St. Leo Parish, North Fairmount
A History of St. Leo’s Parish as recorded in the St. Leo’s 100th Anniversary Celebration Booklet
St. Leo Parish began in November of 1886 when Archbishop William Henry Elder agreed to the request of several German Catholic families to build a church in North Fairmount. With the help of Monsignor John Albrink and later, Father Bernard Kolb, the organizers selected a site on New Baltimore Pike near Trade Street and began collecting the funds to build a combination church-school-rectory. By the time Father Francis Varelman was appointed the parish’s first pastor in December of 1886, the St. Leo congregation was gathering on the second floor of Atchinson’s carpenter shop about a block away for Mass and other services.
The first parish building was completed in the Spring of 1888. The church was on the upper floor and the school rooms and pastor’s quarters on the lower. Some 30 students were transferred into the new building from temporary school rooms in Cooper Hall at 2558 Trade Street.
In 1888, Father Francis Kessing became pastor and he soon asked the Sisters of St. Francis in Oldenburg, Indiana, to assume responsibility for the school. Two Sisters were missioned to North Fairmount for that purpose under the direction of Sister M. Theophila, the school’s first Sister principal. For the next 90 years the Sisters of St. Francis staffed the school and directed the religious formation of the parish’s children.
One Sister in particular has left an indelible mark upon St. Leo’s, and her name is Sister Tarcisius Hiemer. For nearly 50 years Sister Tarcisius taught the first grade in St. Leo School, sometimes with as many as 70 students in the classroom.
By 1899 the school had grown so crowded that the parish built a separate rectory at 2573 Trade Street and turned the pastor’s former quarters into additional classrooms.
Father Joseph Schmidt was named pastor in 1901, and despite chronic poor health, he set about raising funds so that the parish could have a separate and permanent church. By 1904 there was enough cash to construct the church basement and for the next seven years the congregation met in the “catacombs” for worship.
Finally, on November 26, 1911, Archbishop Henry Moeller led a joyful parade of parishioners in dedicating the new St. Leo church. After 25 years the congregation had a grand Romanesque, basilica style church, with a bell tower reaching 104 feet into the heavens and with a seating capacity of 800 souls.
Seven years later, on April 18, 1918, the bells tolled the death of Father Schmidt at the age of 50. Those who remembered him later wrote: “He rose superior to the handicap of poor health, which made it necessary, especially in his later years, for him to be absent from his post from time to time, but his pastorate marks a period of very definite progress.”
For several weeks following Father Schmidt’s death, Father Henry Grimmelsman administered the affairs of the parish. On June 7, 1918, Father Henry Lehman became the parish’s fourth pastor.
Under Father Lehman’s pastorate, the parish bought the residence of Joseph Neyer, Sr. on Trade Street and turned it into a convent for the school’s Sisters. With the school itself bulging at the seams, the parish also purchased the house next to the convent from Peter Laudenbach and used it for additional classrooms. In November of 1922, two new bells were added to the one already in the tower, the larger of the two being dedicated to St. Joseph in memory of Father Schmidt.
Having paid off the $34,000 debt he had inherited, Father Lehman called upon the parishioners to buy a pipe organ for the church balcony, a new vestment case for the sacristy, and a new tabernacle for the altar. In addition, he engaged Nino Passalacqua to paint with artistic and religious designs the body and sanctuary of the church. New stations were erected in the church and new vestments purchased for the celebration of the liturgy.
His next project was to be a new school. In February of 1926 the Laudenbach house was moved across the street and on month later ground was broken for the new St. Leo School. The work moved so smoothly that by January of 1927, the Sisters and children were able to move into the new building. And, about the same time, an addition was finished on the convent so that more teachers could be accommodated. On May 15, 1927, Archbishop John T. McNicholas officiated at the new school’s dedication. That same year, Father Lehman petitioned city Fathers to rename Trade Street; it was now to be called St. Leo Place, "in recognition of the parish’s influence and hard work."
