The moment we arrived at the imposing gate on the sidewalk and started to climb the flights of concrete steps, we could tell this wasn’t a characterless church. As we stood at the highest point in Cincinnati and admired the city spread out below us, eventually filing into the church after the dark wooden doors had been unlocked, our feeling of awe intensified.
“Welcome to Holy Cross-Immaculata Church.” Our tour guide stepped up after allowing our group a short period of prayer. “What was the first thing you noticed when you came in?”
“We had to climb a lot of stairs to get here,” someone in our group pointed out. People laughed softly.
“It smells like our own church back home,” someone else observed. More laughter.
“Your church must be an old one, then,” our tour guide guessed, and, receiving nods in response, he went on. “This church was built in 1859, and it was started through an archbishop’s promise at sea.”
Bishop John Baptist Purcell of the Cincinnati, Ohio area had been traveling at sea when a large storm blew in. The bishop prayed, but the storm didn’t abate. The ship’s captain went so far as to ask everyone to prepare for death. At that time, Bishop Purcell promised God and Our Lady that if he survived the storm, he would build a church at the highest point in Cincinnati. The storm subsided and Bishop Purcell, praising God, returned to Cincinnati to fulfill his promise. He bought Mt. Adams, the highest point in Cincinnati, and used thousands of dollars of his own money (not parishioners’ money, as was customary) to build Immaculata Church.
Immaculata Church was primarily a German immigrant parish and Bishop Purcell received a lot of support for his project from Germany and the Germans. Our tour guide gestured to the stunning oil paintings placed behind the side altars and main altar. “These were commissioned especially for Immaculata Church and were painted by a German, Johann Schmitt. The German ancestry of the church and artist can be seen on the painting behind the main altar.” The painting features a scroll bearing German words which translate to “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for the conversion of this country, America”.
“See the painting of the Annunciation there?” our tour guide continued, gesturing to the left side altar. “Can you see the faint outlines of a face between the Dove and the Blessed Virgin?” Everyone craned their necks, looking hard—a few people gasped “ahh” in recognition, while many others looked confused. Our tour guide smiled at our reactions. “Not everyone can make out the face. My theory is that the painter had a partially used canvas that he painted this scene over and the older painting shows through a little. Or, maybe he painted the face in on purpose. We don’t know for sure, but the face does bear a striking resemblance to Our Lord’s face on the Shroud of Turin.”
We went on to learn that while Immaculata Church was the German immigrants’ primary parish, the nearby Holy Cross Church was attended mostly by Irish immigrants. But when events and finances determined otherwise, the decision was made in 1977 to close Holy Cross Church and merge the two parishes under the structure of the Immaculata Church. Naturally, the Irish were upset. While they had to submit to the change, one thing they wanted was to keep the statue of St. Patrick from the closing Holy Cross Church. Irish parishioners approached the pastor and asked if they could transfer the statue to Immaculata. “I’m sorry, I can’t authorize that,” the priest told them. “But maybe it’ll happen that I’ll forget to lock the doors of Holy Cross tonight.” The doors were left unlocked when parishioners checked them that night. And so it was that the St. Patrick statue from Holy Cross was taken away at 2 a.m. in the morning and brought to the new church, Immaculata.
This in turn led to an interesting tradition. Every year, the Irish would “break” into the newly-named Holy Cross-Immaculata church at night, carry out the St. Patrick statue, and parade him around the streets in a pickup truck. The parish priest tolerated this, but when St. Patrick returned to the church with bright pink-painted shoes one year and an arm broken in a bar fight another year, the pastor put his foot down. Now the Irish have bought their own statue to parade around the streets of Cincinnati every year.
The story transitioned from the St. Patrick statue to the windows above him. “Most of the side windows are the originals,” our tour guide noted. “We also have a beautiful rose window in the back of the church, just recently installed.” Everyone turned to see, but the massive organ blocked the full view of the window lit by the sun. “You can’t see the whole window from the inside because of the organ, which is also relatively new to the church. For the dedication of the organ, the parish had a special Mass with an operatic soprano. She sang ‘Ave Maria’.” Our guide paused. “They say there wasn’t a dry eye in the church.”
And the stairs leading up to Immaculata? “Every Good Friday,” we were told, “thousands of people come here to pray the Rosary while ascending the steps up the mountain on their knees. It’s a devotional practice that’s been going on for generations.”
After hearing the history of the church, we were free to walk around. We lit votive candles at the Lady of Lourdes grotto replica in the back of the church. We ran our fingers over the velvet curtains of the old confessionals. We inspected the famous statue of St. Patrick. (You could see faint streaks of pink paint on his shoes showing through the gold they’d used to paint over it.) We looked to see the face in the painting and knelt at the side altars.
The visit climaxed with Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction. As everyone was leaving afterwards, my friend Mary and I stood in the side aisle of the church, soaking in the beauty all around us. Mary glanced back at the choir loft. “I’d love to sing the ‘Ave Maria’ in this church like the soprano did,” she whispered to me.
“Do you want to? Let’s do it,” I said.
Quietly we sang the chant, the song gently filling the church. It was a hymn to Our Lady, showing our reverence for her in a church named for her, a place filled with the history of 150 years of a church well-loved.
(I would like to express my sincere thanks to our tour guide, Jim. Not all the words are direct quotes; l took the liberty to reword what I couldn’t precisely remember, though the content is the same. I double-checked the information for this article with help of the parish website– http://hciparish.org/ . Any inaccuracies I might have made in this article are entirely my own.)