Standing in the crumbling foundations of the long-gone St. Joseph mission church, one can almost imagine hymns being sung fervently, if a little out of tune, by the immigrant farmers gathered in the tiny church atop a steep hill just over the county line into Holmes County.
Standing at the head of the congregation was a man destined to inspire a great American novel.
Jean Baptiste Lamy was born in the Auvergne region of southern France in 1814. Deeply religious, he felt a call to the ministry and was ordained as a priest at the age of 24. But Lamy was not content to do small things when there was bold work that needed done.
At the age of 25, he left Europe to become a missionary on the American frontier. The diocese of Cincinnati had a perfect assignment for Father Lamy when he arrived in 1839: the second-oldest Catholic church in Ohio was in need of a priest.
That church, St. Luke's, had been established in Danville in 1822, shortly after the community changed its name to that from the original Sapp's Settlement. The original church was a log cabin, and they didn't have a priest. In 1838, the church members started work on a frame church, but work was slow.
With the arrival of Father Lamy, that changed. Young, energetic, and industrious, Lamy rose the money and labor needed to finish the new St. Luke's in Danville and was soon handling services on a circuit that included Loudonville, Coshocton, Newark, and Mount Vernon as well.
One area that Father Lamy identified as needing pastoring was the influx of German and Alsatian settlers in southwest Holmes County, between Glenmont and Greer. It was hardly choice land, all the prime farm land of the county having been claimed earlier.
But those settlers were hearty stock, and they were determined to eke a living from the steep hills. Father Lamy built a mission church, St. Joseph's, at the top of the first large hill over the county line.
To find what remains of the mission, go south out of Greer on Brinkhaven Road (County Road 77), but instead of turning with the road to cross the Mohican River, go straight on Alum Rock Road and cross the county line from Knox into Holmes. Just a short way in, there is an intersection with Township Road 16.
We'll come back to this intersection for another story in the future, but for now plunge up the steep hillside on the gravel road and watch for washouts. Near the top of Kaylor Ridge, Township Road 15 will go off to the left, but stay with Township Road 16 for another quarter mile or so, when the remains of the St. Joseph Mission are indicated by a church historical marker on the right.
Father Lamy's church was small. The foundation rocks outline a main chamber that could have held, at most, about 50 people. Further away from the road is a smaller rectangle attached to the main rectangle. It isn't clear what the structure of the building would have been, so the small area is uncertain.
If the church would have presumably faced the road, the entrance would have been on the north end of the precisely aligned building. If the entrance was here, those leaving the church may have once had a beautiful view down the gully across the road.
Now wooded, the hillside doesn't boast any outstandingly old trees, so it may have been pasture land cleared by the early farmers. In this layout, the smaller rectangle may have been a sacristy where Father Lamy kept his robes for services. He certainly wouldn't have traveled in full priestly garb across the muddy frontier!
Less likely, though not impossible, is that the small rectangle was a vestibule for an entrance on the south side of the church. This would seem odd, though, putting the main entrance of the church away from the road, and, what's more, opening the church into its own graveyard.
The graveyard is documented on genealogical sources as having at least nine burials, but there are plainly more. The recorded burials may be the ones for which sandstone grave markers were carved. Many of those have now become illegible or have been broken off over the years.
At least a dozen or more additional graves are marked by field stones, and depressions in the ground suggest that dozens more people are buried here. One early record describes the church as having been built out of logs, presumably perched atop the stone foundation. It probably had at least a few small windows.
For comparison, there is an old log cabin in a remarkable state of preservation down the hill on County Road 17 (Alum Rock Road), that dates from the same period. Indeed, whatever Alsatian family lived in that cabin almost certainly attended this church.
The mission operated throughout the 1840s, ministering to the farmers along and around Kaylor Ridge. At its height, the church saw a total of about 50 families in the area who at least occasionally attended, some of them never missed a service.
According to records kept by the Columbus Diocese, St. Joseph's saw its peak activity in the late 1840s. There were four baptisms in 1845, with six each the following two years. The peak came in 1848 with a grand total of 10 baptisms and two marriages.
Father Lamy continued his rounds throughout the region, working as the Catholic version of a circuit preacher, hitting the St. Joseph mission for mass on the first Monday of every month. Then he was reassigned to an area in Kentucky that needed organization, which he proving so brilliant at. Little did he know it, but his industry was much talked about in the Church, and word gradually made it to the top.
Lamy was stunned in 1850 when he received word that Pope Pius IX had personally appointed him bishop for a mission in the far southwestern region of New Mexico, which had just come into the United States after the Mexican War. While there were a few haphazard churches in the region, Lamy was charged with expanding the network, standardizing their operations, and cleaning up some of the churches that had gotten a little wayward, allowing priests to have native concubines and such.
Lamy was to be joined in his assignment by his friend, Father Joseph Machebeuf, the priest overseeing the church in Sandusky, infamous for tracking parishioners down to bars and flogging them with a whip for drinking. Both were regarded as outstanding missionaries — and disciplinarians — whose talents were needed out west.
Lamy was able to leave more quickly, and began a flatboat expedition down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. His flatboat wrecked, destroying most of Lamy's goods and supplies. But he persevered and made his way overland to Santa Fe.
Over the next three decades, Lamy and Machebeuf established and expanded the Catholic Church in the southwest, with Lamy serving as Bishop of Santa Fe and later Archbishop of the entire region. Machebeuf became Bishop of Denver.
Lamy never wavered in his fighting against chaos and unorthodoxy, becoming one of the great organizers of the Church in the United States. He retired in the early 1880s, dying in 1885.
But perhaps the reason Lamy is still so remembered and revered today is because the great American writer Willa Cather, famous for “My Antonia” and “O Pioneers,” decided to write a novel based on Lamy's adventures in the southwest.
This 1927 book, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” is regarded as Cather's masterpiece, and one of the greatest American novels. In Cather's book, Lamy becomes “Father Latour,” while Machebeuf is called “Father Vaillant.” The book has been named by the Modern Library as one of the “100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century.”
The mission church on Kaylor Ridge continued on a few years without Father Lamy, at first seemingly thriving under Lamy's German successor, Father Christopher Grandeler. Grandeler pointed out that the German settlers were grateful to have a priest fluent in both German and English — both difficult tongues for Father Lamy.
But Grandeler, an older priest serving the missionary call, began to complain about what the Ohio winter did to his rheumatism and even went so far as buying a plot of land, assuming the church would allow him to become permanently attached to the St. Joseph mission.
The Church allowed no such thing, as a small congregation of dirt poor farmers was in no way adequate to support a full-time priest. Grandeler soon began to rub his bosses even further the wrong way, being seen in the constant company of a woman during a business trip to Cincinnati and being heard in Newark making statements that he didn't see much difference between Protestants and Catholics.
Father Grandeler was removed and the mission began to falter. In 1857, a substantial new stone Catholic Church was built in Glenmont, at the foot of the far side of the ridge. That congregation, the Church of Saints Peter & Paul, is still in operation today. The St. Joseph mission began to wind down.
Its last paperwork records were filed in 1861. In the chaos of the Civil War, diocese records were haphazard in 1862 and 63. By 1864, no records were filed.
Today, the Catholic churches of the region still thrive thanks at least in part to the vigorous foundation Father Lamy laid down before pursuing his destiny in the Old West. Death came for the Archbishop later, but it was preceded by a lot of living in rural central Ohio first.