1902 - Founding


A period of 50 years embraces the greater part of the average human life, and the remembrance of the events at the beginning of such a cycle is sometimes hazy. However, this chronicling will be substantially accurate, for the events have been culled from the diocesan archives, old parish records, and the Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph, or have been told by a few whose clear memories and fond recollections of the sacrifices and inconveniences of those pioneer days, at the beginning of the twentieth century, are yet quite vivid.

For many years, what is now known as Fort Thomas was called The Highlands, probably because its terrain is some 300 feet above the Ohio River. When, by an act of Congress in 1887, a Military Post was to be established in these parts, the necessary ground was acquired and the Army headquarters set up. It was named Fort Thomas in honor of General George Henry Thomas - the "Rock of Chickamauga" in the Civil War. The Post's buildings were erected over a period of years, and the first soldiers occupied them in 1890. By an act of the legislature in Frankfort in 1912, The Highlands became officially Fort Thomas.

The Catholic families living in this territory in the 1890s probably numbered no more than 25. They attended Mass in Newport, Cold Spring, and John's Hill, despite poor roads, slow horses, and antiquated vehicles. As the development of the Fort brought more businesses and families to the area, establishing a local church was discussed. In 1894, the Fort Thomas Land Company offered to arrange the donation of four large lots south of Saint Stephen Cemetery (an area later taken for Interstate 275), and on behalf of local Catholic families, the acting chaplain at the Fort, Father John Gleeson, sought the approval of Bishop Camillus Maes. His letter described pledges of $575 towards construction of a church, with more assured. However, the protests of the pastor of Saint Joseph, Cold Spring, who feared the loss of families from his small parish, convinced the Most Reverend Bishop to reject the offer. If a Highlands church were to be built, a more northerly location should be sought.

At some point, local Catholic families began to attend Holy Mass at the Military Post. The March 12, 1896, issue of the Catholic Telegraph reported: "In the course of the last week, a new altar was placed in the school room of the Fort Thomas Catholic School which is used for divine service by the Catholics of the Fort." The school referred to here was doubtless the private secular school that was conducted of the Post for the children of the army personnel. "The members of the little congregation were charmed with the altar and expressed their willingness to defray the cost and supply the necessary altar requisites. The said altar was used the first time last Sunday. Father Gleeson is the attending priest." He was also the chaplain at the Convent of the Good Shepherd, an orphanage with spacious grounds on Highland Avenue near the Alexandria Pike. Succeeding Father Gleeson at Good Shepherd and as acting Army chaplain was Father James Huggard, who celebrated Mass for the military and civilian populations in the years 1896 and 1897.

The Spanish-American War broke out in the early spring of 1898, and Army chaplain Father Edward Vattman traveled with the Sixth Infantry to Cuba and then to their headquarters at Fort Thomas. His wonderful personality and extreme kindness to wounded men, irrespective of color or creed, made him a most sought gentleman as an after-dinner speaker and a preacher for special occasions. He, like his predecessors, said Mass at the Post, usually in a little farm house near the corner of River Road and Fort Thomas Avenue. Partitions had been removed to make the house a recreational center, and on Sunday it served as an improvised chapel with a temporary altar. The arranging of linens and decorations was a labor of love by the good ladies of the neighborhood. No pews, few chairs, no cassocks for servers, no communion rail or cloth, and worshipers knelt on the none-too-clean rough floor - a far cry from today's padded kneelers.

The first public chapel in our midst in which Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament was reserved and adored was in Father Vattman's residence. According to the Catholic Telegraph of August 11, 1898: "The ladies of Fort Thomas and vicinity with characteristic thoughtfulness furnished a beautiful little chapel in Father Vattman's residence where Mass is daily celebrated. At frequent intervals during the day the brave heroes who unflinchingly faced the dreadful carnage of battle may be seen kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament and returning thanks to Almighty God for the success of the American army."

Father Vattman's transfer in January of 1899 left the little band of Catholics without the consolations of Sunday Mass. In response to their appeal, Bishop Maes sent them Father Peter McDonald, who had been chaplain at the Convent of the Good Shepherd since July 1898. He traveled to the Fort each Sunday to celebrate Mass, until being sent West in the summer of 1900 because of illness. This zealous young Levite died two years later.

Father Mathias Leick, on becoming chaplain of the Convent of the Good Shepherd in July 1900, was also given care of the spiritual needs of the little congregation of civilians as well as the Military Post. The Most Reverend Bishop further directed him to canvass the territory, ascertain the number of families, and assess their desire for a church of their own. Their determination to have a church was already evidenced by a number of notices in the Catholic Telegraph for entertainments designed to raise money. While all were convinced of the need, one serious problem divided them: where to locate the church. One group was emphatic that it should be south of the Military Post, while others favored the north. In 1899, the Fort Thomas Land Company again offered lots beyond Saint Stephen Cemetery, which Bishop Maes again declined.

