By Allegra Thatcher, Catholic News Service
DIVIDING RIDGE, Ky. — A misty morning and a vague drizzle of rain on fall leaves couldn’t dampen the spirits of those gathered to install the newly arrived steeple at St. John Mission in Dividing Ridge.
The mission, founded as St. John Parish, was the life’s work and joy of eight Irish immigrant families when they came to the United States. Over 130 years later, their descendants are honoring their legacy by restoring the church with a new steeple and roof.
Since the steeple fell in the 1970s, the church has been without its defining feature. In late 2018, one of the third-generation descendants initiated the project to celebrate his 60th birthday, though he wishes to remain anonymous.
“I wanted to understand the faith these founders had,” he told the Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Covington. “They cleared their land, not the best land, with mules and by hand.
“They had these rock piles everywhere. Still living in log cabins, but instead of building their homes they built this church. … What kind of faith in Providence did they have? … I don’t have that kind of faith and I wanted to understand it.”
The parish founders were the families of James Donehue, John Cahill, Francis (Frank) Kelly, William McLafferty, Michael Powers, Edward Moran, Michael Lowers and Patrick Hogan.
On the morning of Oct. 20, a group watched as a large crane carried the newest reminder of that ancient faith to the top of the tiny church building.
The gloomy clouds drew out the solemnity of the moment as the vision became a reality, and the church once again was becoming complete because of the work of its people.
The steeple project is built on donations from members of five of the eight original families: a total of 32 donors from three generations of families and friends.
It began as a steeple-only project, then included the roof, once it was discovered the current roof was unsound. Once the parish council and Covington Bishop Roger J. Foys approved the idea, the blueprints were set into motion.
Garlan Vanhook of Vanhook Architectural designed the new steeple based on pictures, measurements and diagrams of the original.
The endeavor has brought together the parish and descendants of the eight founding families, many of whom are no longer in the area or are even parishioners anywhere.
Some are not even Catholic but wanted to honor what their ancestors began. Four donors have died since the project began.
As one of the smallest churches in the Diocese of Covington with one regular Sunday Mass, St. John only houses 12 pews. According to a “History of the Church” written in 1919 by the pastor, Father J.J. Taaffe, Sunday Mass was only said at St. John’s every other Sunday during that time.
There were times after Father Taaffe’s death when there was no pastor and so no Sunday Mass, which strikes a chord with the faithful of 2020. This longing for the celebration of Mass has been echoed in the present day, said Steve Kelly, a major supporter of the project and descendent of a founding family.
The founding date on the cornerstone reads 1856, though the community had existed for many years before, said Kelly. He grew up in St. William Parish in Williamstown, Kentucky, but his family originated at St. John and family members have been buried in the cemetery there for generations.
The original name of the church was St. John’s Dromard, an Irish word for “high place.” Located at the highest point in Pendleton County, the church overlooks a large ridge and borders many of the farms of the founding families.
Evelyn Peluso, a parishioner since 1970 whose ancestors also are buried at St. John, said that when she came, an elderly parishioner named Sherman Tomlin would ride in on his horse or motorcycle to ring the bell in the steeple for Mass every week.
The steeple crashed in the early 1970s because of rotted wood, Peluso said, and the bell has been outside on a cement block ever since. Her three boys would always serve at the Sunday Mass while they were growing up.
“I think it’s going to be a wonderful thing,” she said. “We’re going to have a bell system to call out across the hills, reminding people it’s time for Mass.”
“And the church never really looked right without a steeple on it,” said Kelly, who has been heavily involved in the project even though he moved to Colorado several years ago.
He added, “Everyone wants to see a steeple put back up there and wants to do their part to help make that happen financially.”
For the parishioners, the steeple and roof project is about more than the church looking good, said Roger Frisch, a parishioner at St. John for six years and a parish council member. It’s a legacy to uphold and a hope that the small but stubborn church will stay open.
“I think it’s pretty important,” he said. “We have some old pictures of the church and the steeple looked really nice. I think getting it back really turns the building into a real church, it’s going to have chimes for Sunday morning. … I think it’s going to bring back some of that history. We really like what’s going on; it’s good to have that old feeling back.”
“We worry about them closing the doors, like other small parishes,” said Peluso. “But with the roof going on, it seems to have given us life again, and now we’re proud to have things looking so nice. I think it’ll be an encouragement for Catholics in the area to come to our church. We feel so blessed that people who have moved away or passed on have left this money to improve our church.”
Father Benton Clift, who was appointed pastor at St. John and St. William, Williamstown, this summer. Though he’s new to the community, he’s enjoying discovering its roots and its legacy.
“It’s a wonderful place and the steeple will make it even better,” he said. “I think it sort of brings people even deeper together in their wonderful little worshipping community, which is very dedicated, very small but vibrant. … It’s a wonderful time to be here.”