The St. Anthony Messenger has a story this month about one of Cincinnati’s most unique and enduring Catholic traditions: the praying of the steps at Holy Cross-Immaculata Church.
Susan Hines-Brigger gives a good account of the origins of the church and the tradition, which began 150 Good Fridays ago:
Credit for the tradition rests solely on the shoulders of Cincinnati’s first archbishop, John J. Purcell. He built the Church of the Immaculata to fulfill a promise he had made to the Virgin Mary while sailing back from Rome. The ship encountered a terrible storm at sea and the archbishop promised that, if he survived, he would build a church to honor Mary in Mt. Adams, Cincinnati’s highest hill, which overlooks the city from the east.
He did survive, and in 1859, Archbishop Purcell stayed true to his word and laid the cornerstone for the church. He purchased the land, donated the stone and personally supervised construction of the church from start to finish. Some reports say he gave $10,000 of his own money to fund the project.
But my favorite footnote to that story, which I stumbled across years ago while looking at the microfilmed archives of the Catholic Telegraph, begins 16 years prior with the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams. (To whom Mount Adams owes its name.)
In 1843, during the nascent anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” movement, Adams came to what was then Mount Ida to dedicate an astrological observatory overlooking downtown.
In what would be his last public speech, the 77-year-old former president declared, “This observatory is to be a beacon of true science that should never be obscured by the dark shadows of superstition and intolerance symbolized by the Popish Cross.”
When Archbishop Purcell laid the cornerstone for the Church of the Immaculata 16 years later, he saw to it that the cross atop the steeple was just a foot higher than the observatory.
By 1873, the observatory moved to a neighborhood farther from downtown to escape the dark shadows of smoke and haze from the city below. (It still exists today in Mount Lookout as the oldest professional observatory in the United States.) The Passionist fathers acquired it for a church and monastery, and Archbishop Purcell dedicated it as Holy Cross Church on Sunday, June 22.
His homily that day: “The Triumph of the Cross.”