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Our Rich History: Monte Cassino Chapel has storied legacy in Benedictine monks, wine-making

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

On Turkeyfoot Road in Crestview Hills, there is a structure that seems out of place. It is made of dressed fieldstone with an interior that measures just eight feet high and four feet wide. It stands alone in an open field like a sentinel, oddly beautiful in its solitude, a survivor of another time and place, a relic of our Northern Kentucky past. It is unique, treasured, historic. Europe would herald such a prize as this, making every tourist come to see it or forever feel their loss.

The Monto Cassino Chapel today on the grounds of Thomas More College. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

Anyone who has ever driven along either Thomas More Parkway or Turkeyfoot Road knows it, this tiny structure known as Monte Cassino Chapel.

The chapel was originally located in the Peaselburg neighborhood of Covington as part of the old Benedictine Monastery and vineyards on Prospect Hill. It once held the record as the smallest church in the world (so named in 1922 by Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”) and was also in the Guinness Book of World Records. Today, it is a popular Kentucky tourist destination and a frequent backdrop for wedding photography. But the 116-year old structure began its life not as a public edifice, but as a private, sacred space, where the winemaking monks of Prospect Hill withdrew from the world to reflect, to pray and celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass.

The tiny church has its storied beginnings in about 1875, when Benedictine Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B. of St. Vincent’s Monastery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was having difficulty purchasing enough altar wine for his abbey. He decided to establish an operation in which the Benedictines could produce their own altar wine, and he hoped to find a suitable vineyard in the wine rich hills of Northern Kentucky. He found a 76-acre tract of land on Prospect Hill directly above Latonia and overlooking old Peaselburg. Known as the old “Thompson Winery,” it had been a well-known producer of local wines for nearly a half century. On December 22, 1876, Archabbot Wimmer bought the property from the American Life Insurance Company of Philadelphia for $21,500 and named it Monte Cassino after the famed Italian monastery regarded as the cradle of the Benedictines.

An early photograph of the chapel overgrown by vines and weeds, probably taken in the 1920’s after the monastery was abandoned. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

By the following year, monks were dispatched to Kentucky and a monastery building was constructed. This was followed by a stone building for the fermentation and bottling of wines, along with barns and limestone-lined storage cellars dug into the hillsides. Archabbot Wimmer believed monasteries should be self-sufficient, and Monte Cassino would be no different. Thirty acres were used for grape cultivation and ten acres for pasturing cattle. The property had an orchard and gardens for food production. The monks rose before sunrise for morning prayers before heading out into the fields. The work was exhausting and backbreaking, with work beginning before sunrise and often going well past sunset.

The production of sacramental and commercial wines became the main source of income for the monks of Monte Cassino. In its early years, the operation produced 5,000 gallons of wine a year. The first pressing was for altar wine used in Catholic churches throughout the United States. The second and third pressings were for commercial sale under the label ‘
“Red Rose Wine.”

In 1901, Father Kopf, the monastery’s Superior, and Brother Albert Soltis, a German-born master mason, began work on a small fieldstone chapel situated behind the main monastery building overlooking the broad valley below. The intention was to provide a private space for monks exhausted from the day’s labors to rest and relax in solitude and prayer. The Benedictines consecrated the chapel to Mary the Mother of Jesus under the title, “The Sorrowful Mother.” Because of their German heritage, they installed a stained-glass window above the main door with the inscription, “Sehet ob ein schmerz Meiningen gliche,” meaning, “See if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.”

The chapel interior was only big enough for three monks at a time to worship within its small space. True to the Benedictine way, the inside was plain, the walls unadorned. Three wooden pre-dieux, or prayer benches, provided rest for occupants. The altar centerpiece was a crucifix and a statue depicting the Virgin Mary holding the body of her son in her arms. Candles and sunlight streaming through the side stained-glass windows were all that illuminated the interior.

A Benedictine priest stands in what is left of the tiny house of God, his wistful expression as if remembering its glory days when fellow monks worshipped there after a day’s laboring in the vineyards. After the Burkhart family left the property in the mid-1950’s, the tiny chapel was “pillaged of all that could be carried away.” After 1950, the door, altar, benches, stained-glass, and ever some of the steeple was gone forever to vandals. (Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

For the next 16 years, the monks’ lives at Monte Cassino were consumed with working the vineyards…planting, pruning, harvesting. Exhausted at day’s end, they would enter the tiny chapel for mass, meditation or private prayer. In that sacred space, they understood their mission was not only the care of a physical vineyard, but the care of another kind of vineyard as well – the vineyard of humanity. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” they would’ve recalled Jesus saying. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit, he cuts away; and every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it produce even more.” The next morning, it was back out into the fields. Work became their meditation; Monte Cassino Chapel, their solace.