Between March 1900 and March 1901, many letters passed between Leonard J. Crawford, an attorney who lived on Highland Avenue, and Vishop Maes, regarding some real estate on Grand Avenue. The Grand Avenue turnpike was a new road into FNewport that had opened in 1888. Crawford owned property at the foot of what is now Tremont Avenue - at the time a densely wooded hillside - and he offered to donate two lots for the erection of a church. Furthermore, with the help of Edward J. McDermott, a Louisville attorney and former Lieutenant-Governor of Kentucky, he induced the heirs of the adjoining Fitch property to donate two lots, creating a total parcel of 200 by 400 feet.

However, trouble arose when Father Leick's flock learned of these negotiations. The steep Fitch-Crawford land was far from ideal for a large building, and those with businesses near the Fort or along Alexandria Pike hoped to find a closer site, although the real estate boom had started and prices were rapidly rising.

Late in December 1900, Father Leick called a meeting, where the vote was 18 against and 12 in favor of accepting the Crawford-Fitch donation. Bishop Maes expressed deep regret at this decision, asking why a struggling congregation would rather but its own property, in addition to bearing the cost of construction. However, he gave permission to secure another site, provided that it not be "in the Neighborhood of any part of the notorious Midway," the area opposite the Fort where, in fact, several Catholic families ran saloons and other businesses.

Father Leick chose a land search committee, balancing aye and nay voters, and they soon found that the only suitable lots were in the Military Park development, for some $2,000. But when the Covington Waterworks refused to grant any private right of way, all Military Park plans halted. Now the Crawford-Fitch lots, which were not far from Military Parkway, were the only alternative. Deeds for the joint gift by these generous non-Catholic donors were sent to the Bishop on March 9, 1902.

In August 1901, Bishop Maes appointed a church building committee to draw up plans for Grand Avenue. The proposed edifice, combining church and school in a two-story brick building, was expected to cost $10,000. Early in April 1902, Father Leick turned the first spade of ground, while members of his congregation knelt in prayer and asked God to bless their undertaking. The work was pushed as rapidly as possible, and on August 3, 1902, the Very Reverend Ferdinand Brossart, Vicar General (in the absence of the Bishop, who was in Europe), laid the cornerstone in the name of St. Thomas the Apostle. Father James Gorey, secretary to the Bishop, preached in English; as was common in those days, a second priest preached in German as well. According to a young curate (Father Herbert Hillenmeyer), upon returning to the Cathedral rectory the Vicar General was heard to groan, "What a place for a church!"

At $6,500 the building cost less than anticipated, but it proved extremely inconvenient. Because Grand Avenue had a broad right of way, new construction had to be set well back from the street. This forced the parish building to be far above the street level, necessitating some fifty steps before one arrived at the second-floor church - a tedious, difficult climb for the aged and infirm.

The building was ready for occupancy for the patron's feast, December 21, 1902, a happy day for the struggling little congregation. At last they had a church in which Jesus could be offered, received, and adored. Moreover they had tow classrooms for the beginning of a school, to be taught by Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence. The dedication and blessing of the building was performed by Most Reverend Camillus P. Maes, the Mass was offered by the pastor, Father Leick, and the sermon was by Father Joseph Benke.

Classes for grades 1 through 6 began in January 1903 under the direction of Sister Mary Balbina Kuter, who came daily from Mount Saint Martin's the CDP provincial house in Newport. Her companion, Sister Mary Eugenia Marck, the second principal, was responsible for the collection of money with which to purchase a beautiful baptismal font still in use in 1952, one of the few relics of the Grand Avenue church. Father Leick continued his solicitous care of the congregation until 1906, when he was transferred to Corpus Christi, Newport. That September, the addition of an eighth grade made the elementary school complete.

Father Aloysius Roell labored as pastor of Saint Thomas parish for 11 years, traveling for many years by horse and buggy from the Convent of the Good Shepherd and later rooming with a parish family. Everyone recognized that the Grand Avenue building was far from ideal and that future growth would require a change of location. Accordingly, Father Roell and his church committee asked Bishop Maes to approve the purchase of 125 feet facing Fort Thomas Avenue at the corner of East Villa Place, then called Hills Court. A fwooden building there proved useful for lawn fetes, suppers, and other entertainments for money-raising projects. The congregation was steadily growing, and all worked like beavers to increase the parish's bank account.

In the spring of 1917 Father Martin Delaney succeeded Father Roell, who had been transferred to Sacred Heart Church, Bellevue. The new pastor endeared himself to everyone in the community by his genial disposition. He purchased a house for a rectory at the southeast corner of Fort Thomas Avenue and Villa at a cost of $6,500, but was soon transferred to Saint Stephen.

