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History of the Archdiocese

The first Catholic diocese west of the Allegheny Mountains was established in 1808 in Bardstown, Kentucky. Its frontier territory was enormous. Thirteen years later, in 1821, Pope Pius VII decided to divide the Bardstown diocese to better serve the growing population of Catholic settlers, immigrants and Native Americans. The newly-created Diocese of Cincinnati, the eighth Catholic diocese established in the United States, originally encompassed Ohio, Michigan and parts of Wisconsin. Here are some of the most notable milestones in its history.

1818: The founding of Christ Church, Cincinnati

A small group of local Catholics in Cincinnati organized the Christ Church Congregation in 1818. On Easter Sunday 1819, Mass was offered for the first time in the log cabin church. When the Diocese of Cincinnati was erected in 1821, this modest church became the cathedral. Originally located at Liberty Street and Vine Street in the northern section of the city, the structure was moved in 1822 to a more central location at what is now Sixth and Sycamore streets and renamed St. Peter Cathedral. In 1845, Bishop John Purcell built the current cathedral on Plum Street. From 1954 to 1957, the cathedral was renovated and expanded. 

1821: Bishop Edward D. Fenwick, O.P.

When the Diocese of Cincinnati was established in 1821, Dominican priest Edward Fenwick was named the first bishop. A tireless missionary, Bishop Fenwick traveled on horseback through the vast territory of his diocese and sent priests to minister to frontier families and Native Americans. Bishop Fenwick founded the educational institutions that ultimately became Xavier University and Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology, and he launched The Catholic Telegraph, a Catholic publication still in existence. Bishop Fenwick died of cholera in 1832 during a pastoral visit to northeast Ohio.


Faced with the many needs of his young diocese, Bishop Fenwick was eager to have religious communities work alongside him and his priests. At his request, and with added encouragement from members of the laity, four members of the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, arrived in Cincinnati to serve at St. Peter’s School and Orphanage for girls. They were the first of dozens of religious communities to answer the call of working in the vineyard in Ohio. Their collective ministries have met the needs of all aspects of life, from education and healthcare to welcoming the immigrant.


John Purcell, archbishop of Cincinnati for 50 years, was known as the “Patriarch of the West.” He led the local Church during the decades of massive influx of immigrants, particularly Irish and Germans. In 1850, the local Church was elevated to an archdiocese. During Archbishop Purcell’s tenure, the archdiocese showed remarkable growth, building more than 100 churches and schools and welcoming numerous religious communities into the diocese to staff parishes, schools, hospitals and orphanages. Before and during the Civil War, Archbishop Purcell was among the few Catholic leaders who vocally and forcefully supported the emancipation of slaves. 


In its early days, the Catholic population in Dayton consisted largely of German immigrants. Layman Robert Conway was instrumental in bringing Father Edward Collins to Dayton to serve the needs of the local community. Conway was a founding member of Emmanuel Church, Dayton’s first Catholic church. At the turn of the century, Dayton became a popular stopping place for immigrants from eastern Europe, who founded Lithuanian, Polish and Hungarian parishes, along with one short-lived Romanian parish, in the city.

1844: Congregation of the Precious Blood

The mid-19th century was a time of great growth, as immigrants made Ohio their new home and religious communities followed to serve those from their native homeland. One of these communities was the Congregation for the Precious Blood led by Father Francis de Sales Brunner. The community was requested by Bishop Purcell for the northern part of the diocese – Mercer, Auglaize and Shelby counties – to minister to the German Catholics there. The Precious Blood priests and sisters served the many rural parishes in what is called “The Land of Cross Tipped Churches.” The Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics is located in the former motherhouse for the sisters and houses the second largest relic collection in the United States.

1866: Ministering to Black Catholics

At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, Archbishop Purcell called for Catholics to show charity to newly-freed African Americans. Father Francis Weninger, S.J., an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, founded St. Ann’s Colored Church, the first Black Catholic church in the archdiocese. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur taught at the school, and Father Weninger founded the St. Peter Claver Society to support the school and parish life. A few decades later, Daniel Rudd, a devout lay Catholic and former slave, founded the American Catholic Tribune, a newspaper written for African Americans. Rudd was responsible for holding the Second Black Catholic Congress in Cincinnati in 1890.

1883: Archbishop William H. Elder

When William Elder was appointed archbishop of Cincinnati, he inherited an archdiocese in financial turmoil. The archdiocese was weighed down by debt as a result of the failed diocesan-run bank. Archbishop Elder worked diligently to increase oversight of his priests, parishes and schools. He successfully reopened the seminary and founded St. Gregory’s Preparatory Seminary. During his tenure, Archbishop Elder established 32 new parishes and missions. The archdiocese grew to include 200,000 Catholics, almost 300 priests, 180 churches and over 100 Catholic schools.

1904: Archbishop Henry K. Moeller

Archbishop Henry Moeller, the first native son to lead the Church in Cincinnati, was a strong proponent of Catholic education. He advocated tuition-free schools, in which the school was supported entirely by the parish, and was successful in expanding Catholic education to 90% of city parishes and 70% of rural parishes. Attentive to the needs of the community, Archbishop Moeller founded Catholic Charities to coordinate social work in the city, encouraged the growth of the parish-based St. Vincent de Paul Society and formed new initiatives to serve families, children, the aged and the poor. 

