On the evening of Friday, February 1, 2008, flames broke out on Calhoun Street, next to the University of Cincinnati. Word spread among students, shop owners and people on the street that the church was on fire. Located at 42 Calhoun Street, Old St. George’s two steeples had caught on fire, and triggered a three alarm emergency response. Power was knocked out and the streets were blocked off as emergency vehicles responded.
In the following days, Old St. George looked strangely lopped off on top – the bases of the two steeples were still there, but the wooden peaks were gone. Nostalgic memories poured out from the community – stories of grandparents married at the church decades ago, sipping coffee in the community space in more recent years, of seeing plays in the sanctuary.
Most of the damage was contained to the front steeples, now gone. Only minor water damage had occurred within the interior. Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, the current owner of St. George’s, and the Cincinnati Preservation Association have stated their commitment to repairing the building.
The Beginnings of Old St. George
The parish of St. George was formed in 1868 by fathers from the Franciscan order. Within a few years, large numbers of German immigrants were moving out of Over-the-Rhine into Corryville. Their movement was facilitated by the completion of streetcar lines up Vine Street. The parish purchased adjacent lots to the small two-story original building (which has since been demolished). Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford designed the new building in a Romanesque Revival style. It was dedicated on June 28, 1874.
Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford designed many of Cincinnati’s most recognizable landmarks: City Hall (1893), the Phoenix Club Building (1894), the chapel at Spring Grove cemetery (1880), and Music Hall (1878). He partnered with Edwin Anderson until 1870, and gained widespread recognition when he won the competition for the design of Music Hall. Hannaford’s sons continued on their father’s career in the Hannaford and Sons firm, and designed many more Cincinnati buildings. Over fifty of Hannaford’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, most listed in 1980 as part of a “thematic nomination”.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati was established in 1821. As the eighth diocese established in the United States, the diocese originally encompassed the entire state of Ohio. Most of Cincinnati’s initial Catholic population was composed of Irish immigrants. As Cincinnati’s population rapidly increased during the 1820’s, the Catholic population became heavily composed of German immigrants. German immigration remained steady after the Civil War. Italian immigrants moved to Cincinnati in small numbers at the turn of the century, adding to the Catholic population, while Irish immigration to Cincinnati declined.
In the mid-nineteenth century, anti-Catholic sentiment ran rampant. The main source of this prejudice originated with Protestants who viewed themselves as native born, and viewed increasing numbers of Irish and German immigrants – and particularly those who were Catholics – as threats to American life and identity. This hostility caused many Catholics to take measures such as organizing their own parish schools. Anti-Catholic prejudice took on a national identity with the formation of groups such as the Know-Nothing movement.
Back in Cincinnati, German Catholics were beginning to flow out of Over-the-Rhine. St. George’s parish was formed in 1868. The first service was held on October 25, 1868 (Cincinnati Enquirer, 1968). With the influx of residents to the Corryville area, the church needed to expand. Hannaford’s building was dedicated in 1874.
Closure and Re-Use
In late November 1989 the Archdiocese of Cincinnati began considering the possibility of merging three parishes (St. George, St. Monica in Fairview, and Holy Name in Mt. Auburn). The Cincinnati Post reported that the merger was due to the shortage of available priests within the Archdiocese. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk approved the merger in December 1989, with the proposed merger to happen by 1995. The proposed merger would consolidate 2,500 parishioners under one church. At the approval of the merger, no final location had yet been selected (Cincinnati Post December 30, 1989). By 1991, it was decided that the merged parishes would be located in St. Monica. St. George had too many structural and repair problems. The last Sunday mass was celebrated on July 27, 1993, and the official merger began July 1. Many parish families were not looking forward to the change, and 600 people signed a petition opposing the merger (Cincinnati Post June 22, 1993)
In December 1993, a Christian campus ministry was organized and housed in St. George. According to the Cincinnati Post, “[…] the Christian Ministries Center [is] a coalition of Christian denominations and organizations. It hopes to serve University of Cincinnati faculty, students, staff and the community at large as a Christian concert, workshop and lecture site.” (Cincinnati Post December 19, 1993) The Center was served by various major Christian denominations. It was at this time that St. George began to be referred to as “Old St. George”. Old St. George hosted a coffeehouse, bookstore, concerts, discussions, weddings and worship events hosted by the Christian Ministries Center housed at the location, and other religious organizations.
The University of Cincinnati Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) used St. George's as well in the 1990s, holding chapter meetings there, planning contract negotiation strategy, and hosting solidarity events, including the "Faculty Follies" of 1996. The evening at the Follies included an Assyrian dinner and featured skits and such songs as "Bobby Huggins' Rag Tag Band," "The Battle Hymn of the AAUP," "The AAUP Alma Mater," and "Praise the Prez, and Raise the Old Tuition."
The tenants of Old St. George faced financial difficulties in 2004, and was facing foreclosure. Walgreens and Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CHCURC, which receives funding from the University of Cincinnati) expressed interest in purchasing the site and made offers, however Walgreens had the intention of tearing down the church. CHCURC’s offer was accepted, with the intention to save the building (Cincinnati Enquirer 2005).
Following the fire of February 1, 2008, CHCURC (the current owner) issued a statement expressing it’s commitment to repairing and saving the building. A panel discussion on the future of Old St. George was slated for May 28, 2008
Archives and Rare Book Sources
Illustrated business directory and picturesque Cincinnati
A tour in celebration: sesquicentennial anniversary of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 1821-1971, compiled and written by Mary Willke Robisch ; based on material contributed by Paul F. Hurst, Rev. Anselm F. Boeke, and Raymond C. Kammerer