Sitting in a rear pew of Holy Family Church in Price Hill on Christmas Eve, attempting to breathe amid clouds of absurdly potent incense, I knew I had found the inspiration for this month's Cincitecture. Any doubts I harbored were put to rest when, right along with the Eucharistic gifts (that's the body and blood of Christ in wafer and wine form for the non-Catholics), they carried up a birthday cake for baby Jesus. A quirky yet meaningful touch.
If it's possible for a church to be hip, Holy Family is just that. Not because it's particularly novel and/or trendy; on the contrary, it's because it seems so captivatingly old school. There are still hat holders on the backs of the pews from the days when men besides Justin Timberlake wore fedoras instead of baseball caps. Although the exquisite choir loft organ wasn't acquired from a neighboring parish until the late 1980s, it might as well have been there all along. Whether or not it actually is an antique, it certainly looks like it. And let's not forget the bar and bowling alley located on the premises (because how awesome is that), which further embody the history and unbelievable charm of this building.
In the mid- to late-1800s, so many Roman Catholics were moving into Price Hill, specifically the area surrounding the incline, that a new church was needed to accommodate the growing population.
In fact, Holy Family is more or less the offspring of nearby Saint Lawrence. While the original, or "old church," was built in 1884, the structure that stands today, designed by J.F. Sheblessy, was dedicated in 1916 and has been a Price Hill landmark ever since.
As Aquinas Publishing's Treasured Churches of Cincinnati Web site (www.aquinas-multimedia.com/church/introduction) details, Holy Family is Cincinnati's only church in the Baroque Revival style. The exterior is impressive, but its subdued classicism makes the soaring, intensely colorful interior dome all the more dramatic.
Approaching from Hawthorne Avenue, the structure initially seems to be more evocative of a bank than a house of worship. I think this has something to do with a façade dominated by thick, sturdy columns mounted with a triangular pediment. The solid, massive façade is further anchored by flanking towers topped with cupolas and adorned with urns at the bases of each cupola, four per tower.
While I realize that Holy Family is probably already well known for its architectural merit, the burst of color and soaring height of the painted dome is so unexpected that it tends to create a feeling of discovery for a first-time visitor, much like stumbling upon an off-the-guidebook gem on a European adventure. Indeed, Holy Family reflects Cincinnati's European — namely German — heritage in more than just style. According to the aforementioned Web site, the magnificent trompe l´oeil dome mural depicting the 12 apostles encircling Christ, in addition to all the interior's painted surfaces, was executed by "the last of the German immigrant mural painters, Gerhard Lamers," from 1946-50.
And I haven't even begun to touch on the truly ethereal stained glass windows, the Carrara marble altarpiece and the Rookwood-decorated undercroft cafeteria. I went back to mass on a recent Sunday with my brother, a Price Hillian and Holy Family regular, and witnessed the most old-school facet of all: a packed mass. People were singing so loudly I saw a little boy holding his ears. I overheard two elderly women on their way out talking about how they were reminded of "the good ol' days."
So if you're wondering what these good ol' days looked like, stop by Holy Family and see for yourself.
HOLY FAMILY CHURCH is located at 814 Hawthorne Ave., Price Hill. CINCITECTURE, a column on area architecture, appears once a month.