Ranft (1821-1880) was a founding member of St. Mary Catholic Church in German Village, the chairman of the committee to build its first church, and the bricklayer who constructed it. He was also my great-great-great grandfather. As Ranft’s descendants, my mother and I received an invitation to participate in the St. Mary Sesquicentennial Homecoming Parade and Procession, a motorcade that made its way through the streets of downtown Columbus and German Village to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the church.
By the 1860s, Columbus’s population was one-third German. Most of the city’s German Catholics attended Holy Cross Church, the first Catholic church in Columbus that was founded in 1837. In 1863, Ranft and other Holy Cross parishioners who lived on the South Side of Columbus began working on establishing a Catholic church in their own neighborhood. They accomplished their goal in 1865, creating a combination of a church in one room, an elementary school in another room, and a rectory in the building’s two upstairs rooms. Rev. Francis X. Specht, an assistant priest at Holy Cross who was ordained in 1864, was named as the first pastor of the church officially known as St. Mary, Mother of God. Today, the original four-room building still stands on the parish grounds and is known as the Specht Center.
In 1866, the St. Mary congregation had grown so much that construction began on a larger church. When Bishop Sylvester Rosecrans dedicated the new Gothic Revival church on November 29, 1868, St. Mary parishioners planned a grand-scale event. They began with a service at Holy Cross Church. Then, they processed from Holy Cross on Fifth Street to Town Street; west on Town Street to High Street; south on High Street to South Fulton Street; east on Fulton Street to Third Street; and south on Third Street to the new church. St. Mary parishioners were joined by Columbus policemen and representatives of benevolent societies carrying banners and flags. Bands from Columbus, Dayton, Newark and Zanesville played at intervals along the route. The new church was so crowded that hundreds stood outside to participate in the service of thanksgiving for its completion.
Last Friday’s procession was a modern-day re-enactment of that historic event. After months of planning by a team of dedicated St. Mary volunteers, this terrific feat fell beautifully into place.
We joined descendants of other founding families — all with good German surnames like Dorn, Eckstein, Eisel, Kaiser, Noltemeyer, Rueckel, Schaefer, Schneider, Seipel, Specht, Thurn, Trott and Zang — and boarded a motorcoach to make our way to Holy Cross for a service of thanksgiving. Reverend Roger Minner, St. Mary’s current deacon and our motorcade marshal, gave us commemorative badges with the St. Mary Sesquicentennial logo to wear. Some descendants of founding families also wore sashes printed with the both the name of the founding family they were representing and a map of Germany decorated with regional flags.
Reverend Father Kevin Lutz, St. Mary’s current pastor and the 10th pastor in the church’s history, presided at the service of thanksgiving at Holy Cross. We sang “Hail, Holy Queen” and “Immaculate Mary,” both Catholic hymns that would have been familiar to our ancestors. Then, Father Lutz began our recitation of the Rosary. Five parishioners and descendants of founding families announced each of the five Sorrowful Mysteries, read text about the experiences of German immigrants in Columbus that was especially written for the occasion, and led us through the prayers that make up the Rosary.
Then the motorcade got under way.
Mounted policemen led the motorcade of antique automobiles, trolleys, bicycles and motorcoaches carrying the descendants of founding families, the honor guards of service societies, members of German singing societies, St. Mary parishioners, and Father Nicholas Droll, our former parochial vicar at St. Andrew who recently became St. Mary’s associate pastor. The motorcade’s grand marshal was Charles Rodenfels, a St. Mary parishioner who is from the same family as George Joseph Rodenfels, who marshaled the 1868 procession.
The motorcade route was as close to the original route as possible. It began at Fifth and Rich Streets, continued west on Rich Street past the Columbus Food Truck Festival in Columbus Commons, turned south on High Street to travel east on Whittier Street, and finally headed north on South Third Street to the church. As the traffic-stopping procession made its way, onlookers took photos, smiled, waved and cheered.
