Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption
St. Mary Parish was established in 1837. This was the first Catholic parish in Northern Kentucky. The congregation occupied a small brick chapel on 5th Street. This property had formally been known as the White Mansion and was owned by a wealthy resident of New Orleans. The first pastor of the parish was the Dominican Father Stephen Montgomery. Father Montgomery remained as pastor until 1846.
Initially, St. Mary Parish served all the Catholics of Northern Kentucky. In 1841, German-speaking portion of the congregation established a second parish in the city on 6th Street under the patronage of the Mother of God. From this time on, St. Mary Parish became identified with the Irish residents of the city.
In 1849, the Reverend John Baptist Lamy was appointed pastor of St. Mary Parish. Lamy remained in Covington until 1851, when he was appointed the first Bishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico. During this era the parish was honored with a visit by Father Stephen Badin in 1850. Father Badin was the first priest to be ordained in the United States and was a pioneer missionary in Kentucky. St. Mary congregation grew quickly. In 1851, the parish recorded 93 baptisms and 38 marriages.
The Diocese of Covington was established in 1853. The first bishop was the Reverend George Aloysius Carrell S.J.(Jesuit). Bishop Carrell appointed Father Thomas Butler the first Vicar General of the diocese and raised St. Mary Parish to the status of a cathedral.
The congregation quickly outgrew the small chapel on 5th Street. In 1847, property was purchased on the north side of 8th Street between Scott and Greenup Streets s a site for a new church. The cornerstone of the new St. Mary Cathedral was set into place on October 2, 1853 and the building was dedicated on June 11, 1854. The modest Tudor Style brick church measured 126’ in length and 66’ in width. A home next door to the new structure was used as a residence by the bishop and the Cathedral clergy.
In 1844 the parish opened a school for boys and in the following year a school for girls was established. Bishop Carrell invited the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky to Covington to teach at the girls’ school. The sisters also opened La Salette Academy on Greenup Street at this time. A new brick school building was constructed on 7th Street between Greenup and Scott in 1874. This building housed both the boys’ and girls’ schools. At this time, the boys’ school was placed in the care of the Brothers of the Holy Cross from South Bend, Indiana.
In 1885, the Reverend Camillus P. Maes, a native of Belgium, was appointed the third Bishop of Covington. As early as 1890, Bishop Maes began planning for the construction of a new cathedral. In that year, he purchased a home and large lot at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 12th Street as a site for his proposed new building. Two years later, Bishop Maes hire architect Leon Coquard of Detroit to design a Gothic Style Cathedral. Coquard’s design based the interior of the new edifice on the Abbey Church of St. Dennis near Paris, France and the exterior on the renowned Notre Dame Cathedral.
Despite the poverty of the diocese and an economic depression, Bishop Maes broke ground for the new cathedral in April 1894. Over a year passed before the cornerstone could be set into place. On September 8, 1895, all trains and streetcars heading for Covington were packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the cornerstone laying and the immense parade that preceded the ceremonies. It seemed every resident of Northern Kentucky was near the intersection of Twelfth and Madison Avenue. Local newspapers estimated a crowd of over 20,000 visitors from Cincinnati and beyond who took part in the ceremonies. The cornerstone was set into place by the bishop with a small silver trowel donated to him by the students of La Salette Academy in Covington.
The lack of sufficient funds proved a constant annoyance for Bishop Maes. Work on the new Cathedral started and stopped as funds became available. Although several large donations were received, working class Catholics from throughout the diocese donated the majority of funds. In 1899, the Kentucky Post published a story explaining how the cathedral building fund began. About a decade earlier, a young girl knocked on the door of the bishop’s residence and asked to see him. She shyly approached the bishop and extended her tiny hand in his direction. The bishop looked down to discover a silver dollar cradled in her palm. In a soft voice, the girl informed Bishop Maes that she wished to donate the coin to the cathedral fund. The bishop was so touched by the girl’s generosity that he saved the coin and placed it in the cornerstone where it remains today.
By September 1897, the superstructure of the cathedral was ready for its tile roof. The cost of construction, however, had increased from the original $175,000 estimate to more than $300,000. In order to raise additional funds, Bishop Maes organized a door- to-door canvas in the cities of Covington, Bellevue, Dayton, Ludlow and Newport.
In 1899, construction of the building came to a complete halt when the diocese ran out of funds. Undaunted, Bishop Maes turned in his $25,000 life insurance policy to underwrite the project. The money did not last long. Just when it seemed that construction would have to be halted again, a generous gift appeared. Ignatius Droege, a Covington businessman who owned a large rolling mill in the city, presented Bishop Maes with a check for $10,000. Construction work resumed.
The year 1900 was a glorious year for the diocese. The structural work on the nave and sanctuary of the cathedral was complete. Bishop Maes decided to place a plain brick façade on the building and to proceed with the dedication. The first Mass to be celebrated in the church occurred on December 31, 1900, at midnight. The nave of the cathedral was dedicated with impressive ceremonies on January 27, 1901. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the cathedral boys’ choir performed musical selections. The nearly hour long dedicatory sermon was preached by Bishop John Lancaster Spaulding of Peoria, Illinois. In his address, Bishop Spaulding trumpeted, “It is the most beautiful Catholic cathedral in the west.” He continued, “It makes no difference how long it has taken to build this structure nor whether it is still incomplete, it will always be a fitting monument for generations to come.” Local journalists reported that those who attended the dedication were amazed by the structure. Mouths fell open and gasps could be heard as visitors entered the cathedral.