In October of 1936, St. Leo parish solemnly and joyfully celebrated its Golden Jubilee. Looking back over its first 50 years, the congregation noted with pride, the risks and sacrifices that had been made to give St. Leo’s a grand church, a fine school, and a notable reputation for dedication to Christ and His Church.
Among the many names that appeared in the roles of service and support were Scully and Brokamp, Geiser, Elsen, Galvin, Juniet, and Buerkle. There were Osterkamps and Dryers, Engelbrinks, Menkhauses, Neyers, and Guenthers. There was Stanly Doerger, Ferd Krabacher, Joseph Holtgrefe, Sallie McLaughlin (the first organist), Mathilda Sitzman (the first daughter of the parish to go to the convent) and Anna Kramer, (the first girl baptized in St. Leo Parish.)
After 50 years there was a whole litany of societies: Holy Name, St. Monica Married Ladies, St. Rose Young Ladies, the Leonine Club, the Mission Society, St. Vincent de Paul, the Apostleship of Prayer, PTA, Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, and a number of fraternal groups, such as the Knights of St. John, the St. Cecilia Ladies Auxiliary, the Catholic Knights of Ohio, the Catholic Order of Foresters, the Catholic Ladies of Columbia, and the Ladies Catholic Benevolent Association.
The second half of St. Leo’s history began in 1937 with the appointment of Father Louis Evers as pastor. The interior of the church was once again in need of painting but other pressing financial needs postponed the job until 1943, when German artist Gerhard Lamers was engaged to decorate the church with murals of Christ the King, the four evangelists, scenes from the life of Pope St. Leo the First, and other Christian symbols. For nearly ten months, Lamers was at work, often on scaffolding 40 feet above the floor, executing his colorful artistry.
The early 1940’s also marked a period of significant growth in St. Leo parish. In 1942, the Federal Government opened the first units of a housing development called English Woods, named after David English who brought his family to Cincinnati from New York in 1800. Within a few years, nearly half of the project’s 750 units were occupied by Catholic families. On November 21, 1943, the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, St. Leo’s opened its mission chapel in the English Woods community hall.
For the next six years, the people of English Woods were invited to assist at Mass in the English Woods Mission, but in the summer of 1949, construction began on a more suitable church building and hall on a two acre plot on Westwood Northern Boulevard, opposite Sutter Avenue. Completed in a few short months at a cost of some $45,000.00, the church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary quickly became an active center of Catholic presence for the families in English Woods.
In 1951, the church became officially “Our Lady of Presentation” and, with St. Leo’s, worked to provide solid Catholic education for area children. With crowded conditions at St. Leo School, some classes were held in the Presentation building. In 1954, both buildings were so filled with students that some English Woods pupils were sent to Sacred Heart school in Camp Washington.
Father Norbert Miller was appointed the first administrator of Presentation’s congregation in 1943, and he was succeeded by Father Robert Bastian in 1945, Father William Gauche in 1948, Father Charles Hoctor in 1949, Father Francis Buddelmeier in 1955, Father August Kneipp in 1957, Father Albert DeFrancesco in 1961, and Father James Shappelle in 1972.
St. Leo’s parish was a strong and vibrant community in the post-World War II era. There were parish missions for the men, women, and children; organizational meetings were routine; and the school continued to produce well-educated young Catholics. Father Charles Hoctor served as pastor from 1946 to 1957, and Father William Goldschmidt was appointed to succeed him.
As the parish approached its 75th birthday, Father Goldschmidt undertook a beautification program for St. Leo’s church and property. Painters were called in to re-do the church’s interior; new tile was laid on the nave and sanctuary floors; flowers and shrubs were planted and cultivated to enhance the beauty of the area. And in recognition of the parish efforts, the City Beautiful Committee of the City of Cincinnati presented St. Leo Church on September 28, 1962 its special Beautification Award for “having contributed significantly to community beautification.”
