Endangered historic sites: St. Mark Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Over the next month, Abandoned will highlight ten properties that are in danger of demolition or demolition-by-neglect. The first endangered property is from Cincinnati’s St. Mark Catholic Church, and while it is not likely to be demolished any time soon, its closure poses a problem for the community.
No. 1: St. Mark Catholic Church
The rapid and sometimes contentious rise of the Catholic church in Cincinnati is much unlike the rather slow decline it has experienced in the last several decades. While the late 19th and early 20th centuries were dominated with the development of the basin in this heavily immigrant city and the eventual spread of population into the surrounding hillsides, it is the Catholic church that has been a dominating role in much of the worship as the city expanded its borders. St. Mark in Evanston, a heavy German and Polish immigrant suburb several miles northeast of Fountain Square, is no different.
Founded in 1905, St. Mark was dedicated to the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, but it was not without its controversy. Accusations of parish raids and boundary disputes intensified tensions in the relationship between the archbishop and the clergy, and were rather commonplace as the boundaries of development continued to spread out. Some parishes, especially those in the basin, were noticing deep congregation drops as more parishioners moved to Walnut Hills, Avondale and Evanston. It was not until 1904 that the Precious Blood Order expressed interest in Evanston, where over one-hundred Catholic families had congregated, and was allowed to build in the neighborhood with the condition that some of their other locations be relinquished.
The first meeting house was dedicated in 1906, but a rapidly expanding population led to discussions of a larger facility soon after. Architect Henry Schlacks was sought after to design a larger church, modeled after St. Marie in Trastevere and St. Marie in Cosmedio, Italy. Schlacks had founded an architecture school at Notre Dame University, and had designed the original campus buildings of Xavier University.
In 1914, the cornerstone of the new church was laid, and the new building was completed just two years later. The exterior featured a mild brown brick with a terracotta facing, which was colored to match that of the Roman Travertine stone. Orange Roman tiles, imported, were laid on top. A 130-foot campanile completed the exterior.
Inside, much expense was spared. Three altars were built from Botticino marble, and the high altar contained images of the twelve apostles. Hand-painted murals and statues – hand-carved from Carrara marble, added class and opulence. The stained glass windows were crafted by Zettler of Munich, Germany.
In 1933, a large pipe organ, built by Kilgen, was installed.2 A new rectory was completed in 1950.
During the height of the church during the mid-20th century, 1,200 families worshiped at St. Mark. The imposing church was situated at the corner of two major roads: Montgomery and Duck Creek, and was the foot of the Evanston business district. The basement acted as a community gathering space, which featured a boxing ring and a bowling alley. But the decline in social and economic vitality of Evanston, like many other inner-Cincinnati neighborhoods, led to St. Mark’s slow decline. The construction of Interstate 71 in 1972, adjacent to the church boundary, led to what is termed white flight. The population decline in the neighborhood starved the Catholic church of its congregation.
The irony in that, is what happened to the older Catholic parishes in the basin when Avondale and Evanston were being developed at the turn of the century. Much of the same was being repeated for St. Mark, only that families were moving to Kenwood and Montgomery.
In more recent history, St. Mark became home to mostly African-American Catholics, but ongoing maintenance issues and the economic realities of maintaining a large and aging facility for a rather minute congregation – St. Mark could hold over 800 easy, led the parish to consider a merger as early as 1991.
It was not until July 2010 that St. Mark was folded into St. Agnes in Bond Hill, along with St. Martin de Porres in Lincoln Heights and St. Andrew in Avondale. The last mass was held on July 25 at St. Mark.
In some cases, like the First German Reformed Church in the West End, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Sedamsville, or even St. Martin’s near Lower Price Hill, closure can present a laundry list of ills that can bring down any building – no matter how strong the case may be to preserve or save. Many of these pillars of a community fell into disrepair after years of congregation declines, and with no financial mechanism available to keep the doors open. Hopes and dreams of turning around an institution are often based upon false economic realities: heating such a cavernous location, the maintenance of an aging building and the stabilization of a dwindling congregation. And as with the three local examples above, some are demolished carelessly without regard to the neighborhood, while others are left to decay purposefully.
But there are times when there is a glimmer of hope, and maybe something more. Since 1988, the practice of Latin Mass has been gaining traction in the region under the endorsement of the Archdiocese. The Mass, based upon the traditional Latin liturgy, was first held at St. Monica’s in Clifton before relocating to the Sacred Heart Church in Camp Washington. But due to growth, the church is needing to expand and St. Mark’s closure gave the Sacred Heart room to grow.
If the proposal is accepted by the Archbishop, and a final sale price is agreed upon contingent upon the condition of St. Mark, the church could soon be home to a new parish . A detailed restoration plan calls for roof replacement and interior repairs at a cost of $2 million.
While St. Mark has found a potential buyer for the 850-seat church, arguably one of the more distinct structures in Cincinnati, financing the acquisition will be an issue if the sale price is not finalized. In addition, due to the work that will be involved in the replacement of the leaking roof, the interior paints will need to be refreshed or replaced, and missing adornments will be need to be reinstalled. St. Mark is still in danger should the buyer back out of the deal, and given the nature of historic preservation in the always finicky Cincinnati, the city cannot afford to lose another treasure.
View the history of St. Mark and more photography of the exterior and interior at St. Mark Catholic Church.