St. Mary earns title of minor basilica

Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton of the Catholic Diocese of Steubenville has announced St. Mary Catholic Church of Marietta has been granted the title of minor basilica.

Monforton had requested the designation.

The application was sent Jan. 13 to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome.

“I received word from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that my request for St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Marietta to become a minor basilica was accepted,” Monforton said.

The letter to Bishop Monforton was signed by Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments who wrote, “Such an honorific title is intended to strengthen the relation of this important church with the Chair of Peter and to make it an ideal center of special liturgical and pastoral ministry in the diocese.”

“I congratulate Msgr. John Michael Campbell, the pastor of St. Mary Parish for his steadfast work in the necessary preparations to make this initiative a successful endeavor,” Bishop Monforton said.

“I am grateful, also, to my predecessor, Bishop R. Daniel Conlon who began this process,” added Monforton.

Conlon rededicated St. Mary Church during its 100-year anniversary celebration in 2009 following a multi-million dollar renovation.

“With the dignity of minor basilica comes the responsibility for St. Mary Church to further galvanize its efforts in support of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, as well as to be the location for special liturgical celebrations when needed and of course, not withstanding, to provide pastoral outreach to all the people of God. This designation is not simply an honor for a particular parish community, for this day the Diocese of Steubenville as well as all the good people in the Ohio Valley celebrate God’s grace,” Monforton said on learning of the granting of the title.

The present St. Mary Church dates to 1903.

It replaced buildings ravaged by floods in the 1800s. Though the church foundation was completed in 1903 and its cornerstone put in place the following year, construction continued until 1905. Then, work was halted for two years while money was raised, church history reads.

At the time of its Dec. 12, 1909, dedication by Columbus Bishop James J. Hartley, a Marietta newspaper read: “The church is of marvelous beauty, no pains having been spared to make it a place worthy of dedication to the services of God.”

The dedication was reported to have been the “largest assemblage, both of Catholics and non-Catholics, ever brought together by a church function” in Marietta. The church was filled to capacity, and an estimated 1,000 people were turned away, it was reported in the Marietta newspaper.

At the time the church was completed, it reportedly cost slightly less than $129,000, of which almost $100,000 came from subscriptions by individuals and societies of the parish. The smallest recorded contribution was 10 cents; the largest, from its pastor, Father Francis M. Woesman, more than $4,000.

St. Mary’s restoration began in 2006 when murals – thought to date to the early 1900s – on the walls of the church were returned to their original grandeur.

Wiring was updated inside the church and plaster was repaired and the rest of the church was painted.

A permanent altar, made mostly of carved Italian marble and encircled by statues of the Twelve Apostles, was installed to replace a portable one. A crucifix and image of the Holy Family were added.

The gathering space was enlarged. The number of confessionals was increased and art glass restoration and wall reinforcement were done.

“There is a lot of history in the Catholic church in Marietta,” said Campbell.

“Initially, missionaries are reported to have traveled from place to place for miles on horseback and brought together scattered families into small congregations. The Mass was the first instance of Christian worship ever offered in Marietta, the oldest city of the Northwest Territory. A Jesuit missionary, Father Joseph Peter de Bonnecamp, is said to have accompanied French troops inspecting the territory,” said Campbell.

“As chaplain, he held services for the troops and preached to the Indians in the mid-1700s. The next records reveal Mass being celebrated in a house in what is now the area of Marietta’s Hart and Fifth. The first resident pastor was Father James McCaffrey, who converted a storeroom into a church, above which he resided,” Campbell related.

Campbell said construction on the first church began in 1850.

“Bricks for the new building were said to have been taken from an old Indian mound. Efforts to move the church out of the path of floodwaters came when a new church site, the present location, was purchased Feb. 22, 1900. The history of St. Mary Parish and pictures of the church were part of the multi-page petition sent to Rome, as St. Mary’s status as a minor basilica was contemplated,” Campbell said.

A Mass to celebrate the basilica designation will be planned, probably for the fall, Campbell said.

There are only two other minor basilicas in the state of Ohio, according to Campbell.

The Basilica of St. John the Baptist, Canton, was made a minor basilica in 2012. It claims to be the oldest Catholic parish in Northeastern Ohio. The second minor basilica is the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, Carey.