Our Rich History: First St. Mary’s church left an enduring legacy to the people of Covington

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to the Tribune 

On the morning of Sunday, September 21, 1834, two men boarded a ferry waiting on the banks of the Ohio River at Cincinnati and set off across the water toward the city of Covington.

French-born Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, Bishop of Bardstown from 1808 until 1850, was unable to field missionary priests to the distant Northern Kentucky city of Covington, which was in the Diocese of Bardstown. Cincinnati’s Bishop John Baptist Purcell happily honored Flaget’s request that he assume episcopal oversight of Covington’s Catholic population. Provided.

One of the men, a Dominican friar in flowing black and white named Reverend Stephen H. Montgomery, had been across to Covington many times that summer checking the progress of the construction of a mission church there.

The church had been the initiative of the man Montgomery was travelling with, the recently installed Second Bishop of Cincinnati, the Right Reverend John Baptist Purcell. It was to be a joyous day for both men as well as for the people of Covington, and it would be remembered as the day St. Mary’s Church – the first Catholic church ever erected in Northern Kentucky – was dedicated.

The effort to build it had begun more than a year before, when a group of Irish and German citizens met and formed a small congregation of Catholic faithful. It was the first such congregation in Covington’s history, but they had no church or priest to minister to them.

In those years, Northern Kentucky belonged to the Diocese of Bardstown, led by its capable Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Benedict Joseph Flaget. Flaget simply had no missionary priests available to send to the Northern Kentucky city, but the close proximity of Cincinnati with its much larger population influenced him to ask Bishop Purcell for help. 

As the ferry landed and discharged its passengers, Purcell and Montgomery set off for the new church only a short distance from the waterfront. Covington in 1834 was still a small, secluded community scattered along the banks of the Ohio with less than 800 residents. A grid of dirt streets cut through a tortured landscape still thick with stands of walnut, oak and hickory, and the little church toward which they were headed was still considered to be in one of the more isolated areas of town. 

The land on which the church sat had been purchased only the year before by Greenbury Ridgeley Stringer, a devout Roman Catholic and wealthy notary from New Orleans. He had a fine Greek Revival home constructed on the property, which it is thought he likely intended to use as a summer home to escape the Louisiana heat.

He had it painted white, and the house quickly became known as “The White Mansion.” But for unknown reasons – perhaps because of age or health – Stringer abandoned the idea of a summer home and instead offered the land to Bardstown’s Bishop Flaget as a location for a church. Flaget, with few missionary priests to spare and no money, instead offered the task of building a missionary church to Bishop Purcell. Purcell wasted no time.  

Bishop John Baptist Purcell, Bishop of Cincinnati from 1833 to 1883, was a native of Mallow, County Cork, Ireland. With Bishop Flaget’s permission, he set into motion the building of the first St. Mary Church in 1834 for the people of Covington and provided missionaries to minister to the Irish and German populations. Provided.

By the following summer, the church was finished. Bishop Purcell and Fr. Montgomery were impressed by what they saw.

It was a simple but handsome structure situated on a low hill and rising above Fifth Street like a monument. It was small, just 30 by 50 feet, and held about a hundred people. A stone walk led up the hill from the street to the church and its wooden steps and single door, and above rose a modest steeple with a single bell sounded by use of a pull rope. The interior was a single room with a sanctuary and main altar at the far end separated by a communion rail.

Behind the sanctuary was the sacristy, used for vesting and storage and later as a schoolroom for the instruction of boys and girls.  Later that day, before a crowd of several hundred people, Bishop Purcell, assisted by Fr. Montgomery, celebrated the first solemn high mass there and officially dedicated it under the patronage of the Virgin Mary, naming it “Saint Mary’s Church” at the request of Bishop Flaget. 

In its first few years, the church was known simply as “St. Mary’s Mission,”, and it served a congregation of both English-speaking and German-speaking Catholics, most of them immigrants. For the first three years of its existence, it had no resident priest.

“One of the Reverend clergy of the Cathedral of Cincinnati,” noted the Catholic Telegraph, “celebrated ‘Holy Mass’ on two Sundays (second and fourth) of every month.” The “Reverend clergy” mentioned in the article was Fr. Stephen Montgomery.  Later, a Rev. Ferdinand Kühr, a missionary of the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, was assigned to minister to the German-speaking parishioners.

But by 1837, as Covington’s population continued to swell, Bishop Purcell realized the congregation needed a permanent resident priest and re-assigned Fr. Montgomery as St. Mary’s first permanent pastor.

