Holy Spirits

A restored Over-the-Rhine church brings people together with craft cocktails and catered events

click to enlarge The Transept in the remodeled St. John Unitarian Church features a public bar — the Vestry — and private event space.
The Transept in the remodeled St. John Unitarian Church features a public bar — the Vestry — and private event space.

T

he Elm Street corridor in Over-the-Rhine is in the midst of a makeover. Music Hall and Memorial Hall are under renovation, and an adjacent 149-year-old church just had new life breathed into it. The Transept, on the corner of 12th and Elm streets, was built in 1867 and was once the home of St. John Unitarian Church, the first German-American congregation in Cincinnati. The church had been empty since 1993 until Michael Forgus of Funky’s Catering came along and bought the building from 3CDC in August 2013.

“I’m not sure if it would’ve made it through another winter if we hadn’t come in,” Forgus says. “It was in pretty rough shape.”

Initially, Forgus was asked to open a restaurant in the church, but because he already had a successful catering business, he opted to continue to pursue that route. After a 10-month, painstaking $4.7 million transformation, The Transept opened in October of last year as a multi-room event center for weddings, meetings and nonprofit banquets. Architect Ron Novak of the Drawing Dept restored all of the stained glass panels and approached the design with respect to the history of the place while simultaneously making it feel urban contemporary. Everything in the venue is majestic, including the women’s bathroom, which features its own chandelier. In January, the in-house bar, called Vestry, opened — the only component of the 13,000-square-foot space that is open to the public. Forgus says he and his partners went back and forth about whether to even have a public space.

“We felt like if we’re going to be a place where people come and gather, we should have a place where the public can come every day if they want to,” he says. “A lot of times, when it’s a nice day, there will be people knocking on windows, ‘Can we come in?’ ”

In reference to the name, a vestry is a religious term for where a priest or clergy member changes into vestments (liturgical garments), and it’s also a place where parishioners gather — a place to meet and prepare. Vestry is only a small shard of The Transept, but with its leather banquettes, wingback chairs, large windows that look out on Washington Park, vivid square-paneled artwork and brown and black barstools, it manages to feel intimate inside the capacious setting.

The bar is open Monday through Saturday and offers 11 beers on tap — mostly local and regional — and five signature cocktails curated by bar manager Amber Hawkins of 4EG. “La Vie en Rose” is made with rosemary ginger, simple syrup, pomegranate juice, triple sec and Prosecco and garnished with pomegranate seeds; and the “Juniper Elixir” is crafted with bourbon, gin, cranberry simple syrup and lemon juice and garnished with sugar cranberries and lemon zest. They also offer glasses of wine and daily happy hour from 4-8 p.m.

Funky’s Catering is the exclusive caterer of The Transept, and they prepare the dishes for all events that take place inside the church (they also cater events at Rhinegeist, Pinecroft at Crosley Estate and many other sites around town). The Transept also hosts monthly wine dinners, held in the basement’s The Agreement room. February’s wine dinner will include food inspired by Italy, paired with wines from the region; March will feature pinot noir; and April will focus on pairings with bourbon and beer.

Taking a page from House of Blues, they’re starting a new brunch tradition — the last Sunday of every month they’ll host a Gospel brunch, with a buffet and live Gospel performers; the first one will be held Feb. 28, with two seatings and flat-rate pricing ($40 adults; $20 ages 2-10).

Forgus wasn’t always in the catering business. He grew up in Chicago, got rejected from medical school and toured in a Frank Zappa-themed band called Uncle Meat, named after Zappa’s group The Mothers of Invention’s 1969 double album. The nickname Funky came from those days.

“That’s from my misspent youth,” he says.

Forgus quit that lifestyle when he started bartending at Don’s Fishmarket & Tavern in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, and that’s when he realized he liked the hospitality industry. On a recommendation from his friend, Forgus moved to Cincinnati and opened a few restaurants: Funky’s Café, Funky’s Blackstone Grille and Funky’s Border Cantina. A few years later he found himself with yet another calling.

“Early in my life, I was a bit on the wild side,” he says. “And then in 1990, 1991 — my wife is a Born Again — I just decided to start going to Bible study with her. And the next thing I knew, I was sold on the personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

He became a pastor at Newtown’s Horizon Community Church but realized he worked even more hours as a pastor than in the restaurant business.

In 2004, he started catering, which he describes as “controlled chaos.” “Catering is all about being properly prepared,” he says. “If you’re properly prepared, catering goes well.”

There have been multiple catered events at The Transept so far — they love doing ethnic weddings — but Vestry hasn’t been quite as busy. They expect things to perk up once Washington Park activities resume in the spring.

“We want to be the gathering place of Over-the-Rhine,” Forgus says.

Vestry at The Transept

GO: 1205 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine
CALL: 513-667-5822
INTERNET: thetransept.com
HOURS: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday.
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