1909: Establishment of the first central high school

Catholic education was integral to the formation of young Catholics, and most parishes provided elementary education to their children. Some parishes even added a secondary school; however, it became apparent that these secondary schools were taxing parish resources. Archbishop Moeller encouraged parishes to instead support a centralized high school model. Established in 1909, Hamilton Catholic High School was the first such school. In the following decades, more centralized high schools were added. At the time of their creation, the majority of these were single-sex schools for boys or girls. While some preserve the single-sex structure to this day, other schools have merged and become co-ed.

1916: The organization of Catholic Charities

In the first 100 years of the archdiocese, many organizations and charities were created to serve the needs of the local people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. The need arose to consolidate and more efficiently organize the ministry of these services. Archbishop Moeller created the Bureau of Catholic Charities with Father Francis Gressle as director. From the beginning, their work included children services, immigration aid, counseling and food donations. A hallmark of Catholic Charities has been the emphasis on the laity helping the laity. Through the decades up until the present day, Catholic Charities has continued to evolve to serve the needs of residents in all counties of the archdiocese.

1919: Largest Holy Name Rally

Fraternal societies played a large role in the community life of parishes, promoting various Catholic devotions. In the late 19th century, parishes throughout the United States began to establish Holy Name Societies with the objectives of discouraging profanity and increasing devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. Public displays of this society began in 1907 with the first Holy Name Rally – a procession involving four parishes in or near Mount Adams concluding with exposition of the Holy Eucharist at Crosley Field. The rally grew in popularity and participation. In 1919, a record number of people were in attendance with over 40,000 men present. The procession was discontinued after 1969; however, it has recently been restored as an annual event.

1925: Archbishop John T. McNicholas, O.P.

Archbishop John McNicholas was among the most influential U.S. bishops in the interwar years, taking an active role in the causes of social reform, evangelization and education. Concerned about declining morality, Archbishop McNicholas was a founder of the Legion of Decency which combatted movies deemed morally offensive. Attentive to the archdiocese’s diversity, he strengthened ministries for African Americans and minorities, establishing the first Catholic high school for Blacks in Ohio and assisting in the formation of the Glenmary Home Missioners whose ministry focused on the rural poor.

1950: Archbishop Karl J. Alter

Archbishop Karl Alter served the local Church during a time of great growth. He oversaw the restoration of the cathedral, the building of a new St. Gregory Seminary, the founding of seven new high schools, the building of 41 elementary schools and the expansion of 50 other schools. Parochial school enrollment doubled during his tenure. Archbishop Alter was an important participant in the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), encouraging the council’s members to take up the issue of religious liberty. At the conclusion of Vatican II, Archbishop Alter directed that local councils be established in every parish to begin the process of implementing liturgical reforms.

1969: Archbishop Paul F. Leibold

Archbishop Paul Leibold, who had participated in Vatican II as auxiliary bishop of Cincinnati, was charged with implementing many of the conciliar reforms in the archdiocese. He launched the sixth archdiocesan synod (Synod ’71), involving for the first time a significant number of the laity in planning for the Church’s future. After a year of preparation, over 3,000 delegates gathered in assembly and voted upon documents that provided new guidelines for the life of the archdiocese. Archbishop Leibold accepted these documents in October 1971. Leibold strengthened the role of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and the Priests’ Senate. Tragically, Archbishop Leibold died suddenly at the age of 57, having served as archbishop for less than three years.

1972: Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin

During Archbishop Joseph Bernardin’s ten years of leading the archdiocese, he worked to promote stewardship and centralized diocesan structures. He took an active role in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, serving as its general secretary and later as president. Archbishop Bernardin became outspoken on many social issues, promoting peace, an end to racism, and the safeguarding of basic human rights. He was an ardent defender of life, popularizing the phrase “the seamless garment” to describe the Catholic commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in society. 

1982: Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk

Dayton native Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, who had served as Cincinnati’s auxiliary bishop since 1974, led the local Church for 27 years. He worked to address many challenges, including the decline in the number of priests and demographic changes that required parish consolidations and closings. He initiated programs to provide high-quality ministry in the face of fewer available pastors, welcoming the close collaboration of deacons, religious and lay ministers. Archbishop Pilarczyk wrote nearly two dozen books and booklets addressing such themes as contemporary moral issues, the Scriptures and social justice. He served as chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy and headed the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). 

1997: Welcoming the Immigrant

Continuing the tradition of establishing services to address the needs of the current day, Su Casa Hispanic Center was founded in 1997 as a program of Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio. It is now the primary provider of social, case management, family reunification, educational, and health promotion services to the Hispanic/Latino community in Greater Cincinnati. Su Casa’s mission is self-sufficiency for the poor and vulnerable of the immigrant community that comes to the United States looking for a better way of life for themselves and their families. The archdiocese has also seen a growth in its Catholic Vietnamese population with communities in both Cincinnati and Dayton. These local Catholic communities help new parishioners navigate their legal, healthcare and various other needs.

2009: Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr

The tenth episcopal leader of the archdiocese, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr was previously the bishop of Duluth, Minnesota. During his tenure in Cincinnati, he has introduced the “Prayer for Vocations” and asked that it be prayed regularly at all the churches in the diocese. Begging the Master of the harvest for more laborers, the archdiocese has seen an increase of priestly vocations, which has necessitated an expansion of the seminary. Archbishop Schnurr is supportive and welcoming of initiatives for the New Evangelization. Having been the coordinator of World Youth Day in Denver 1993, Archbishop Schnurr has taken up the mission of encouraging young people to discover their true vocation as a path to happiness and fullness of life.

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