In the middle of the 19th Century, the area of Cincinnati now called “Over-the-Rhine,” was a bustling, crowded neighborhood, filled with businesses, factories and homes. Here the great waves of German immigrants had come to settle, raise families and worship together. Many of them were Catholic, so many that, by the time St. Francis Seraph Church was under construction in 1859, there were already eight German Catholic congregations. The largest of these, St. John’s, had over 700 families, with over 400 Baptisms a year. It was under the care of the Franciscan Friars from the Austrian Tyrol, who had been recruited by Cincinnati Archbishop John Baptist Purcell to give pastoral care to German-speaking Catholics.
The phenomenal growth of the immigrant Catholic community by the middle of the century, coupled with the zeal of these friar-missionaries, led to the decision to establish a permanent foundation (known as a “custody”) for the Franciscans in Cincinnati. The Archbishop agreed to support the friars in opening a seminary and an elementary school, as well as a residence for priests and brothers, and St. Francis Seraph, a ninth parish for German Catholics, located at Liberty and Vine Streets, a city block distant from St. John’s. The grateful Franciscans named their new community the Custody of St. John the Baptist after the Archbishop’s patron saint.
The site was historic: 40 years before, in April 1819, the first Catholics in Cincinnati built “Christ Church,” a frame building in the area known as the “Northern Liberties,” just beyond the city limits. A Catholic cemetery was marked out next to the church. In March 1822, Edward Fenwick, first bishop of Cincinnati, took possession of Christ Church as his cathedral. Later that year, the new bishop had Christ Church moved from Liberty and Vine Streets to a location downtown. The cemetery remained, while the city grew up around it.
In November 1858, the cornerstone was laid for the present St. Francis Seraph Church. The remaining bodies were entombed in a crypt below the altar of the new church, which was consecrated December 18, 1859.
Over the next years, the church acquired the ornate decorations favored by the German Catholics. In July 1864, two large church bells were consecrated. In March 1868, a bronze statue of St. Francis placed over the church doors. In 1869, and later again in 1875 and 1898, the church was adorned with frescoes, large paintings and other decorations.
A major change in the church building took place in 1907, coinciding with the building of a larger residence for the friars. The rear of the sanctuary was removed, and a choir for the friars added connecting with the friary. A new high altar, under a massive canopy or “baldachino” was added.
In 1912, a Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes was constructed in the rear of the church, and in 1914 the entire church redecorated for a fifth time. In 1925, extensive improvements to the exterior of the church resulted in the distinctive veneer of glazed brick which still looks reasonably fresh nearly 85 years later.
In 1950, the entire church was cleaned, interior decorations simplified, and—most significantly—the sanctuary was renovated, with the removal of the baldachino. The interior would remain largely untouched until the 1970s, when the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council prompted removal of the high altar and communion railings, and the construction of a large platform with a simple altar for concelebration. The ceiling frescoes and other painted decorations disappeared under the simplified look favored by church renovation in those years.
In 2000, St. Francis Seraph Church was remodeled once again, removing the 1970s platform and altar, constructing a new sanctuary floor and altar, restoring the original sanctuary steps and replacing the entire floor of the main church. A baptismal pool was added in the rear of the church. Some years later, acoustical panels, matching the wall colors were added, and four historic painting, part of the 19th-century altar panels, were brought from storage to grace the side-altar shrines to St. Francis and the Blessed Virgin.