‘God Give His Grace:’ Franciscan Friars in the Archdiocese
On July 23, 1844, Father Wilhelm Unterthiner, a 35-year-old Franciscan priest of the Tyrolese Province of St. Leopold, got off a steamer coming from Portsmouth. He had traveled from Austria to answer Bishop John Baptist Purcell’s urgent request for more priests to serve German-speaking immigrants. Francis Louis Huber was the first friar in Cincinnati (1839), but his Bavarian province was unable to send other friars. He eventually returned to Europe in 1849.
The title above is taken from the letter Father Unterthiner immediately began to his superior in Tyrol, describing preparations for his first sermon at Holy Trinity Church on East Fourth Street. God has indeed given His grace for the life and ministry of the 33 Tyrolese friars who followed Him and the young men who later joined the Order in Cincinnati. The Custody of St. John the Baptist, established in 1859, became a province of the Order in 1885.
Priests and brothers served at St. John Parish, St. Clement, St. Francis Seraph, St. Bonaventure, St. George, Thomas Aquinas, and Corpus Christi, all in Cincinnati, and at several mission stations near Portsmouth, Ohio. They also served at St. Stephen in Hamilton; St. Francis of Assisi in Bellbrook; and in Hispanic ministry in Cranberry Prairie, in the norther part of the Archdiocese. Brothers served as cooks, porters, sacristans, tailors, teachers, and in many other ministries, tending to sink deeper roots locally as compared to the priests, who were transferred more often.
To encourage young men to join the Order, the friars in 1858 established St. Franziskus Gymnasium, a high school at Liberty and Vine. It later moved to Republic Street and eventually relocated north of Mt. Healthy and was renamed St. Francis Seminary. In 1928, they opened Roger Bacon High School for young men. It became coed in 1984. They opened St. Anthony Shrine on Colerain Avenue in 1888. The friars preached parish missions, retreats, and 40 Hours services, establishing Friarhurst Retreat Center east of Mariemont. Their ministry of the Word led to accepting editing responsibilities for Der Sendbote des Gottlichen Herzens Jesu (1874-1946) and the founding St. Franziskus Bote (1892-1917), and St. Anthony Messenger (1893 to present). The latter apostolate eventually expanded into Franciscan Media, headquartered at 28 West Liberty Street.
In 1898, Cincinnati friars began ministering among the Navajos, Pueblo Native Americans, and Hispanic Catholics in Arizona and New Mexico. Cincinnati’s sons of St. Francis soon went to China, the Holy Land, the Philippines, Japan, Jamaica, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, and Uganda. Father Valentine Schaaf, originally from St. Joseph Parish on Linn Street, served on the Order’s general council (1939-1945) and as its worldwide leader (1945-46).
The friars established Friars Club and have served as chaplains at hospitals, for communities of religious sisters, and since 1990, at St. Clare Monastery in Cincinnati. They have also assisted Secular Franciscan fraternities throughout the Archdiocese and Cincinnati’s Kolping Society.
In 2000, the Vice Province of the Most Holy Savior (originally a Pittsburgh-based custody of the Slovak Province) united with St. John the Baptist Province. That same year, nine coworkers of the friars in Ohio and other states went to Rome and Assisi to deepen their appreciation for the Franciscan/Clarian charism within the Church. The program continued through 2020, when it was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
St. John the Baptist Province is one of six U.S. OFM provinces that will merge in 2023 with its name and headquarters yet to be decided.
Whatever the future brings, God’s grace continues to be given generously and awaits an equally generous response.