Father Thomas Coleman, a charming Irishman who arrived in May 1918, was the first occupant of the new rectory. During the ravages of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which took so many lives throughout the nation and even in his own parish, he endeared himself to many by his kindness to the sick and dying. During his administration, a 60-foot lot was added to the parish holdings on Fort Thomas Avenue. Like his predecessor, Father Coleman served Saint Thomas parish only briefly, being appointed to Paris, Kentucky, in 1919. Before leaving, he let it be known that his successor would be another Irishman, Father "O'Hafen" - a wee exaggeration.

1920s - Growth


Father Otto Hafen, a native of Germany, became the fifth pastor of Saint Thomas in January 1920. He found it a trying assignment, for despite its Teutonic heritage this community exhibited strong anti-German sentiments after the Great War, no doubt influenced by the Military Post. Nonetheless, Father Hafen proved himself a loyal citizen of his adopted country and showed real patriotism in ministering to soldiers.

The parish population was growing fast as Fort Thomas continued to develop. Having acquired enough property on the north side of East Villa Place, Father Hafen and his church and his church committee thought it an opportune time to build another combined church and school building. Plans were drawn for a two-story yellow brick edifice over a large casement usable for gatherings. Unlike Grand Avenue, here the schoolchildren would do most of the climbing, for the three classrooms were situated above the church. Expecting a cost of $70,000, the parish was relieved when bids came in lower, at $55,000.

Excavation began in May 1920, and the cornerstone was laid on June 27, following a triumphant parade through the streets of the city by some 25 members of the clergy and several thousand of the laity. The Very Reverend Dean Mathias Leick, the first pastor of Saint Thomas, was delegated by Bishop Ferdinand Brossart to conduct the ceremonies. The post-war steel shortage delayed progress, but o February 20, 1921, Bishop Brossart dedicated the building to divine service and to Catholic education. Father Otto Hafen celebrated a High Mass, with Father Leick as the preacher. On February 23, some 90 children excitedly carried the last of their belongings uphill from the two Grand Avenue classrooms and took their places in the new building. The original parish home was quickly sold in 1912 to be converted into apartments.

With the increasing congregation, Father Hafen petitioned the Most Reverend Bishop for a third Mass. This was taken care of by several neighboring priests and eventually by the first assistant pastor, Father Francis DeJaco, who came in the fall of 1922. Four CDP Sisters were now teaching, and a fourth classroom had to be set up in the basement when 175 students enrolled for September 1924. To relieve the Sisters of the commute to and from Mount Saint Martin's in Newport, the parish bought a house opposite the school for $16,000, to serve as a convent for the expanding faculty.

When the East Villa building had been initially proposed, a number to older and childless families made a counter-proposal: Why not build a church on the Fort Thomas Avenue property and continue to hold classes in the 1902 Grand Avenue building? A separate structure for the school was clearly desirable, but the old building would need extensive and costly renovations, and being so far from the church would be inconvenient for liturgies. In 1924 Father Hafen had an architect draw up some sketches for a 300-seat church at the corner of Fort Thomas Avenue, where he had added another 100 feet of frontage. This idea went no further, for two reasons. The first, an exceedingly sad one, was the death of this cultured, esteemed, and zealous pastor, who after a brief illness was called home by the Good Shepherd on February 9, 1925. The second reason was the incredible influx of dozens of Children and many new families, which made building a small church ill advised.

When Father Herbert F. Hillenmeyer succeeded the lamented Father Hafen on March 1, 1925, he saw that a second basement classroom would be needed, as more than 200 students were expected in September. The alternative was to build rapidly, extending the original edifice and adding six classrooms. The church could remain in its three rooms on the first floor, with a fifth Mass added to relieve the congestion on Sundays.

On the advice of the church committee and with the approval of His Excellency, Bishop Francis W. Howard, the construction of the eastern half of the school got under way in late April, within two months of Father Hillenmeuer's arrival. Amazingly, the new wing was ready for students by Thanksgiving, at a cost of approximately $40,000. The debt when this addition was completed was about $33,000, which was liquidated in less than three years by - in their pastor's words - "one of the most energetic bodies of parishioners in the diocese."

Not satisfied with paying off the debt, they pressed forward in accumulating money for a separate church building, slackened only by the financial crisis of 1929-1930, which tied up the investments of the parish for several years. Impatient parishioners constantly prodded the pastor, asking, "Why all the delay in beginning our church?" Two answers were given: "Tell us how you can liquidate our frozen assets." And: "Why start a building in these unstable times and be compelled to assume a crushing debt that might take years to cancel?"

God was surely good to us, for while shrewd investors and institutions lost thousands in the stock market crash, Saint Thomas parish's loss on investments of $140,000 was less than $1,000.

