Monday, September 29, 2008

"On Holy Ground"

Speaking of circuit-riding, an open-air liturgy was held yesterday on a field 30 miles outside Columbus to mark the 200th anniversary of Ohio's first Mass on the site.

Celebrated in a log cabin by the Maryland-born Dominican Edward Fenwick -- who, by 1821, was named the state's first bishop -- the grounds were recently acquired by the Columbus diocese and dedicated as a memorial at yesterday's Eucharist:
It was here that the first Mass was held in September 1808, five years after Ohio became a state. It's also where Ohio's first Catholic church, St. Joseph's, was built years later.

Generations of storytelling, not to mention detailed record-keeping, have kept the area's religious history alive.

Columbus Bishop Frederick Campbell, who celebrated Mass outdoors at the site yesterday, recounted the story of pioneer Jacob Dittoe and how he wrote to Bishop John Carroll in Baltimore, Md., begging for a priest. In late September 1808, when the Rev. Edward Fenwick arrived from Kentucky and found Dittoe's log cabin, the pioneer's family thought he was a messenger sent from heaven.

"There were probably paths, rather than roads," Campbell told the crowd. "And by the time he actually found Jacob Dittoe, he was saddle sore. And yet, he came."

As the story goes, Fenwick celebrated Mass for about 20 people inside Dittoe's log cabin.

The log cabin has long since been torn down, but the significance of the land, which for years was part of a family farm, is well-preserved.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus purchased the 8-acre tract under former Bishop James A. Griffin, who envisioned building a chapel and visitor center there.

Now, in a clearing bordered by trees, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in the center of a freshly planted rosary garden. Eventually, a replica of Dittoe's cabin will be built, said Pete Thomas, who lives in New Albany and is a descendant of the Dittoe family. He helped organize yesterday's ceremony.

"All these same families that moved in 200 years ago are still very involved in all aspects of life in Perry County," Thomas said. He estimated that he is related to roughly half of the people who turned out for the celebration. "It really makes you reaffirm your faith and think about how blessed you are," Thomas said.
PHOTO: Doral Chenoweth III/Columbus Dispatch