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Our Rich History: A new era begins a St. Augustine builds new church, school for people of Peaselburg

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to the Tribune

(This is the third part of a multi-part series on the history of St. Augustine Parish, Covington.)

It had only been a month since Father Paul Abeln’s death, and the parishioners of St. Augustine parish in Peaselburg couldn’t imagine anyone who could take his place. Fr. Abeln had been their shepherd, confidante, and friend for 28 remarkable years and he came to be regarded far and wide as both a friend and the saving hand of the parish. It was he who skillfully guided St. Augustine parish during its emergence from bankruptcy in 1883 to a comfortable prosperity by 1911, all the while rebuilding and renewing the spiritual lives of his people. As they now mourned his loss, they waited for the Bishop of Covington to appoint a replacement. They didn’t have long to wait.

Rev. William F. Kathmann, sixth pastor of St. Augustine. He picked up where Fr. Abeln left off and completed construction of the new St. Augustine church and school. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Archives)

Within weeks, Bishop Maes announced his selection. On May 11, 1911, he installed the Reverend William F. Kathmann as the parish’s sixth pastor. Parishioners warmed to their new shepherd easily. Kathmann was tall, friendly and generous, with large eyes and an easy voice that bespoke a natural interest in not only the members of his flock but in everyone he met, regardless of who they were. He was also an experienced leader who possessed many of the same talents for administration as his predecessor.

Born on July 12, 1872 in the old family homestead at 51 East Eleventh Street (now the location of Covington Latin School), Kathmann knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue the priesthood and devote his life to ministry. In September 1891, he entered St. Joseph College in Dubuque, Iowa to begin his studies, and in 1897, at the encouragement of Bishop Maes, he finished his theological training at Mt. St. Mary Seminary in Cincinnati. Bishop Maes ordained Fr. Kathmann on June 29, 1900 in the old St. Mary’s Cathedral on Eighth Street in Covington.

Kathmann’s rapid rise to the pastorate bears witness to a man with an extraordinary concern not only for healing and inspiring souls but also for getting things done, a talent Bishop Maes recognized and appreciated early on. In less than eleven years, the young priest had held the chaplaincy of the Visitation Convent in Georgetown, Ky., and served as pastor of four parishes:
St. Pius Church in White Sulphur, Ky., St. Cecilia Church in Independence, St. Paul’s Church in Florence, and finally St. Augustine Church in Peaselburg.

Laying of the cornerstone of the new church, May 8, 1913. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Archives)

Fr. Kathmann wasted no time in getting to work. He found that the corporation – “The Roman Catholic German Church of Covington, Kentucky,” formed by Rev. Robbers in 1877, had since expired by limitation, and he immediately restored the church to its original title of “St. Augustine.” Within the year, he moved to acquire property for a new church and school, taking options on a piece of property at Nineteenth Street opposite Howell Avenue. This he purchased
in 1911 for $16,000, leaving the parish with only $18,506.18 in savings for the actual construction. To help offset this, Kathmann contributed $4,000 of his own savings toward the building effort.

For the design of the new church, 46-year-old David Davis was selected. Davis was well-known among most of the clergy of the diocese. He had designed and built the façade of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Covington as well as designed St. Patrick’s church in Maysville, and he had just completed the decorative French-gothic addition to the Bishop’s residence on Madison Avenue.

Born in Monmouthshire, Wales, Davis came to America with his parents as a child and was educated in both Newport and Cincinnati schools. He went on to work for the Cincinnati firm of Burton & Brown and came to Bishop Maes’ attention in 1907.

Davis drew up the plans and presented them in the spring of 1913. The Catholic Telegraph reported that they had to be revised “to cut several thousand dollars, as the first plans exceeded the amount the parish is willing to spend.” According to the Kentucky Post, the new church promised to be “of unusual beauty,” and would be of Italian Renaissance design, with “the exterior of rough-rake red brick and terra cotta trimmings, with copper cornices and rose windows.” The building would measure 160 feet long, 94 feet wide, with two towers, the taller bell tower topping out at 133 feet. Architect Davis wanted the interior to be light and airy, Romanesque in style, with mosaic arches, elevated floor and vestibule and aisles laid in fine tile. Benches of heavy golden oak would seat over 1,000 people.

