On a sweltering Saturday earlier this summer, sixteen young men and women set out on foot on a fourteen-mile pilgrimage through the shale oil-rich countryside of Perry County, Ohio. The sizable band formed a cast of characters worthy of Chaucer: the Doctor, the Eagle Scout, the Farm Girl, and many more, along with a half-dozen Dominican student brothers. The destination: the small town of Somerset, home of two Dominican parishes, and the former site of the Province of St. Joseph’s novitiate, house of studies, provincial headquarters, and even a short-lived college. Yet the eponymous church of St. Joseph bears significance not only for the friars, for it is also the oldest Catholic parish in the Buckeye State, earning the nickname “The Cradle of the Faith in Ohio.” One may wonder why the Catholic faith was first nurtured, by an order known for ministry in the cities and university towns, in such an unlikely place as this…
While some Catholics had settled along the Ohio River back when the “Heart of it All” was part of the Northwest Territory, and traveling priests had then offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass, it was not until the first decade of statehood that a cluster of Catholic families had settled in one location. The homesteaders’ patriarch, Jacob Dittoe, had requested of John Carroll of Baltimore, then the only bishop in the fledgling nation, a priest to serve the spiritual and sacramental needs of this new Catholic settlement. Bishop Carroll, recalling that he had sent Fr. Edward Dominic Fenwick to the frontier of Kentucky to found the first Dominican province in the United States, wrote to the friar to lend his assistance, seeing that he was only 250 miles away. Fenwick journeyed on horseback, meeting Dittoe one afternoon while the latter was chopping wood, and offered Mass for the grateful settlers the next morning. The two stayed in correspondence, and ten years later, in 1818, after the town of Somerset was founded nearby, Fenwick and his nephew, Nicholas Dominic Young, also a Dominican priest, built a log cabin church on the half-square mile of land that Dittoe had graciously donated to the friars. The first Catholic parish in Ohio was born.
Fenwick and Young soon made St. Joseph’s the hub of their apostolic activity in Ohio, which other friars continued after Fenwick became the first bishop of Cincinnati. The Dominicans ran several mission parishes in the county, including St. Rose in New Lexington, St. Patrick in Junction City, and Holy Trinity on “Piety Hill” within the town of Somerset, as the Church at large spread throughout the state.
Yet, in 1864, a fire destroyed the large priory at St. Joseph’s and severely damaged the church, toppling the steeple and gutting the interior. The Province, seeing a growing need to minister to Catholic immigrants in the cities of the East Coast, used the accident to shift their focus eastward and even considered abandoning the rural Ohio ministry altogether–until the Master of the Order, Vincent Jandel, commanded them to stay, as an act of gratitude to the original benefactors, who to this day are buried in a plot next to the church. The friars turned over all the Perry County parishes, except the two in Somerset, to the newly-formed Diocese of Columbus, and built a new priory at St. Joseph’s, which served as a house of formation in various stages until 1968. The church acquired several striking works of art, such as a series of stained-glass windows from Germany depicting the mysteries of the Rosary (except for the Crucifixion, which appears as a life-sized wooden crucifix from Cuba), and its bell tower continues to provide the province’s novices with a place to make their mark on history, as they inscribe their names on its walls and staircases. While the priory is gone today, as the lone pastor of both parishes dwells in a rectory across the street, a museum in the sacristy, which once connected the priory to the church, chronicles the events of St. Joseph’s in photographs and memorabilia, from ordinations to parish picnics and studentate baseball games, throughout the decades…
As the road-weary and hungry pilgrims, who stopped to pray in the aforementioned churches, made the final push up Piety Hill to join Holy Trinity’s annual festival, and I myself (like Fenwick and Dittoe, an East Coast native who settled in Ohio) wished there truly were a patron saint of quality footwear as my boots continued to disintegrate, this trip through the early history of the Province merged with the active life of the present day. The pilgrims encountered several Somerset parishioners who have fond memories of the brothers who were formed there, and who are working on refurbishing St. Joseph’s Church in time for the parish’s upcoming bicentennial, thus keeping alive the tradition that Fenwick started. Therefore, as the intrepid young pilgrims who made the trek through the rural landscape found, and as any visitor to Somerset can see, in the Cradle of the Faith in Ohio, the Faith is still going strong.
Image: St. Joseph’s Catholic Church near Somerset