Written by one of our own faithful parishioners at Immaculate Conception
The history of the resplendent, twin-towered church at Floral and Robertson avenues in Norwood is a mirror and parallel to the history of the Catholic Church in America. It’s a story of missionary beginnings, of vibrant growth and indomitable perseverance – but also of sorrows and setbacks, and finally restoration and resurgence.
Norwood became a village in 1888 and incorporated as a city just after the turn of the century, when its population reached 7,000. Many newcomers were Catholic Cincinnatians of German, Irish and Italian descent, who built a thriving and expanding religious community.
Among those Italian-descended Catholics was Charles Brichetto, who lived in south Norwood at the present-day location of Sharpsburg Elementary School. In 1905, Mr. Brichetto approached Cincinnati Archbishop Henry Moeller about buying the property that would someday become the home of Immaculate Conception Church. At the time, the site was occupied by tennis courts. Brichetto’s group thought the property would be ideal for the relocation of St. Xavier College, later Xavier University, which at the time was in downtown Cincinnati.
After much study, Archbishop Moeller decided the property was better suited to a new church and school for Norwood’s expanding Catholic population. To spearhead the project, the Archbishop summoned an energetic young priest from Stone Lick, Ohio, Father Frederick Gallagher. Father Gallagher, 29, enthusiastically undertook his new mission, under the patronage of St. Matthew, in the spring of 1906.
As preparations for construction began, Father Gallagher stayed as a guest at the Brichetto home. It was there that he celebrated the first Mass of the new St. Matthew’s parish. In August, the fledgling congregation secured a building permit for a one-story frame church. Charles Brichetto donated the lumber, and construction was under way. The building, completed in the fall at a cost of $14,000, was dedicated as St. Matthew’s Church on November 4, 1906.
The parish grew rapidly as development of south Norwood accelerated. By 1909, Father Gallagher was saying three Masses each Sunday. That same year the parish laid the cornerstone for a school and temporary church, built for about $40,000, the building that now houses the high school at Immaculate Conception Academy. The first floor housed the church, with the second floor housing four classrooms. Archbishop Moeller officiated at its dedication. The date was Sunday, April 10, 1910.
At first, the sisters who taught at the school were based in downtown Cincinnati, commuting daily by streetcar. But soon they moved into a house at 2321 Kenilworth Avenue, and soon after that into the adjacent house vacated by Father Gallagher when the permanent rectory at 2310 Robertson Avenue was ready. Both early convents have since been demolished.
The fund drive for a permanent church started in earnest during the early 1920s. Archbishop Moeller gave permission for its construction, on the condition that the parish building committee first raise $45,000 in cash towards the cost. The parish rose to the challenge. Construction began on February 7, 1922 and continued for more than two years.
The ambitious plan called for a Gothic-Norman structure of gray St. Paul limestone, with an interior arch of 38 feet and twin towers rising to 80 feet. Windows and doors were trimmed in Bedford stone, the altar and communion rail carved from Carrara marble, the Stations of the Cross composed of Ravenna mosaic. Stained-glass windows on the north side displayed scenes in the life of Our Lady; windows on the south side depicted scenes from the public life of Our Lord.
At last, dedication of the permanent church came on Sunday, April 27, 1924, with Archbishop Moeller again officiating. The majestic edifice formed the visible crown to Father Gallagher’s tireless work of nearly two decades. A little more than three months after the dedication, on August 5, this good and faithful priest was dead.
The fruits of Father Gallagher’s labors, however, continued to flourish and grow. The new pastor, Monsignor John F. Hickey, oversaw the remodeling of the school and convent amid a steady increase in parishioners and vocations. Monsignor Hickey served until his death in 1938, when he was succeeded by a familiar face in the growing suburb: Father Henry Buse, who had served at the parish of Sts. Peter and Paul in north Norwood.