Although the demographics of Over-the-Rhine have changed with time, one group has been a constant presence for more than a century — Franciscan friars.
"We've been here for over 150 years, so we feel like it's a neighborhood where we belong," says Rev. Jack Wintz, OFM.
Wintz is a priest in the Order of Friars Minor, or Franciscans, a Catholic religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th Century. Over-the-Rhine is home of the headquarters of the St. John the Baptist Province of the Franciscans.
The friars — priests and brothers — vow to follow a lifestyle of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Working with the poor is a way to follow in the "footsteps of St. Francis and in the footsteps of trying to observe the gospel," Wintz says.
Originally home to Irish immigrants, the neighborhood that came to be known as Over-the-Rhine took in a large number of German immigrants starting in the 1830s. German-speaking Franciscans from Austria came to minister to the immigrants, according to Casey Betz, development director of St. Francis Seraph Ministries. The Franciscans founded St. Francis Seraph Parish. A seraph is a six-winged angel, one of which, Franciscans believe, appeared to St. Francis when he received the stigmata, or wounds of Christ.
"The seraphim are the highest and closest (to God) and are described as burning with love for the creator," Betz says.
No running away
Over-the-Rhine is the perfect setting for the provincial headquarters, according to Wintz.
"In the spirit of St. Francis, we are not supposed to be seeking to go where the wealth is," he says. "St. Francis has always called us to serve the poor rather than the affluent or rich."
Wintz is editor of St. Anthony Messenger. With a circulation of 340,000, the magazine reaches Catholics in English-speaking countries around the world. The Franciscans have published the Messenger from Over-the-Rhine for more than 100 years.
St. Anthony Press, affiliated with the magazine, recently added a new building at Liberty and Republic streets.
"Sometimes you hear the city has not made an investment in Over-the-Rhine as much as they should," Wintz says. "We certainly have invested energies. We're not like a business that has found difficulties and then run away."
St. Francis Seraph Church has multiple ministries in the neighborhood.
One is a women's outreach program known as the Sarah Center. The center gives the women of Over-the-Rhine, many of whom are faced with the stress of raising families alone, a place to find solace. Through enrichment classes and outings, the Sarah Center aims to give them a place to feel at ease and form supportive relationships.
Arlene Turner, an assistant at the center, has lived in Over-the-Rhine for the past six years.
"It's been kind of like a healing process for me, to have a position where I can share with others," Turner says. "It's a wonderful gathering place for women. They come and share and fellowship in fellow interests."
Turner says women often stop by to refresh themselves, grab a cup of coffee or participate in "kind of a neighborly chit-chat."
The center offers classes on jewelry making, and the participants can sell the jewelry they create. The women who make the jewelry, Betz says, keep 60 percent from the sale; the rest goes to program expenses. The jewelry classes evolved from interests expressed by the women at the outreach center.
Sister Jeanette Buehler, CPPS, has spent the past 12 years in Over-the-Rhine, serving as director of St. John Social Services, then working with Impact Over-the-Rhine, and is now the director of the Sarah Center.
Buehler says the center not only teaches women new skills but reinforces the talents they already have. One participant, who enjoys cooking, recently made a dinner at the center. Sharing their talents shows the women how much they are capable of.
"Some of the women never have a chance to do anything that enriches them," Buehler says. "Finding they have a certain creative flair and mixing with other women helps them fight depression."
The center is many things to many people.
"It not only meets immediate needs, but helps people deal with their needs long-term," Betz says.
The need could be as simple as using the center's phone to set up a medical appointment. It could also involve emergency assistance to help pay rent or utility bills.
"Often people don't know who to call, how to ask and how to get the things that they need," Betz says.
A parish nurse is available to advise visitors on basic medical problems and refer them for help.
But the ministries of St. Francis Seraph aren't limited to women.
St. Francis Seraph School, with kindergarten through eighth grade, provides education for 150 students from Over-the-Rhine. Less than 10 percent of the students are Catholic, and tuition is on a sliding scale. According to church officials, ninety-six percent of the students are from families with incomes below the poverty level.
The school receives support from the Catholic Inner-City Schools Education Fund, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and fund-raising.
Three times a week St. Francis Seraph Ministries opens a soup kitchen.
"On average, we do about 200 meals each night, which comes out to 30,000 meals a year," Betz says.
The soup kitchen recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and perhaps is needed now more than ever. Welfare reform in many cases has left many hungry people with fewer places to turn.
"During the winter, the soup kitchen was packed every single night," Betz says.
The friars of St. Francis Seraph are in the neighborhood to stay, according to Betz.
"They've made a huge commitment to remain in Over-the-Rhine," she says. "This is their home." ©