Irish in Cincinnati

1788 - First ferry service in Cincinnati established by Francis Kennedy

1788 – First ferry service in Cincinnati established by Francis Kennedy

Procter & Gamble factory built in 1837 at Central Avenue and York Street in Cincinnati

Procter & Gamble factory built in 1837 at Central Avenue and York Street in Cincinnati

The Irish were among the first settlers in the Cincinnati area and have been present in Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1790 to the present day.  In the last two hundred years, several famous Irish immigrants were responsible for changing the direction of the city in positive ways.  Francis Kennedy was the first Irishman to settle in Cincinnati, arriving in 1788 by boat.  He later started a ferry service linking all the villages along the Ohio River and New Orleans.  Another dedicated Irishman was Joseph Lloyd, who in 1791 established the first school, teaching students in a log cabin.  Another industrious Irish Cincinnati resident was James Gamble, who in 1828 opened a soap and candle factory along Walnut Street.  Using the byproducts of the city’s thriving meatpacking business, within ten years James and his partner William Proctor had a booming business at the intersection of Central Avenue and York Street. Today, one hundred seventy seven years later, Procter and Gamble remains a major company still based in downtown Cincinnati, known around the world for its products.

Debate 1837

Poster advertising the unprecedented week-long debate between two Irishmen, Campbell and Purcell

In antebellum Cincinnati, tensions were high among the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the small but growing Irish Catholic population.  Cincinnati with its diverse population and mix of culture was a center for debates on controversial issues that would define the nation. In January of 1837, two Irish ministers, one Catholic and one Protestant, held a week long debate to address religious intolerance.  Anti-Catholic sentiment was prevalent throughout America, but growing increasingly hostile in Cincinnati. Archbishop John B. Purcell defended the Catholic religion and the role of the Pope.  Baptist Reverend Alexander Campbell justified the Reformation and questioned Catholic teachings as being undemocratic and reliant on foreign powers.[1] The much-anticipated debate became national news and resulted in a stalemate with each of the rival religions claiming victory. The debate made history; it was the first time an American Catholic bishop held an oral debate with a Protestant minister.[2]  To facilitate and promote Catholicism in Cincinnati, two Irish brothers, John and James Selvin, built a seminary on Price Hill. Later, in 1851, two more Irish brothers would build St. Mary’s Seminary.

Remarkably, when the diocese of Cincinnati began in 1821, there were less than a dozen

A determined and defiant Archbishop John B. Purcell in 1863

A determined and defiant Archbishop John B. Purcell in 1863

Catholic families living in the city, yet less than forty years later, the Catholic Church had become the largest single denomination in the country.[3]  Cincinnati badly needed an Irish Catholic church for its growing number of Irish residents, numbering 13,000 by the 1850s. There were two Catholic churches in Cincinnati before 1830. The first was Christ Church on Vine Street built in 1819; and the second was Saint Francis Xavier Church on Sycamore Street constructed in 1826.  St. Francis Xavier Church served as the diocesan church for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati until 1845.

Sarah Worthington King Peter

Sarah Worthington King Peter

Archbishop John Purcell sent Sarah Worthington King Peter, a prominent and well respected Catholic convert, to Ireland in 1857 to ask some of the Sisters of Mercy to relocate to her hometown. The Sisters of Mercy who returned with Sarah Peter established their convent in Sarah Peter’s house, later moving to Sycamore Street in Over-the-Rhine. The Sisters of Mercy are still serving the Cincinnati area 150 years after arriving in the Queen City.

 One of Cincinnati’s most significant Catholic Institutions was the city’s influential newspaper: The Catholic Telegraph.  While this local Catholic newspaper served all Catholics, it primarily focused on the Irish Catholic community, connecting lost relatives and reporting news from Ireland.[4]  The newspaper, however, was best known for expressing Archbishop Purcell’s forceful opinions and reflecting the fearless viewpoint of the Telegraph’s Irish editor.  The newspaper discussed contentious moral issues, particularly the problem of slavery and bigotry aimed at Catholics. The Catholic Telegraph was one of the few Catholic newspapers in the region to actively promote antislavery and attack other Catholic newspapers that took a neutral stance on slavery.[5] The newspaper’s bold statements were tangible beacons of hope and reform not only for Cincinnati, but also for the entire nation.

[1] Roger Fortin, Faith and Action (Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 2002), 102.
[2] Roger Fortin, Faith and Action (Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 2002), 103.
[3] Roger Fortin, Faith and Action (Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 2002), xi
[4] Kevin Grace, Images of America Irish Cincinnati (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2012), 53.

[5] Kevin Grace, Images of America Irish Cincinnati (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2012), 53.

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