Twenty-seven-year-old parishioner Mary Harmeling happened to bring her camera to the dedication and snapped the only known photo of the event. Bishop Maes is seen at far right, with Fr. Kathmann fifth from right. Fr. Kathmann would later officiate the marriage of Mary Harmeling and Frank Pranger in 1922. (Harmeling Photo Collection, courtesy of Larry Pranger)

On May 8, 1913, the first shovel of dirt was overturned. Surveyors quickly went to work marking property lines, staking, and preparing the property. Joseph Wilbers, who was contracted by Davis for the construction, estimated the cost at between $75,000 and $100,000.

For the rest of the summer, the curious of Peaselburg watched as, day by day, the pilings were poured and the heavy, white blocks of Bedford limestone were set into place. By early September the foundation was complete and ready for the cornerstone.

Sunday, September 21, 1913 ,dawned cool and overcast in Peaselburg. By noon, the temperature had risen to a reasonable 50 degrees with only a light, westerly breeze. The ceremony got underway at 1 p.m. with a large parade led by Covington police. Behind them were an estimated 5,000 participants which the Kentucky Post deemed “one of the largest parades ever held in Covington.” Bishop Maes and the clergy reviewed the marchers from the steps of the old St. Augustine church, after which they proceeded to the site of the new structure.

A 1915 postcard showing the “new” St. Augustine Church. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Archives)

There, the bishop performed the ceremony, placing into a hollow of the limestone cornerstone a metal box containing coins of the year, copies of the Catholic Telegraph, The Christian Year, various daily papers, and a parchment record of the event. In a short address, he complimented the young men for their participation and grand demonstration, commending them for their display of faith, fear of God, and their love of the growing force of their parish life. Solemn Benediction followed as bands played church hymns sung by thousands of voices echoing across the valley.

Construction on the new edifice continued for another year. Its walls rose slowly, day by day, into the sky. On November 10, 1914, the Kentucky Post reported that work was “nearly completed” and that the contractor “expects to finish in the course of a few weeks.” By mid-December, finishing touches were in place and preparations were made for its final dedication.

December 20, 1914 dawned cold and drizzly. By 9:45 a.m., a procession led by three commanderies and the drum corps of the Knights of St. John set out from the old church, arriving just as Bishop Maes was finishing the blessing of the building’s exterior. With him was Fr. Kathmann, accompanied by Rev. Herman Busse and Rev. Herman Leising, Rev. William Blees, Revs. Adolph Rupprecht, O.S.B., and Celestine Huber, O.S.B. Crowds of Peaselburg residents stood beneath dripping umbrellas as the Bishop, clergy and attendants processed inside the church. There, solemn high mass was celebrated by Fr. Kathmann before a packed congregation. Bishop Maes gave the sermon, a scholarly discourse on “The Sanctity of the House of God.” That evening, solemn vespers and benediction were sung with a sermon in German by Rev. Blees of Mother of God Church.

View of the completed St. Augustine parish from the hills above Peaselburg, ca. 1920. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Archives)

“The church has been declared by many to be the most beautiful in the diocese,” the Catholic Telegraph reported. “and was highly praised…for the devotional atmosphere supplied by its simple beauty.” But Fr. Kathmann wasn’t done yet. On the heels of this achievement, he began making preparations to construct an accompanying parochial school. In the summer of 1915, he petitioned the newly consecrated Bishop Ferdinand Brossart for permission to begin construction of a new school, to be built next to the church on Nineteenth Street.

Howard McClorey served as the architect of the school, with the construction contract going to George Lubrecht who estimated the cost at $36,000. Work began in the autumn of 1915 and progressed quickly. The cornerstone was laid the following January, and the building was completed in September 1916 at a total cost of $39,498.30.