The main attraction of the motorcade was the Mobile Millennium, a 26,000-pound, 48-bell carillon hauled on a tractor-trailer. Father Lutz hiked up his cassock, climbed aboard the tractor-trailer and played hymns, patriotic songs and the signature “The Bells of St. Mary’s” on the carillon — without using any sheet music.
Most carillons are in church towers or bell towers on university campuses, not at street level, so it was thrilling to see Father Lutz, a veteran organist, play a carillon for the first time. To see and hear Father Lutz play the Mobile Millennium, watch the video that accompanies “Onlookers attracted by 48-bell carillon and St. Mary parade to German Village,” from the August 15, 2015 issue of The Columbus Dispatch.
When the motorcade reached St. Mary’s, we were greeted with a fanfare performed by an ensemble of local alphorn players.
We disembarked and made our way inside the church, where founding family descendants posed for pictures which will be posted on the parish website and used in Sesquicentennial souvenir publications.
As we caught up with many old friends, we admired the beautiful features of our former parish church, like the carved walnut reredos behind the main altar, its 13 stained-glass windows, and original painted murals, frescoes and ceiling panels depicting German symbols and invocations to Mary.
Then, The Most Reverend Frederick F. Campbell, Bishop of Columbus, arrived to preside over the Vigil Mass for the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Bishop greeted us in German and relished the opportunity to include more German phrases in his homily and in his Eucharistic prayers. Bill Antoniak, St. Mary’s music director and organist, played Choral for Luzern during the prelude to the Mass and “Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe” (“I Pray to the Power of Love”). Members of local German singing societies sang various parts of the Mass in German. We sang “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “Now Thank We All Our God,” Catholic hymns familiar to our ancestors. In keeping with the current St. Mary practice, we prayed at the end of the recessional hymn for the protection of the church and for priestly vocations, especially for the priest who will give each of us the Last Rites when our time comes.
Bishop Campbell greeted each person after Mass. We talked to him about our shared affinity for German, as well as The Bavarian Army, 1870-1918: The Constitutional and Structural Relations with the Prussian Military Establishment, the dissertation he wrote to earn his doctorate in history from The Ohio State University in 1972.
The conclusion of this extremely well-orchestrated event marked the opening of the 90th St. Mary Homecoming Festival. This annual two-day event attracts droves of current and former parishioners, veteran festivalgoers and alumni of St. Mary High School, which provided its students with a fine Catholic education from 1914 to 1968.
It was also a homecoming for us. My parents were married at St. Mary’s on May 30, 1968.
I was baptized there on October 26, 1969, at the baptismal font that has been in continuous use since 1868. (Fifty-four members of the Bauman family — another St. Mary founding family that Ranft’s youngest daughter, Cornelia, joined when she married Louis Bauman in 1887— have been baptized at St. Mary’s, so we actually are descendants of two founding families.)
And I made my First Holy Communion at St. Mary’s on April 10, 1977.
For 35 years, we lived three houses from St. Mary’s. I learned how to ride a bicycle and roller-skate under the protective shadow of its spire, and how to tell time by looking at the large clock face on the bell tower and listening for the ringing of its bells. The church’s neighboring convent was frequently in the backgrounds of photos taken as I traipsed the brick sidewalks of Sycamore Street, like this one taken during the Blizzard of 1978.
Before we left German Village last Friday, we stopped at the brick home at 71 East Livingston Avenue that Johann Ranft built in 1848 and lived in with his wife, another German immigrant named Elisabetha Paulus, whom he married on May 31, 1849 at Holy Cross, and their nine children.
More special events are being held this year to celebrate the St. Mary Sesquicentennial, including a pilgrimage to Rome, Assisi, Florence and Venice, Italy with Father Lutz from October 9-20. A Sesquicentennial celebration souvenir book and a comprehensive parish history book will be available in the coming months.
Although the Mobile Millennium has returned to its home in Lancaster, the Millennium Carillon system in the St. Mary bell tower plays sacred hymns on weekends during the school year, seven days a week during the summer, and other selections on special occasions or religious holidays. The carillon usually plays 15 minutes of sacred hymns Monday through Friday at 5:30, 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.