephen Parish were utilized by the new congregation. The three remaining church complexes were sold.

Holy Spirit Parish has been committed to community outreach for decades. Originally a food pantry was located in the former Corpus Christi building. When that structure was sold, the pantry moved to the rectory of Holy Spirit Parish in 2018. The operation quickly took over a significant portion of the first floor. The Outreach ministry provides food, some of which is grown in the parish garden, and funds for utilities and other necessities to the people of the community. More recently, the parish purchased property near the church and constructed the new Holy Spirit Outreach Ministry building on the site. This new facility opened to the public in July 2020 (Messenger, July 3, 2020, p. 7).
David E. Schroeder is Director of the Kenton County Public Library. He is the author of Life Along the Ohio: A Sesquicentennial History of Ludlow, Kentucky (2014), coeditor of Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (2015), and co-author of Lost Northern Kentucky (2018)
We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

For further information, see:

The First Century of Corpus Christi Church, Newport, Kentucky (Published by the Parish, 1944); St. Stephen Centennial History, 1954 (Published by the Parish, 1954); Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, eds. The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2009), pp. 227, 473, 780, 798; Messenger, October 25, 1964, p. 12A, October 7, 1984, p. 3, February 15, 2002, p. 1 and March 8, 2002, p. 1; Kentucky Post, November 11, 1996, p. 1K; Kentucky Times-Star, February 12, 1957, p. 1A and April 15, 1958, p. 2A; Catholic Telegraph, December 30, 1854, p. 5, October 31, 1857, p. 4 and February 19, 1959, p. 5; Kentucky Enquirer, April 20, 1969, p. 1; The Seminary Alumnus (A publication of St. Mary Seminary of the West, Cincinnati, Ohio) Vol. III, No. 2; Paul E. Ryan, History of the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, on the Occasion of the Centenary of the Diocese, 1853-1953 (Published by the Diocese, 1954).

The 1937 flood inundated Immaculate Conception Church with 11 feet of muddy water. Photo courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

Removal of the bell from St. Francis de Sales

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