Like all the great cathedrals of Europe, Covington’s cathedral was conceived over time. Between 1901 and 1905, funds were raised to construct the façade. Several generous financial gifts from Nicholas and James Walsh greatly encouraged Bishop Maes (the Walsh family donated $150,800 to the cathedral building fund). The bishop called upon architect Leon Coquard and requested that he finish the plans for the façade. Coquard, however, had begun work on several other high profile projects including the new cathedral for the city of Denver, Colorado. Coquard promised Bishop Maes that plans would be prepared, however, he never produced a working draft. Coquard’s lack of cooperation led Bishop Maes to hire Newport architect David Davis to complete the plans for the façade. Davis based his design on the exterior of Notre Dame in Paris. Construction on the façade began on September 29,1908. During the next two years, the plain brick front of the cathedral was slowly transformed by scores of stonemasons. The façade was dedicated in 1910. At this time, the bishop decided to delay the construction of the two towers for a future date so that work on the interior of the building could be advanced. The towers were never built.
The adornment of the interior of the cathedral took place as funds became available. At the time of the dedication of the nave in 1901, the window openings were filled with whitewashed glass. In the spring of 1907, Bishop Maes traveled to Munich, Germany to discuss plans for stained glass windows with the officials of the Mayer Studios. The first 16 windows were set into place in 1909. Bishop Maes took an active interest in every detail of their design and construction. Artists from the Mayer Studios designed each window on paper. These images were sent by mail to Bishop Maes, who minutely inspected each sketch. The bishop then returned the sketches with his specific comments. The sketches were changed accordingly and the actual work of cutting glass began. The faithful of the diocese financed the installation of the windows with donations. Today, the names of the donors shine forth at the bottom of each panel. The enormous transept window depicting the Council of Ephesus and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin drew the most attention. The window measured 67 feet in height and 24 feet in width and was touted as the largest stained glass window in the western hemisphere and the second largest in the world.
Bishop Maes called upon the region’s most talented artists to further adorn the cathedral. Covington artist Frank Duveneck produced a three-piece oil on canvas for the cathedral between 1904 and 1909. The work was placed on the walls of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in 1910. Duveneck’s three panels depicted the ancient sacrifice of the Jewish high priest, the Trinity, and a bishop holding a monstrance bearing the new sacrifice of Jesus in the Eucharist. Angels with outspread wings formed an arch that linked the three panels as one. This chapel also housed a gold plated tabernacle donated to the diocese by the people of Ghent, Belgium.
Cincinnati sculptor Clement Barnhorn began work on a high relief sculpture for the exterior of the cathedral in 1914. The work, measuring 18 by 13 feet, depicted the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven. The carving was set in place in an arch over the main entrance in 1917. Barnhorn also produced a life-sized statue of the Blessed Virgin for the facade.
The Cathedral parish erected a new school building on Madison Avenue in 1914-15. This building replaced the 1874 structure on 7th Street. Bishop Maes dedicated the new Gothic Style structure on February 10, 1915. By 1918, parish membership totaled 620 families with a school enrollment of 325.
Bishop Maes did not live to see the cathedral finished. In 1914, the bishop returned to Belgium to visit old friends. He arrived in his hometown just in time to see his boyhood home demolished for the construction of military defenses. The flames of the First World War were spreading devastation across Europe. He returned to Covington in a state of great despair. In the spring of 1915, he fell ill and died on May 11, 1915. Bishop Maes’ vision for the cathedral, however, did not die.
Bishop Ferdinand Brossart carried out Bishop Maes’ vision. In 1919, Bishop Brossart oversaw the installation of a new high altar in the cathedral. The Carrara marble altar measured 23 feet in height and 20 feet in width and was said to have weighed 30,000 pounds. The altar sported a hand carved marble crucifix and two wooden angels created by artists in Austria. Also during the Brossart era, the magnificent mosaic Stations of the Cross were erected in the cathedral. These stations were created in Venice, Italy and were based on the designs of Redemptorist Brother Max Schmalzl. Bishop Brossart hoped that the stations would arrive in 1918, however the war in Europe delayed their arrival until 1919. Each station contained more than 70,000 individual tiles. By this time, the basic structure and ornamentation of the cathedral were complete.
The Cathedral parish flourished throughout the pre-World War II era. However, beginning in the late 1940s, the membership of the congregation began to decline. Families were moving to the suburbs, especially young families with children. In 1967, the Cathedral School was merged with nearby St. Joseph School to form Bishop Howard Elementary. The new school was housed in the former facilities of St. Joseph Parish. Eventually, the former Cathedral School was leased by Children’s Inc., which operated a childcare center in the building.
During the administration of Bishop William A. Hughes, the Cathedral Foundation was established. The foundation raised awareness of the Cathedral in the community and assisted in raising funds for its upkeep. Covington’s next Bishop, Robert Muench, inaugurated the Faith in Action 2000 campaign in August 1999. The campaign raised $10 million dollars, more than half went toward the restoration of the interior and exterior of the building. The restoration included a general cleaning, repair work to the stained glass windows, new pews, the relocation of the main altar, the construction of a new sanctuary area, the restoration of the Duveneck murals and the Stations of the Cross. The newly restored Cathedral was blessed by Bishop Muench on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2001.
Another major development in the parish during the Bishop Muench era was the establishment of a Hispanic Ministries program. A full-time Hispanic minister was hired and a Spanish Language Masses began to be celebrated in the parish.
Souvenir St. George Young Men Benefit Society of Covington, Kentucky 1897 (KCPL Collection); Catholic Telegraph, October 21, 1847, June 22, 1850, January 17, 1852, October 15, 1853, June 17, 1854, p. 4 and June 9, 1855; David E. Schroeder, “Building a Celestial City.” Appeared in a special supplement of the Messenger, December 14, 2001, pp. 20A-24A; Kentucky Enquirer, August 6, 1999; Paul Ryan, A History of the Diocese of Covington (Published by the Diocese in 1954), p. 477-482.