But in 1916, life at the monastery began to change. Higher taxes levied on wine and declining grape production caused operations to suffer. The tiny chapel – witness of so many prayerful petitions over the years – no doubt saw increased use after that. Then, Prohibition swept the land in 1920. The government permitted the monks to continue their wine-production, licensing the monastery as United States Bonded Winery No. 1, Sixth District of Kentucky. But it forbade commercial sales of the “Red Rose Wine,” which the Fathers had always depended on for their livelihood. Output was limited to only 1,000 gallons the first year, resulting in the loss of nearly four-fifths of their income. The second year, it lost even more. Production was halted. The turn of events caused the monks to discontinue all operations, and the brothers were eventually recalled to St. Vincent Archabbey in Pennsylvania.

“See if there any sorrow like my sorrow,” the stained-glass still read over the abandoned doorway. But by 1924, there were no monks left to read it, no more masses to be said beneath it, no more prayers or devotions to be offered under its gaze. The tiny chapel languished along with the rest of the property. In 1925, the land was leased to the Frank Burkhart family, who produced grape juice there until 1953. In 1928, the barn burned down and other buildings fell into ruin. The stone-terraced vineyards became overgrown by thickets and the vines choked by weeds.

Carlisle Construction Co. will move the chapel to its new location at the Villa Madonna College Campus in April 1965. Villa Madonna became Thomas More College in 1968. (Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.)
The move began Wednesday, April 7, 1965. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

The tiny chapel, too, eventually fell to vandalism, despite the dignity of its purpose and seeming impenetrability of its stone edifice. It was stripped of its wooden door, its altar and statuary, and even the limestone steeple and cross. The side stained-glass windows that once let in the evening light for vespers were gone. And in the space above the missing front door, there was no stained-glass left to be read, only a gaping emptiness where the Virgin Mary’s words of sorrow once had been.

Chester F. Geaslen, a writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer and The Kentucky Post, began writing articles about the old chapel in the 1950’s. In one, he described it as “pillaged of all that could be carried away, even the little stone steeple with its hand chiseled cross. Blackened, is its stone arched interior from smoke and ash, as fires have been kindled on the stone floor where the little altar once stood.”

Finally, in 1964, the owner of the chapel was discovered. He was Fred Riedinger, a local plumber who had purchased the entire 76 acres property in 1957 from St. Vincent Archabbey. Riedinger later sold the acreage – all but the tiny church – to Hanser Homes, Inc., a real estate developer. By 1964, the issue of its removal from the property was under consideration. Newspapers reported that Devou Park or Mother of God Cemetery were being considered. But in the end, Riedinger decided to donate the tiny chapel to Villa Madonna College in honor of his mother, Mrs. Alma Riedinger, and it would be moved to the future campus of Villa Madonna College in Crestview Hills.

A view of the chapel being moved down a portion of Dixie Highway. Workers had to sit atop the structure to move electrical and telephone wires out of the way. (Courtesy of Stephen Enzweiler.)

The move got underway in April 1965. But transporting the 50-ton structure five miles across town without causing cracks in it proved to be a daunting task. Matt Toebben volunteered as contractor, and Carlisle Construction provided the semi-tractor trailer, flatbed and work crews for the job. The first task was to construct a frame beneath the structure that would enable them to lift it onto a flatbed trailer without cracking it. But days of rain had softened the ground and made it too dangerous to attempt the operation.

On Monday April 5th, weather was favorable and the move commenced. The challenge was to carefully insert a semi-tractor trailer in a space just 15-feet wide between two newly-built homes to reach the chapel on the edge of the hill. The workmen lifted the structure onto the flatbed, then eased the tractor-trailer back between the houses, down an uneven corrugated ramp laid with thick timber to prevent the semi’s tires from sinking into the yard. Once on the street, it was checked and secured one last time. But rains began again and the operation was halted.