Interior of the new St. Augustine church as it appeared in 1920. In addition to its beauty, it was considered one of the most spacious churches in the Diocese of Covington. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Archives)

On September 10, 1915, Fr. Kathmann dedicated the new school, thus completing the grand vision for the parish begun by Fr. Abeln in 1883. He began the ceremonies by celebrating solemn high mass followed by a grand parade at 2:30 p.m., in which schoolchildren and various church societies marched from the old school building to the new one. There, the American flag was raised for the first time above the main entrance. Covington Mayor John J. Craig addressed
the crowd from the front steps, followed by Judge Frank Tracy of the Kenton County Circuit Court and County Solicitor Frederick Schmitz. The day was concluded by a festive supper served in the school basement.

On the outside, the school building followed the same basic design theme as the church, with its red-raked brick and limestone foundation, terra cotta trimmings and patterned façade.

Inside, the school boasted eight large classrooms with electric lighting, heating, and state-of-the-art equipment that included a movie projector and two types of slide projectors for use by the 300 enrolled students. The Sisters of Notre Dame would run the school and continue to teach the children of Peaselburg as they have since 1875.

Father William Kathmann poses for the camera next to the newly finished church, ca. 1915. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Archives)

With the church and school completed, Fr. Kathmann suddenly found himself the pastor of one of the most visually beautiful and best-administrated congregations in the Diocese of Covington.

In 1920, St. Augustine celebrated its Golden Jubilee. Bishop Brossart, in his message to the parishioners, recalled the struggles of the early days, reminding them of “the many sacrifices made by the pioneers who have preceded them and enabled them to share in the extraordinary spiritual fruits.” As if recalling the story of the real Saint Augustine who began his life in embarrassment and shame only to be redeemed, the Bishop was confident the parish would continue to grow and flourish.

For the next few years, Fr. Kathmann continued his work serving the spiritual needs of the people and steering the parish down the road toward even greater growth and prosperity.

During World War I, he made speeches on behalf of the American Red Cross and maintained his involvement in charitable work. He developed a keen interest in civic affairs which made him widely known in political circles. On Sunday June 28, 1925, he celebrated the silver jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood with a high mass in the church. A special musical program was given in his honor afterward, and at its conclusion, Fr. Kathmann was presented with a purse containing $1,500 for a Holy Year Pilgrimage to Rome with the new Bishop Howard. The next day, the two men departed for the eternal city. The Bishop would return within weeks, but Fr. Kathmann stayed abroad for another three months touring Europe.

Photograph of the newly completed school, taken in 1916. (Courtesy of St. Augustine Archives)

That Christmas, Kathmann maintained his usual custom of visiting the children in the school. He derived great pleasure from these visits and made sure each child received a little gift from him personally. He also made it a practice of distributing baskets among the poor and needy in the neighborhood and made it a rule to give each person in his congregation a token of remembrance. But in early January, he found himself unable to continue his duties. Unknown to his flock, he had been ill since his return from Rome and had been diagnosed with advanced kidney disease. As Lent began that spring, he grew weaker still and was unable to celebrate mass. On Saturday, March 13, 1926, Fr. Klein, his assistant pastor, and Fr. Blees of Mother of God called on him as he lay in bed. The good priest told them simply, “We must give ourselves cheerfully into the hands of the Lord.”

The next morning, as the bells of St. Augustine called the people to 10:00 a.m. mass, Fr. William Kathmann died peacefully in his bed. He was 53 years old. When Fr. Klein announced his passing at the completion of mass, the congregation filed out of the church in tears. “The news of his death cast a pall of gloom over northern Kentucky,” The Kentucky Post reported the next morning. “His acquaintance among men of all creeds made him one of the most popular clergymen of the city.” Bishop Howard officiated at the funeral along with “fifty-two visiting priests and clergymen.” A police escort led a mile-long funeral cortege to Mother of God Cemetery, and there he was laid to rest beside his friend and predecessor, Fr. Paul Abeln.

Stephen Enzweiler is a historian and serves as the Cathedral Historian and Archivist at the Cathedral Basilica in Covington.

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 and Gender Studies.

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One Comment

  1. Kathleen Craven says:

    I hope solemn high Masses will once again be celebrated at the high altar before packed congregations. May the use of the altar rail and paten be made available as well. St. Augustine is a beautiful Catholic church.

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