1930s through 1950s - Expansion and Jubilee


In 1936 it last seemed propitious to plan a new church, as times were better and most investments now could be cashed. The first decision was the location. Over the years, the parish dad acquired 405 feet on Fort Thomas Avenue north of East Villa Place, good frontage but with a steep declivity from the street level. A structural engineer cautioned that it would require much substructure and filling, costing thousands of dollars. So the committee looked behind them, across East Villa, and decided to but up the remaining properties there for $38,000. The Minges cottage, which stood where today's campanile is located, was razed, as was the original rectory, which stood where the church's front door is today. The Donaldson home became the rectory, while the convent, which stood where the present sanctuary is located, was lifted up and moved along East Villa, landing next to the school and opposite the rectory. All this, of course, entailed a considerable expense and a great deal of dust, but it gave the new church a fine setting.

Parishioners were asked their preference: brick or stone? Stone would cost at least 20 percent more, but the majority desired it. Beautiful Saint Meinrad sandstone was selected for the interior, which would save much money in the years to come, as it needed no frescoes or paint. The exterior is Indiana Bedford limestone.

Once the diocesan building committee approved the plans, bids were sought. The concrete, stone, and carpenter work came to about $163,000, with architect's fees, plumbing, heating, electric wiring, and other minor items adding $37,000 more. Furniture, altar, communion railing, pulpit, organ, candlesticks, crucifix, ostensorium,bell and automatic ringer, and so on, brought the cost to approximately $250,000. Many of these items were gifts of generous members of the parish. Monsignor Hillenmeyer donated the figure paintings over the sanctuary. As only clear windows could be afforded, stained glass had to wait till the parish's 1952 Golden Jubilee.

Excavation for the church began in October 1937, and the cornerstone was laid by Bishop Francis W. Howard on March 6, 1938. The bell was blessed by Monsignor Hillenmeyer and dedicated to Our Immaculate Mother on August 28, 1938. His Excellency, Bishop Howard dedicated the church itself on Passion Sunday, March 26, 1939, assisted by some 20 of the clergy and attended by a capacity crowd of joyous parishioners who had longed for this event for many years. Finally, the three altars were consecrated on January 25, 1940, in a lengthy ceremony conducted by the pastor, as the Bishop's delegate, with the assistance of a number of the local clergy. At last Saint Thomas church was ready for daily use.

With the advent in 1945 of His Excellency, Bishop William T. Mulloy, another dream became a reality: the establishment of a parish high school. Some parish families sent their daughters to Our Lady of Providence and their sons to Newport Catholic High School or the rigorous Covington Latin School, but most parish teens attended Highlands High School. When Monsignor Hillenmeyer reported having 65 young men and women bereft of religious instruction and training, Bishop Mulloy approved starting a co-educational program, if the parish agreed to undertake the endeavor. Accordingly, the first year of high school began that September, attracting 20 freshmen from the 65 or so eighth-grade graduates; 13 of them continued through senior year, receiving their diplomas in 1948 from a beaming Monsignor Hillenmeyer.

The high school required more teaching Sisters, rendering the convent house on Villa Place overcrowded. It also lacked many basic amenities, so the parish purchased and remodeled a residence on Fort Thomas Avenue, across the street from the school yard, for some $30,000. In the fall of 1948, as soon as the Sisters moved out, the former convent became a school annex, used for typing classes, reading rooms, and the school library.

Establishing, this new convent reminded the parish anew of the incalculable service rendered by the Sisters of Divine Providence since opening day at the first Saint Thomas school in 1903. As co-workers with the pastors over the years, the Sisters gave the best possible training to the youth of the parish. They also exercised zealous care for the linens, vestments, and all that appertains to the decency of Divine Worship. Saint Thomas parish will always stand in debt to the Congregation of Divine Providence.

Much of what is written in any parish sketch will concern material development - land, buildings, and the like, and so on. While these things form a pleasant and satisfying picture, they would be worthless if our spiritual and cultural growth were neglected. Have we progressed as we should over the years? God alone can adequately judge. We must hope that our service to Him, the Giver of every best and perfect gift, has been fruitful and remains so. When we are weighed in the scales of Divine Justice, may we not be found wanting.

1950s through 1970s - Teaching and Serving


By the time of the parish's Golden Jubilee in 1952, we had 550 families, with 450 children in our two schools, instructed by the Reverend Assistants, the CDP Sisters, and a few lay teachers. The diocese had given part of the parish's original territory to Saint Catherine, which had been established in 1930 from pieces of Saint Thomas, Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Anthony, Sacred Heart, and Saint Bernard.

The year 1952 was also Monsignor Hillenmeyer's Golden Jubilee of ordination to the priesthood. He had received papal elevations to Monsignor, Domestic Prelate in 1936, and to Protonotary Apostolic in 1949; he became Vicar General of the diocese in 1949; and he served the diocese in many capacities during his four decades at Saint Thomas and even after his retirement.