It was in the 1960’s that North Fairmount began to experience significant social change. Many of the long-time residents died or moved away. As newcomers arrived in the neighborhood, the Catholic population of the community began to decrease. Enrollment in the school began to decline, and a new thrust for ministry from the parish began to emerge.
Father Michael Holtzleiter was pastor from 1964 to 1966; Father Eugene Gallagher from 1966 to 1971; and Father Edward Lawler from 1971 to 1972. Father Gallagher noted in his 1967 financial report to the parish that St. Leo’s school enrollment was about 200, that expenditures exceeded revenues for the year, that “our Sunday collections have been declining and St. Leo membership is declining too.”
In 1972 Father James Shappelle became St. Leo’s pastor and he too faced the continuing downward spiral. In 1973, as pastor of both St. Leo and Presentation, he reported to the congregations that there were about 250 people attending the masses in each church.
The ministerial thrust of St. Leo’s was turning more and more into community involvement. The number of needy families in the North Fairmount-English Woods neighborhood continued to climb. Street preaching and evangelization efforts spearheaded by the pastoral team at St. Leo’s and with the help of seminarians were held in English Woods and at the Fay Apartments and Shelton Gardens.
A group of St. Leo Ladies opened and operated for 16 years a thrift shop for the benefit of the less fortunate in the community. In 1979, declining enrollment led to the merging of St. Leo School with St. Boniface School in Northside. That same year, a group of community minded people came together and formed the North Fairmount Community Center Board and soon leased the school building for use as a daycare center, senior citizens center, a GED classroom, and a health clinic. A combination food co-op and thrift store was also operated by the NFCC Board, and plans were underway for new housing in a price range that area renters could afford.
In 1985, a series of meetings were held to discuss the future of the two churches in St. Leo parish, and with the findings and recommendations of the committee, the Archdiocese decided to close Our Lady of Presentation church and merge the two congregations at St. Leo’s.
As the parish observed its 100th anniversary, many parishioners felt that the merging of the two congregations and the efforts spearheaded by St. Leo’s church to meet the needs of the North Fairmount/English Woods community were signs of hope and new life.
Looking at the parish’s century of blessings, the congregation of 1986 was grateful for many things: over 50 priests have served as pastors, associates and administrators at St. Leo and OLP; thirteen sons of the parish have been ordained to the priesthood (Louis Reinhold, Edward Volker, Herman Jansen, Robert Schaefer, William Sicking, Stanley Doerger, Edward Rudemiller, Knute Kinross, Kenneth Lobring, Ronald Spitznagel, Kirk Lobring, Willim Wagner, Fred Link).
At least 22 of St. Leo’s daughters became Religious Sisters: Marie Therese Mette, M. Alverna Chandler, Sharon Rose Ramstetter, M. Gerard Dreiling, M. Vigil Schneider, Rose Therese Schneider, Edwardine Chandler, Rose Anthony Mahlenkamp, Mary Mildred Stiamen, M. Clarence Schuster, Leo Marie Upsing, Augustine Dryer, M. Louis Evers, M. Cupertino Schellenberger, M. Petronilla Soete, M. Domitilla Meier, M. Marciana Holzman, Margaret Kreimer, M. Thomas Herbert, Johanna Neyer, M. Grace Ollinger, and Elizabeth Weigand.
Over 5,965 were baptized in this parish, about 1,800 couples were married here, and some 2,129 were buried from St. Leo’s. Nobody knows the exact number of children who attended St. Leo school; no one has a record of the families who once attended here and have moved away. Only God could count the masses, novenas, anointings of the sick; not even a computer could list the confessions that were heard, the rosaries said, nor the variety of people who found comfort, food, hope, peace, and a sense of God’s presence both in the church and in the parishioners in the community.
The 100 years of blessings that this parish enjoyed and shared with the neighborhoods it serves warrant our giving thanks to God for being with His people. As we celebrate this centennial year we treasure the heritage that has been given to us and we pledge a continuing presence and service to the people of North Fairmount and English Woods. With a little help from our friends we will not only get by, we shall prosper in the work of the Lord.