Two days later, the skies cleared enough and the move to Villa Madonna began anew. It took the procession four hours to make the trip. The route took it down Benton Road, along Highland Pike, Henry Clay Avenue, and south on Dixie Highway to Turkeyfoot Road. The tractor-trailer moved at less than 5 miles per hour, backing up traffic on Dixie Highway as it rolled slowly southward toward the turn onto Turkeyfoot. Workers were positioned atop the stone roof to lift telephone and electrical wires that draped across the streets. Monte Cassino Chapel arrived at its new home that afternoon and was lowered onto the slope overlooking the lake, where it has been ever since. The new Villa Madonna College was eventually built there; it was renamed Thomas More College in 1968.

Over the years, improvements and renovations were made to the tiny structure to try and preserve it. Today, a rusting iron security door and padlock guard its entrance. Yet, local residents and tourists still stop by on a regular basis to visit the tiny former house of worship, to feed the geese and enjoy the peaceful landscape, perhaps even to remember the monks who once prayed there and gave thanks for the vineyard and its bountiful harvest.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of “Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010).

Today, Monte Cassino Chapel sits in a serene setting above a lake on the Thomas More College grounds and may be seen by anyone driving along both Thomas More Parkway and Turkeyfoot Road. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

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  1. Donna Clark says:

    I took my granddaughter to see the little church, in Crescent Spring, Ky,remembering what it looked like when it first arrived.
    I had a friend who was even married in the little church.
    Now I am sorry to say that the little church has once again been neglected and has been allowed to be vandalized and not kept up.
    They have allowed it to become a bed and toliet for the ducks and geese.
    This is such a shame after all the love, money and care they gave to restore it.
    It is so disrespectful to treat a gift this way, especially a religious symbols.
    I would like to bring attention to this so something will be done and would appreciate some help.
    I have been contacting them for 3 months, and nothing has been done about it.
    I feel someone needs to be made aware of this.
    Feel free to contact at 858-331-9086

  2. Adam says:

    Wanted to know what happened to walls and other be structures built by monks when church was moved.

  3. Mark Goetz says:

    I agree, in 1964, myself and my cousin Gary discovered the little church up on a hillside behind Latonia Terrace. We were hiking and exploring all the Ruins and underground wine cellars left by the monks. It’s hard to believe how we found the church. Huge trees had grown up around the church across the whole hill. The grape vines left from the monks 100 years earlier, had grown completely up the trees and we’re very thick and dense they stretched across all the tree tops as if it was a flying carpet.
    As a young boy of 10 me and my cousin climbed the trees and we could walk across them and not fall through. For below it was 40 feet down. It was a magical place. ‍♀️ We separated the vines and peered down below to see where we were and what was down there. When we separated the vines we seen a small church sitting right below us. It was so exciting as we thought we found some the gem of the ancient civilization we were exploring. We quickly scampered down the nearest tree to investigate our find. It was amazing. It stood there in the middle of this dark forest, up on the side of a hill on an ancient road. The hill was leveled out at this one point. The church was in major disrepair. It must have been beautiful in its time when the forest was gone and it was looking over all Latonia.
    We noticed that a picture of either Jesus or Mary was hung right above the doorway. The little altar in the church was only a stone tabletop as it had been vandalized. The door was gone but there were 2 candle holders still in there. My cousin wanted the picture of Jesus to take home to show his mom and dad. He wanted them to believe what we had discovered. I boosted him up on my shoulders and he climbed the side of the church to reach the picture. As he reached for the picture tragedy struck. He fell off the church from above the door and landed squarely on his arm. The fall broke his arm in many places and his bone pierced his skin. You can imagine , me a 10 year old seeing an compound fracture and an injury of that magnitude for the first time. As my cousin was screaming in pain, I still had the witts to take my shirt off and tie it around his arm to stop the bleeding. We departed quickly leaving the picture where it was and hiked home as fast as we could. Later that week, we told our parish priest at Holy Cross of our find and the next time we went back the church was gone. We were dumbfounded on whatever happened to it.
    In Later years I rediscovered that little church sitting by a lake at Thomas More University. It brought back a rush of emotions. That day in 1964, The fall and the discovery of the “Littlist Church in the World” as we called it even back then. It gave me a feeling of connection and love for the Church and the magical place it sat in from a time gone by. Maybe I can help restore the church and place that picture of Jesus back where we seen it below the steeple, above the door. Maybe we can return it to it’s original location and make a park, a place of wonderment as I still know exactly where it’s at. What a magical place it was. It sat in the middle of a forest as if it was Hobbit Town. May “Our Father” bless the “Littlist Church in the World”, and bring it back to its original purpose and glory. It was built to honor Our Father by men long forgotten but not by Him.

  4. Steven G says:

    Does anyone know what kind of grapes they grew?

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