History & Traditions

In the Beginning

Christ Church Cathedral was founded on May 18, 1817, in Cincinnati, then a city of 9,000. The instrument of Parochial Association clearly stated our mission of Christian service to our parishioners and the community, a mission that has evolved continuously in response to changing needs.

Within 15 years, the young parish was planning for its own worship space, but the membership split over internal disagreements around style of worship practices. Over half the members left with the first rector, Samuel Johnston, to form St. Paul's Church in another section of downtown. (St. Paul's became the Cathedral of the Diocese of Southern Ohio in 1875 and remained so until its destruction in 1937.) Remaining less formal in its liturgical style, the now smaller Christ Church parish incurred much debt as it moved into a new church building in 1835 on East Fourth Street. The prevailing practice of pew rentals never covered the operations budget and a special subscription was raised to pay clergy, music and building debts – a practice that would be repeated many times over the next century.

Changing Downtown Neighborhoods...

Christ Church has always been located downtown near the Ohio River but the character of our surrounding neighborhoods has continuously evolved. Before and after the Civil War, prominent business and civic leaders lived a few blocks away, many who were church members. By contrast, closer to the river, immigrant workers from northern Europe lived in overcrowded, poor housing as local industries boomed after the war. The women of the parish responded with mission and relief agencies that formed the foundation of our commitment to the poor, sick and indigent in our community at large.

By the late 1800s, old-line families were moving to suburban hilltops away from the cholera epidemics of the river basin. Financial panics further destabilized parish funding. Challenged by the Rev. Isaac Stanger (1877-87), parish leaders set up an endowment to keep Christ Church in the city as a financially independent parish and to sustain its community generosity. For perspective, nearly half of its funds reached those outside the parish. One example is city missioner Fannie Williams who made over 2,000 house calls a year, funded by the Christ Church Ladies Benevolent Society.

Under the Rev. Robert Gibson (1887-97), Christ Church expanded voting rights and added an option of individual pledging to pew rentals, opening the parish to more members including some women. Members funded an interior renovation of the sanctuary. When the Rev. Gibson left, the church was again in financial crisis, and the vestry decided to keep the choir and delay a new rector. A young Alexis Stein (1898-1900) set the tone for the next century, declaring in paraphrase that "we cannot too often remind ourselves that our endeavor here is to make first Christians and then, churchgoers." The twentieth century saw the revitalization of Christ Church in ways undreamed of in 1817.

Faith and Action

By 1900, Christ Church had funded a new parish house and many social, athletic, practical and spiritual programs as well as adding a camp in 1905 for children, youth, workers and families. Due to demand exceeding the space, a second, larger parish house replaced the first, opening in 1908 with a gymnasium and bowling alley. Under the Rev. Frank Howard Nelson's leadership (1900-39), the church expanded its community services and led the charter reform of corrupt city politics in 1924. Parishioners were active in founding Children's Hospital and what is today the United Appeal.

Nelson emphasized three ministries: worship, social responsibility and financial stewardship. Individuals purchased stained glass windows through 1927; funded the Centennial Chapel, which opened in 1917; and left legacies to the endowment. Due to separate funding, the parish house affairs were taken care of financially, but those of the church still were not. This would change with the new nationwide campaign, led by Nelson at General Convention in 1919.

During World War I, the church opened the Centennial Chapel 24 hours a day to anyone in the community. The church camp at Miamiville, located northeast of the city, became a military encampment. During the Depression, income from the endowment sustained the parish and its ministries, which included providing shelter, clothing and meals to victims of the 1937 flood.

Under the Rev. Nelson Burroughs (1939-49), Christ Church members slowly began to explore and appreciate a wider range of worship service styles beyond their low church tradition. He began the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival that continues today. Plans to replace the aging 1835 church building were set aside in 1941 as the parish turned support to World War II efforts. The chapel remained open 24/7 and, after the war, it was re-dedicated as the Centennial Memorial Chapel for all fallen soldiers. The church sent money for the rebuilding of St. Michael's Cathedral in Coventry, England, establishing ties that continue today. The Ensign Harry J. Coombe Fund began to provide resources to the rector to help people in need.

Buildings and Ministries Expand...

Under the Rev. Morris F. (Ben) Arnold (1950-72), plans for a new sanctuary were revived, engaging the entire parish for several years. The new church, post-modern in design, was consecrated on Palm Sunday, 1957. Arnold led the parish to several firsts: clergy staff increased to three assistants; African Americans were confirmed in 1959 in our first step toward racial integration; the first women were elected to the vestry in 1965; and our first African-American priest, the Rev. John Mason, was called to the staff in 1967.