When Monsignor Herbert F. Hillenmeyer, Protonotary Apostolic, Vicar General, retired on September 1, 1968, he had served as pastor of Saint Thomas parish for 43 and a half years. During his tenure the parish experienced tremendous growth, both spiritual and material, to which Monsignor's advocacy of Catholic schooling contributed greatly. His records indicate that over $3 million were donated by parishioners while he was at Saint Thomas. Five of our six buildings were erected at his instigation - five and a half, if we count his expansion of the 1920 church-school. All stand as visible reminders of his dedication to the people he served and loved.

At a cost of about $500,000, the high school building had been opened in 1956 for 137 parish teenagers. Despite their exodus, the 12-classroom school on East Villa remained incredibly crowded, holding 709 youngsters by 1959. To address this problem, the former convent was razed in 1960, making room for a new primary grade building, which cost $250,000. Enrollments peaked in 1964, when 1,056 students packed the parish campus: 759 in the lower grades and 297 in the high school. But the baby boom was over, and enrollments steadily declined thereafter.

In 1966, a new convent was completed and a new rectory begun, at a total cost of $300,000. These two buildings on East Villa were designed to accommodate the Sisters and Associate Pastors who had traditionally taught in the schools. Yet half the faculty was now lay, and America's decline in religious vocations had begun.

Free Catholic education, the American ideal, assumed an unending supply of teaching clerics and nuns. Lacking a tithing tradition, many parishes began to consider tuition to offset rising salaries and school costs. What rate would not excessively burden large and low-income families? What proportion should be borne by the parish as a whole? And would this change be accepted or disputed, when two generations had taken for granted that parochial schooling should be free?

Changes, especially those affecting the pocketbook, can be difficult to implement, requiring diplomacy and cooperation. The advent of parish councils and parish boards of education was in tune with the times, coinciding with the desire of most pastors for increased lay consultation, with lay predominance among parochial school faculties, and with the need for lay volunteers in countless areas of parish life.

Amid the sense of upheaval that followed Vatican II, a number of parish couples joined weekly prayer and discussion groups under the banner of the Christian Family Movement, finding in CFM support for their "domestic churches" as well as encouragement to serve others beyond their families. Many CFM members were leaders of parish organizations and volunteered in community outreach programs. Their CFM friendships and attitude of service still survive today.

On October 1, 1968, Monsignor Thomas B. Finn, Vicar General, was appointed to Saint Thomas, where an entire generation had grown up knowing only Monsignor Hillenmeyer as pastor. To take the measure of the parish, Monsignor Finn launched a year-long assessment, aided by a committee of 13 men and women. Their analysis of parish needs led to a capital funds campaign with two objectives: to retire the existing debt ($60,000, according to Monsignor Hillenmeyer's notes), and to perform facility renovations and repairs. The $200,000 campaign was conducted with professional assistance and quickly succeeded, so the work was soon underway.

After a quarter century of constant use, the church needed much attention. First, its entire interior was cleaned. The limestone, which cannot tolerate sandblasting, steam, or liquid cleansers, was rubbed with various grades of pumice stone. Much of the interior needed tuck-pointing. The ornate ceiling was washed and treated. The sanctuary dome, cleansed and retouched with gold leaf, unfortunately lost some of the original finely painted decoration visible in old photographs. The carved wood statues of Mary and Joseph regained their original beauty, new lighting fixtures were installed, and a portable wooden altar hastily set up to meet Vatican II guidelines was replaced by a permanent altar of the same marble as the high altar. Renovations and repairs extended to the school building, and the final touch was landscaping with trees and shrubs, to complete the beautiful setting for the parish buildings.

In 1972, Monsignor Finn arranged for the formation of adult and boys' choirs. Many parishioners auditioned, and soon the High Mass drew a crowd every Sunday. With-in five years the adult choir had 65 voices and a wide repertoire, old and new. The Schola choir of 35 young voices became a rewarding experience of camaraderie, service, and leadership for the boys.

In late spring of 1968, prior to Monsignor Finn's arrival, Bishop Richard H. Ackerman had urged all parochial schools to close their first grades, to alleviate overcrowding. Unfortunately, the ensuing exodus into the public school system was never fully reversed. Early in 1972 this restriction was lifted, but the need to provide organized religious instruction for public school children was clear. The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program for elementary through high school students was introduced in 1968. A parish priest directed the lay faculty of parishioners, who taught weekly. CCD enrollments grew steadily, and under the direction of Father John Kroger, 324 were registered in 1977.

Monsignor Hillenmeyer died at age 96 on February 24, 1975, mourned by thousands for his wisdom, leadership, and devotion to Catholic education. His vision and energy had helped to make our diocesan college, Thomas More College, a reality.

