Catholic worship at the site of Marietta dates from 1749, when Jesuit Father Joseph de Bonnecamp, chaplain to a French expedition from Quebec, celebrated Mass at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. In the 1830s a priest from Wheeling occasionally ministered to the few Catholics in Marietta, saying Mass in “the little brick house of one Felix McGuire” at the corner of South Fifth and Hart Streets. By 1838 the Catholic population of the area was large enough that John B. Purcell, Bishop of Cincinnati, appointed Father James McGaffrey the first resident priest in Washington County.
In 1837 the bishop had purchased two lots on South Fourth Street, on one of which was a small structure. The lower floor of this building served as a place of worship until 1853, when the first St. Mary’s Church on the adjacent lot was built. During the pastorate of Father J.D. Ryan (1862-1870), the church building was condemned as no longer safe for public meetings. The weight of the roof had caused the walls to spread outward. There was some discussion at the time to build a new church away from the floodplain, but the parish chose to repair the church on South Fourth Street, to strengthen the walls and add supports to the roof. In the 1870s the church was “handsomely frescoed” and stained glass windows installed.
During the next decade, the spire was added and a peal of three bells placed in the tower. (The bells would later be moved to the new church, where they still intone the Angelus.) The flood of 1884, rising above the main altar in old St. Mary’s, was followed by inundations in 1891, 1895, and 1898. At last the congregation accepted the necessity of moving to higher ground and in 1900 unanimously approved the purchase of a lot at the corner of Fourth and Wooster Streets for a new church. At that time St. Mary’s parish had about 1000 members.
A large house stood on the new church site. Once known as Putnam Hall, it had been a college for young women. At the behest of the pastor, Father Francis M. Woesman, a firm from Chicago moved the building to the north side of the property and placed it on a new foundation. It still serves as the parish rectory. The removal took four weeks and cost $3000. Meanwhile, Emile M. Uhlrich, a Cleveland architect, drew plans for the new church in what he described as “Spanish Renaissance” style, a blend of Romanesque and Baroque. It was to be a grand structure.
Father Woesman, his Advisory Committee, and several other members of the congregation broke ground for the church on July 1, 1903. The contractors for the foundation completed it that season. On June 12, 1904, James J. Hartley, D. D., Bishop of Columbus, laid the cornerstone. About that time contracts for the stonework went to a Cleveland firm and for the carpentry to C. W. Dowling of Marietta. Workmen “enclosed” the building in July 1905. There was then a two-year lapse in construction while subscriptions were paid and a new campaign for funds launched. Work resumed in 1907 when contracts were let for the stucco, mosaic, and other decorative work. On December 12, 1909, Bishop Hartley consecrated the new St. Mary’s Church and celebrated the first Pontifical High Mass in Marietta.
“The church, according to the Marietta Daily Times (December 13, 1909), “is of marvelous beauty, no pains having been spared to make it a place worthy of dedication to the services of God.” The building rises from a platform ten feet above Fourth Street to a height of more than 100 feet and stretches in excess of 150 feet along Wooster Street. The vestibule leads to the long nave with its massive pillars that direct the eye upward to the great dome at the crossing of the transept and ahead to the representation of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on the wall of the apse. According to the careful accounting of the Treasurer of the Advisory Committee, the church cost slightly under $129,000, of which almost $100,000 came from subscriptions by individuals and Societies of the Parish.” The smallest recorded contribution was ten cents (the widow’s mite?), the largest, from Father Woesman, was over $4000. By 1916 the parish was free of debt.
One of the glories of the church, the stained glass windows, replaced clear glass about the time of the First World War, for it is said that the windows on either side of the transept and over the balcony, ordered from Munich, Germany, came through the British blockade on continental Europe. The large paintings in the transept are also the work of German artists. The elaborately decorated church of the early twentieth century remained virtually unchanged until the 1970s when the interior was lightened and simplified with the removal of the high altar, the altar rail, and much of the sanctuary.
A major restoration project was undertaken in 2008-2009. In addition to necessary repairs to structural elements and electrical systems, the restoration sought to bring into harmony the present-day liturgical and functional needs with the splendor of St. Mary’s architecture. Permanent liturgical fixtures were installed, including a new altar, ambo, baldachin and baptismal font, each constructed of Bottochino and white Carrara marble. New pieces of artwork were commissioned (the Crucifixion statue, the Holy Family statue, the Mother of Perpetual Help Icon and oil paintings depicting the Stations of Light) and previous works of art were refurbished to enhance liturgical and devotional celebrations.
The most dramatic episode in the parish’s history occurred on June 13, 2013, when Pope Francis approved a decree establishing St. Mary’s as the 76th basilica in the United States, recognizing its historic significance and artistic splendor. As a basilica, St. Mary’s shares a special relationship with the See of Rome and the Holy Father. Entitled to make use of the Papal symbols, including the Papal Keys, the Umbrellino and Tintinnabulum, a basilica is established as a special place of prayer and pilgrimage. The basilica was inaugurated at a solemn Mass on November 5, 2014.
Until 1868 Marietta was in the diocese of Cincinnati, then the Diocese of Columbus until 1945. In that year the newly-created Diocese of Steubenville included southeast Ohio. Eighteen pastors have served St. Mary’s, from Father McCaffrey to Monsignor John Michael Campbell, the current pastor.
St. Mary School
An important part of St. Mary’s parish is St. Mary’s School.
The first attempt at founding a school took place in the 1850s. Fr. R. P. O’Neill established a School Society to raise funds for a future school in 1855. Fr. O. A. Walker, who succeeded Fr. O’Neill, attempted to establish a school. John Sheridan, brother of General Philip Sheridan, was hired as the first teacher for the one-room school. It was first located on the first floor of the building (a former grocery store) that had served as the original church and rectory for the newly formed St. Mary congregation. In 1858 the basement of the church was converted into a school room. This educational project was not well supported by the congregation and ultimately failed after only five years. It was not until more than thirty years later that a school was successfully established.
During the pastorate of Fr. Francis Woesman, a school building was constructed and St. Mary School was firmly established. On September 7, 1896, “a little band” of five Dominican sisters “inaugurated the new venture.” Enlarged in 1898, the school building on South Fourth Street survives in the year 2000 as the headquarters of a commercial company.
From 1909 until 1927 St. Mary’s children attended classes in the basement of the new church. In the latter year, the parish built a school on Fifth Street to accommodate twelve grades. Shortly thereafter St. Mary’s High School moved to a new building on Scammel Street, which after the discontinuance of the high school became the middle school.
In 1988 the parish bought the former public school building at Fourth and Marion Streets and consolidated classes there. The new St. Mary’s School opened on August 29 of that year. While sisters no longer staff the school an able and caring faculty continue to hold the school to a high standard and to prepare their young charges for meaningful lives in the twenty-first century.