As Cincinnati's urban renewal moved residents away from the river, urban unrest shook the city and helped redirect our mission again. Arnold boldly took a lead role in forming an ecumenical, inner-city ministry for social and economic justice for African American and Appalachian populations. The church hosted many participants over night in the Poor People's March to Washington, D.C. in 1968.

Under the Rev. Edward Sims (1972-84), Christ Church responded to the refugee crisis created by the Vietnam War by sponsoring a Cambodian family. Members became more involved in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, serving the homeless at soup kitchens and the Drop-Inn Center, the children at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center (and in its child care facility), and the patients at the Crossroad Health Center. In the parish house, we created space for the Downtown Montessori School to provide full-time daycare to 80 children with multicultural backgrounds.

The 1970s were not easy years for Christ Church. We struggled with issues such as a new Prayer Book, an updated Hymnal and the ordination of women. Sims steadfastly led the parish into contemporary theology with new liturgies and music; he added both African Americans and women to the clergy staff. In support, the vestry undertook the renovation of the church sanctuary in 1983. This included reconfiguring the chancel space for flexible worship use, upgrading mechanical systems and updating the 1950s interior. Our Community Issues Forum began to sponsor public panels on civic issues. This forum continues today, 2013, featuring downtown development, city governance, housing, homelessness, welfare reform, urban poverty, public education, safety and health issues.

Under an interim rector, the Rev. Milton Saville (1984-86), we started a Native American project, began the Plumb Line rental assistance program, and hosted our first Taft lecture, featuring the Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of South Africa. Proceeds from the sale of our Felicity, Ohio church camp to the YMCA would provide endowed camperships for inner-city children to YMCA's Camp Ernst in Northern Kentucky, as well as for diocesan children to Procter Camp. Both continue today.

Under the Rev. James Snodgrass (1986-89), the parish enlarged our urban ministry by creating a mission fund from the general endowment. The Rev. Richard Harig (1989-91), working as an interim, helped us prepare for a new rector.

From Parish to Cathedral...

The Very Rev. James R. Leo (1991-98) became our first dean after Bishop Herbert Thompson approached him and Christ Church leaders about becoming the new cathedral church for the diocese. Southern Ohio had not had a cathedral since St. Paul's was torn down in 1937. Leadership agreed; a charter was drawn; and on Palm Sunday of 1993, Christ Church was consecrated as a cathedral.

In 1994, the vestry approved major restoration and renewal of the entire facility, except the chapel where worship services were held for 15 months. Our missions expanded to include the Anna Louise Inn and our Taft lecturer was Pulitzer Prize journalist Anna Quindlan. Following Dean Leo’s retirement, the Rev. Richard Harig (1998-1999) again helped us in our transition to a new leader.

The Very Rev. James A. Diamond (1999-2010) was elected our second dean and named the cathedral as a center of reconciliation, later supported by the Amos Project, an organization of churches and other religious groups dedicated to social justice. During his tenure, we strengthened Christian formation for children, with the introduction of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program, as well as for youth and adults; added healing ministries; expanded the music program led by a new director of music; and consolidated the mission endowment funds. Bells were installed in the Parish Hall through donations from members and others; the Cathedral Shop opened; and a website was launched.

In 2005, cathedral members led an effort to affiliate with the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati (IHN) to provide shelter four times a year, for one week at a time, to families who are homeless. After careful study in 2006, clergy and members created the 5000 Club as a more immediate response to those who were hungry and seeking assistance. This ministry feeds up to 200 neighborhood poor once a week. Both IHN and the 5000 Club host our guests in the undercroft.

Following Dean Diamond’s retirement, the Very Rev. Ronald DelBene (2010-13) and the vestry began moving forward with its strategic planning. The staff and vestry reviewed and updated internal policies and outdated practices. The interim dean initiated collegial discussions with Bishop Breidenthal and encouraged renewed and updated internal coordination and communication.

The music ministry expanded with city and children's choirs, broader selections for Music Live at Lunch and special concerts. In January 2011, the tallest skyscraper in the city opened across the street. In July 2012, the cathedral was honored to host two competition venues for the World Choir Games held in Cincinnati.

As the recession took its toll, the vestry and trustees revised their approach to endowment draws. This resulted in a frozen budget, with necessary program budget cuts from 2010-12, while still allowing some flexibility in pursuing new programs, e.g., art and choir camps, the El Hogar mission trips and the hiring of an associate director of music for the Cathedral Choir of Children and Youth.

The Very Rev. Gail E. Greenwell (2013 - ) was elected our third dean and, with the vestry’s enthusiastic consent, has initiated the cathedral’s bold Third Century Vision as we approach the two hundredth anniversary of Christ Church Cathedral on May 18, 2017.


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