Sadly, the high school he had founded in 1945 for Saint Thomas was in crisis at the time of his death. Some families had decided they could not afford to pay tuition; others were satisfied with the public school and CCD; and the relentless demographic decline was shrinking the pool of students everywhere. By fall 1975, 16 faculty members were serving only 187 high school students, an expensive 1:12 ratio. Given a forecast of fewer than 100 students within three years, Monsignor Finn and the board of education made the controversial and deeply regretted decision to close Saint Thomas high school after 31 years.

One happy outcome was that in 1977 the grade school students could move into the renovated high school building, taking advantage of modern classrooms and science labs, a large cafeteria, a library, and a gym, all under one roof. The CCD program in turn benefited, gaining permanent classrooms and office space in the former grade school.

In June of 1977, Monsignor Finn established a consultative parish council, first assigning a large exploratory committee to lay the groundwork. The format chosen was an elected council of 12 lay members; the parish priests and a representative of the religious women of the parish were members ex officio. By church law, a parish council is advisory to the pastor, not a decision-making body, but effective parish councils broaden lay participation and representation in all areas of parish life. Similarly, the board of education exists to advise the pastor about parochial school, CCD and adult education concerns. Monsignor Finn had broadened the board's mandate to cover all aspects of Catholic education, not just the parish schools.

Vatican II (1963-1965) had underlined the importance of an active laity to the Church and to the secular world. Yet generous lay participation has been a hallmark of Saint Thomas parish from its inception. Individually and through a host of organizations, parishioners have reached out to Northern Kentucky, the diocese at large, and beyond. Newport's Brighton Center, Catholic Social Services (which Monsignor Finn led for almost 20 years), the Christian Appalachian Project, and many local charities have enjoyed steady support.

At the time of the parish's Diamond Jubilee in 1977, active groups included the just-formed parish council, the board of education, the adult choir and boys' Schola, the school's Mothers Club and Boosters, the Rosary Society for care of the altars, St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic Youth Organization for teens, and a Mission Club. Helping at Mass were servers, ushers, lectors, and lay distributors. Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops thrived, and each summer loyal aides braved sweltering heat for the perennially popular Vacation Bible School.

Aware that "when much has been given, much will be expected" (Luke 12:48), the laity of Saint Thomas have long accepted the mandates of Vatican II and the great traditions of this parish, in an attitude of willing service.

1980s through Present - The Next Generation


For the 75th anniversary of the parish, a gala celebration was held. Cherished photographs and memorabilia were on display, and the entire parish was invited for a Sunday afternoon of fun and nostalgia. A dinner honoring all former priests, Sisters, and teachers closed that fine day, which had been blessed by much laughter, sentiment, and rekindled friendships. Some compared it to the parish picnic, which on a lesser scale and with more silliness (remember the "papal" visit?) draws us all together at summer's end for sunshine and fellowship.

When Sister Mary Thomas, our seventeenth grade school principal, opened the fall session on August 25, 1980, it was unclear what lay ahead. After eight contentious years, the Continuous Progress Program of self-paced, multi-age small groups (today called "pods" and "ungraded classed") had been abandoned. Enrollment was 255 students, about half as large as when Sister Mary Thomas had taught math here back in 1966. The former primary building, now empty, was leased to a private day care center in 1980. Later, when the parish kindergarten and preschool opened, their proximity would prove mutually beneficial.

With numerous groups in the parish vying for scarce meeting spaces, in 1980 the parish council decided to make a multipurpose Activity Center, focusing on renovating the large basement hall of the 1920 Villa Place building. Its inaugural event was a reception in March 1981 for Bishop William A. Hughes, who had been installed in 1979 as the eighth Bishop of Covington. Also in 1981 the refurbished school cafeteria was formally named Hillenmeyer Hall and became available to rent for parties and receptions.

Soon after celebrating his Golden Jubilee of priesthood, Monsignor Thomas B. Finn retired as pastor after 12 and a half years. He had turned 70 on May 16 and retired on June 30, 1981, being replaced by Father Charles Hoffer, the eighth pastor of Saint Thomas.

Father Hoffer worked energetically with his parish council and finance council to develop a systematic maintenance plan for the parish's aging complex of buildings, and eventually created a contingency fund for emergencies and major needs, such as the 1987 installation of a stairway on the steep hill to the lower parking lot. A tithing program had been attempted under Monsignor Finn, and every year Father Hoffer likewise reminded us to count our blessing and return thanks to Him Who made us. Today's stewardship efforts remind us how good it feels to share some portion of our time, talents, and treasure, once we realize that their true source is Our Heavenly Father.

Father Hoffer quickly observed how the children of the parish love the Nativity scene at Christmas, breathing in the hay and pine, standing spellbound in the soft starlight. But the statues were chipped and faded after four decades. The crib set, given by the school children in 1939 (rumor has it that Monsignor Hillenmeyer helped their donations attain the requisite $500), was repaired for $2,000 in 1983. Eventually the wooden stable was also spruced up, and each year the scene reappears, to delight children of all ages.