Montgomery took up residence in the White Mansion, and to help defray some of the expenses of the parish, rented a portion of its ground floor to the Rev. Dr. William Orr, Covington’s first Presbyterian minister and preacher, as a classroom for his Covington Female Academy for young women. The White Mansion would ultimately become the residence of each succeeding pastor of St. Mary’s as well as the temporary residence of the first Bishop of Covington in 1853.

By 1841, the number of German-speaking families at St. Mary’s had increased to nearly forty, which was enough to warrant the creation of a separate parish.

With the permission of Bishop Flaget, a new congregation was organized for the German-speaking population of the city under the direction of Fr. Kühr. The German priest quickly went to work, first renting a hall in the Old National Hotel Building on Scott Street in which to have mass. Then in the spring of 1842, he bought a piece of property a block from St. Mary’s on Sixth Street upon which the new German church was erected. It was dedicated on October 10, 1842 as Mutter Gottes Gemeinde (Mother of God Parish). Thereafter, Mother of God Church principally served the German-speaking population of Covington and continues to be known today as “the German church.”

Artist’s rendering of what the original St. Mary’s Church and White Mansion looked like, based on records and descriptions of the period. Today, private homes occupy the site on the southwest corner of Fifth and Montgomery Streets. One-half of the White Mansion still remains. Courtesy of Stephen Enzweiler.

By 1845, Fr. Montgomery was nearing sixty.

After a life as a frontier missionary, then building and pastoring St. Mary’s for nearly a decade, his time at the little church on the hill was at an end. He may have been looking forward to spending his last years among his community of brother Dominicans, or he may have gone back to missionary work in the rural reaches of Kentucky. But nothing of his life is known after he left St. Mary’s.

That same year, Orr’s Academy that had occupied classrooms in the White Mansion for eight years moved to Sanford Street to a Greek Revival property now called The Rugby.  After Montgomery’s departure, Covington resurveyed portions of the city and eliminated Washington Street from Sixth Street to the river. A small street was cut in front of St. Mary’s and named Montgomery Street in honor of Fr. Montgomery.

Pastors would follow in the coming years, each contributing in his own way to the growth and progress of the congregation.

There would be the Rev. Theodore Hymann who served until 1849. Then there was the energetic Rev. John Baptiste Lamy, who became the first Bishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1851. The Very Rev. Thomas R. Butler followed, but he soon realized the small size of St. Mary’s was insufficient to accommodate the needs of its growing faithful.

In response, he began making plans to build a new, larger St. Mary’s on property that had been purchased on the north side of Eighth Street. The materials were ordered and construction was already underway, when word came that Pope Pius IX had established a new diocese with its Episcopal See located in the city of Covington. Construction stopped, and with no other land available, it became the location of Covington’s first Cathedral in 1853. Because the property had been originally intended to replace the old St. Mary’s church, the new cathedral was dedicated as “St. Mary’s Cathedral.”

Very Rev. Thomas Roche Butler, Pastor of St. Mary’s from 1851 to 1867, with the first Bishop of the Diocese of Covington, Right Rev. George Aloysius Carrell, circa 1855. With the establishment of the Diocese of Covington in 1853, Fr. Butler’s Eighth Street construction project became the first St. Mary’s Cathedral. Courtesy of Archives of the Diocese of Covington.

But the story of the little church on the hill doesn’t end there.

For a time in the late 1850’s, the old St. Mary’s church building was used as a school, and after a few years torn down to make way for townhouses. As the nineteenth century came to a close, and as St. Mary’s Cathedral fell into disrepair and Covington’s population continued to grow, a newer and more beautiful, French Gothic cathedral was conceived by the third Bishop of Covington, the Rt. Rev. Camillus Paul Maes.

This third edifice, dedicated in 1901, carried on both the name and legacy of St. Mary’s into a new century and beyond. 

Today, the legacy of the little church on the hill that Bishop Purcell and Fr. Montgomery built for the people of Covington is still very much alive. The third St. Mary’s – now St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption at Twelfth and Madison in Covington, carries on the original name and mission of ministry to the local community.

Today, the gothic masterpiece built by Bishop Maes has become a historic landmark that is sought out and visited by people from around the world and is still known in Northern Kentucky as “the Irish church.”  

St. Mary’s will celebrate its bicentennial in 2034.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer, author and is the Cathedral Historian at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Ky.  

One thought on “Our Rich History: First St. Mary’s church left an enduring legacy to the people of Covington

  1. Did the church run north/south or east/west? The location of the remaining half of the “White Mansion” suggests the church ran east/west.

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