This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on August 12, 1985
Members of St. Mary prepare to celebrate 125th anniversary
By CARRIE LaBRIOLA
The distinctive twin towers of St. Mary Catholic Church at the corner of Xenia and Steele avenues have been a landmark since they were erected in the early years of this century.
They are visible from both I-75 and U.S. 35 and, according to a history of the church, were used as a guide by pilots landing at Wright Field during World War II.
In June 1983, the church was placed on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places, which said it is “the only Romanesque church in the city of Dayton, and may well be the grandest and most architecturally opulent church in the immediate area.”
Although the present church was built in 1906, St. Mary Parish will celebrate its 125th anniversary Aug. 25. Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk will be the principal celebrant at the anniversary Mass at 4 p.m., which will be followed by a reception on the parish grounds.
St. Mary Parish was founded in 1860 on the present site as a German congregation. The small original church was demolished in 1905 to make way for the present building, which was completed in 1906. The original stained glass windows remain intact.
Ruth Hohl, 55, of 108 Missouri Ave., remembers hearing that a worker fell and was killed during construction of the church.
In 1919, a $75,000 Austin pipe organ was installed, which still is in use. In 1921, the church was frescoed by Bernard Mellerio, who learned his craft in Florence, and Tiffany-style glass artist lanterns were installed. The next year, 1,200 square feet of variegated Italian Pietrasanta marble were laid in the sanctuary by Italian stonemasons.
The Rev. Thomas Gavin, who came to the parish 11 months ago, is the ninth pastor to serve St. Mary. The Rev. Bernard J. Beckmeyer served as pastor and pastor emeritus from 1917-1967.
The parish now has between 300 and 400 members, about half from the immediate neighborhood and half who come to St. Mary because of ties to the church, according to Gavin.
Miss Hohl was born on Xenia Avenue, a block from the church, and attended the parish school, which was closed more than a dozen years ago after enrollment dropped from a peak of 900 to only 39. After a tornado in 1974, the children from St. Bridget’s in Xenia used the old St. Mary School until their school could be rebuilt.
Miss Hohl, who works in the church sacristy, says most of East Dayton was German when the church started, and Xenia Avenue was called “Dutchman’s Alley.” She lives near St. Anthony Church now, but continues to attend St. Mary.
“I always enjoyed going to the church,” she says. “Frankly, the beauty of the church, the altars, is one thing. I’ve attended services at other churches and just haven’t been inspired as much as at St. Mary.”
Norma Bennett, 74, of 1703 Wyoming St., also lives near St. Anthony, but attends St. Mary. She, too, was born near the church, on Clover Street in the same house where her mother was born. After she married at St. Mary and moved out of the parish, she got permission to continue her membership there so she could drive her elderly parents to church every Sunday.
“I’ve lived different places in the city,” she says, “but never changed parishes. I love the church, the structure. I went to school there; so did my mother, my sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins. It’s just my church.”
Mrs. Bennett said her mother was taught German at St. Mary School, and the Sunday sermon frequently was in German in the early years, but after World War I started, German was banned.
Behind the church is a large field, which Mrs. Bennett says used to be filled with houses. One by one, Monsignor Beckmeyer bought the houses and had them demolished to create a playground for the school.
Joseph Reger, 81, of 1602 Nelson Ave., also was born and raised in St. Mary Parish, attended school and was married there. He has sung in the choir for 63 years.
Regers remembers when children weren’t permitted in the church during a polio epidemic before World War I. Then in 1918, there was a flu epidemic and people weren’t supposed to congregate, so Mass was said on the school playground. At one time, there was a four-year high school at the parish, but that was abandoned about 1925, Regers says.
“It’s homey” Miss Hohl says. “I always felt it was a big family, and I never wanted to go anywhere else. We haven’t changed much over the years.”