Father Hoffer's enthusiastic support for the Renew program of prayer, scripture study, and personal witness encouraged over 500 parishioners to gather in small groups from 1982 through 1985, one of the largest turnouts in the diocese. The yearning for community and catechesis was no surprise to Father Hoffer, who had also weathered the turmoil and dissent that followed in the wake of Vatican II. Today's ongoing Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP) program similarly fills spiritual needs in community, as do our many informal prayer groups, the men's annual Marydale retreat, and the new FAMILIA experience for young parents.

When Father Hoffer heard from newcomers to the parish that they felt a lack of connection, he started a day-Preschool in 1984 and eventually took charge of the Vacation Bible School.

Parish council was similarly concerned that increasing turnover on the parish rolls, busy work schedules, and lack of leisure time were leaving us strangers in our own community. After several years of planning, the Christian Service Network was launched in 1986 to improve hospitality and ensure that our neighbors' needs were not overlooked. Many of the original CSN committees are still active, such as Bereavement, Transportation, and the Prayer Hotline. Currently, many CSN outreaches continue under the wide umbrella of the Parish Health Ministry program.

The Mothers Club took Saint Thomas school into the digital age in 1983 by purchasing three computers. Today technology investment makes sense, but at the time it took foresight and faith. In August 1984, the school enrollment was 214 students, the smallest since 1924. Only in hindsight do we see this as the end of two decades of decline. What preserved our parochial school? Besides the steady financial backing of the entire parish, and the faithful service of the Sisters of Divine Providence and the faculty, we had school families who just would not quit. Well represented in the parish council and on the board of education, they worked through the Boosters and the Mothers Club to provide both funding and vision for academics and extracurriculars. It was parent leadership that prompted the kindergarten's opening in 1985, a coordinated junior high for grades six through eight in 1987, and a preschool in 1994. Devotion, perseverance, and innovation have kept our parish school vibrant on the verge of its second cenury.

Sister Mary Karen Bahlmann, the eighteenth CDP Sister to serve as elementary school principal, arrived in 1987 with an insider's advantage. A Tomcat through grade school and high school, Sister Karen had also taught mathematics and religion here from 1973 to 1977. Sister Karen's energy, initiative, and concern for the school won many hearts. She organized the office, developed a Family Handbook of policies, and created orderly processes for long-term planning. This businesslike approach soon convinced the Mothers Club to abandon its time-consuming practice of line-item voting on school outlays. Trusting that their earnings would be wisely spent, busy mothers could now get updates on their many projects and close the meeting early, leaving time to socialize afterwards. In this way Mothers Club renewed its early ideal of bringing women together in friendship for the good of their children and the school.

The Boosters Club tirelessly runs all of Saint Thomas school's sports programs, maintains the gymnasium, and financially supports the computer and science programs. Their major source of income has always been the time-honored Turkey Festival just before Thanksgiving. Ticket prices have gone up since the first Penny Raffle in 1959 (for a quarter ton of groceries and a 20-pound live turkey caged in the rectory basement), but the crowds pressing at the booths and gobbling those delicious turkey dinners diminish not a whit.

The year 1989 marked 100 years of service by Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence in the Diocese of Covington. We owe a special debt of gratitude to this order, for 130 CDP Sisters taught in our parish. Fittingly, Saint Thomas was the host for a celebration of the Congregation of Divine Providence, which consisted of a Mass, reception, and dinner in Hillenmeyer Hall. The Sisters attending included 50 former teachers, who were met by dozens of delighted and grateful students.

On June 30, 1989, Father Charles Hoffer retired, to live in residence at Holy Cross Parish and plan his beloved summer trips to the Grand Canyon. Following a series of confusing announcements and retractions by the diocese, Father John Riesenberg found himself transferred to a position he had not solicited, as the ninth pastor of Saint Thomas.

Monsignor Finn had taken deliberate steps to create more lay responsibility within the parish. Father Hoffer had likewise encouraged lay involvement, from the finance and liturgy committees to social action and adult education. Now, Father Riesenberg invited the laity to lay plans and make things happen. Over the next several years, parish leaders examined their missions and evaluated their activities to decide how best to serve today's parish.

The concerns were many, but answers were not always easy to find. A 1991 parish census of every home within our boundaries found un-churched neighbors, unvisited homebound parishioners, and inactive members, showing a need for evangelism, hospitality, and stewardship. Parents exasperated by their wiggly children welcomed the Children's Liturgy of the Word program inaugurated in 1992. Paid staff expanded when a part-time Youth Minister, a Coordinator for Religious Education, and a business manager were hired. Given the busier households of today, volunteers are no less willing, but hard pressed to undertake major commitments.

Still, volunteers and generous individuals have always made a big difference to the state of Saint Thomas parish. CCD (now PREP), the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and the liturgy committee rely on a cadre of devoted lay assistants. The success of the Diocesan Appeal became an annual event thanks to an army of helpers. In 1992, several families arranged to replace the gym's unsafe bleachers, and between 1992 and 1993 the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes was renovated by a small group of devoted volunteers. In 1994, thanks to generous donors the preschool was opened on the lower level of the Activity Center, thus serving young families while also generating income for the parish. No individual can be singled out without slighting a dozen others, so we give no names here and simply promise, as Father Hoffer always said, "Low pay, but the benefits are out of this world."

Faced with deepening debt as school salaries rose, facilities aged, and giving levels remained low, in 1994 the parish council authorized a capital campaign. A consulting firm helped clarify the needs: physical plant improvement, debt elimination, comprehensive religious education, and an endowment. The campaign raised nearly $650,000 in pledges by 1996. Another fund raiser, the first Parish Festival, was launched on Labor Day weekend in 1994, drawing heavily on the Boosters' Turkeyfest expertise.

The year 1994 also brought a nominal school tuition of $500, raised in 1995 to $1250. It was still too low, relative to actual costs, and the continuing debt forced faculty cutbacks. Eventually, in 1996, a formal tuition assistance program was instituted, to ensure that no parish child would be kept from our school by financial need. This combination of pragmatism and charity was perfectly in tune with the new Bishop of Covington, Robert Muench, who was installed on March 19, 1996, and in 1997 launched an educational endowment to support all diocesan schools.

Remember the 1902 Grand Avenue church? In the early 1929s its bell came to the new church-school on East Villa, where it sat on the roof in a small wooden shelter for 75 years. In the fall of 1998, cleaned up (and clapper silenced), the parish's original bell became the centerpiece of a new garden alongside the church, the gift of Monsignor Herbert F. Hillenmeyer's family in Lexington. With its historic bell, evergreens, and seasonal flowers, this garden beautifully symbolizes the continuity and the change that attend every long-lived community.

The arrival of our first lay principal in 1999 was another such symbol, embodied in Ms. Sharon Bresler, whose confidence and faith-filled enthusiasm created a sense of exciting opportunity. With the support of the parents and a dedicated, talented faculty and staff, our parish school enters its second century firmly committed to both scholastic achievement and spiritual development for our next generation.

The year 1999 brought another arrival, our tenth pastor, the Very Reverend William B. Neuhaus, V.F. Father Neuhaus Invited three retired priests - Fathers Albert Ruschman, Lawrence Robotnik, and Louis Brinker - to share the large rectory, and their generous participation in parish life has even extended to classroom visits, to the children's edification and delight. When the Knights of Columbus needed a new meeting -place, Father Neuhaus offered the parish's hospitality to them as well, honored to host a group that has long stood for the sanctity of human life. He has encouraged the Youth Group to be active - for instance, in erecting 4,000 small crosses showing abortion's daily toll - and recently joined with Saint Catherine to hire a trained youth minister to help all our teens live the faith we share.

Father Neuhaus's reverence for the Holy Eucharist struck a chord with many parishioners, and in 2001 a beautiful Perpetual Adoration Chapel was opened in the former convent, now known as Providence Center. "Could you not watch one hour with Me?" (Matthew 26:40). Hour by hour the faces change, but the devotion is unceasing. The special intention at the Chapel, selected by Father Neuhaus, is vocations to the priesthood. As head of the Priests' Senate, Dean of the Campbell County Deanery, active member of many diocesan committees, and a diocesan consultor, Father Neuhaus knows well how many demands are placed on today's clergy.

Saint Thomas parish has flourished in many ways over this century, yet vocations to the religious life have been rare recently, as in most American parishes. Remarkably, at the time of our centennial two of the diocese's six seminarians come from Saint Thomas. Barely a month after his July 2002 installation, Bishop Roger Foys made his first visit to Saint Thomas in order to confer the rite of candidacy upon a son of the parish, in a beautiful concelebrated Mass amid glorious song.

The parish centennial celebration in September 2002 was launched with a mission preached by Monsignor Ralph W. Beiting. The centennial weekend included a reunion for alumni of the parish schools, a dinner and dance, and special Mass for the dedication of the Centennial Plaza. The ensuing ice cream social was a sweet reminder of how our parish used to gather in days gone by.

What is the challenge for our next century as a parish? Perhaps what it has always been: To live our vocations sacredly, whatever they may be. To form families who live their faith openly in a secular world. To inspire young people to revere and celebrate the holiness of life. To bequeath to the coming generations men and women vowed to the service of Christ and His Roman Catholic Church.

Each one of us has unique tasks and talents, but it is together that we are to watch and pray, together that we encourage and support, together that we work, side by side, as the future of Saint Thomas unfolds. For "what we shall be has not yet been revealed" (I John 3:2).