As the U.S. celebrated its independence in 1776, it was home to about 30,000 Catholics among 4 million people. The country had only one Diocese in Baltimore, led by Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the U.S., and Ohio Catholics did not have a priest or clergy to help them practice their faith.
To help them practice their faith, the Dittoe family from Somerset, Ohio (in today’s Perry County), asked Bishop Carroll to send their German Catholic community a priest. Dominican priest Edward D Fewick was nearby in Bardstown, Kentucky, so Bishop Carroll summoned him to travel to counsel the Dittoe family and their community.
From humble beginnings with mass being held in a barn, it did not take long for the community to grow into the first Catholic Church in Ohio by 1818, St. Joseph’s Church. At that time, Columbus was then still part of Cincinnati, and Fenwick became the first Bishop of Cincinnati in 1821. Before he died in 1832, Fenwick managed his enormous Diocese – which spread all the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin – founded Ohio’s first Catholic schools and a newspaper, all while traveling by horseback.
The Vatican erected the Diocese of Cleveland in 1847, and the Diocese of Columbus on March 3, 1868. At that time, there were 32 parishes and 40 missions, and 41,000 Catholics who called the new Diocese home. The first Bishop was Sylvester Rosecrans, who served from 1868 to 1878.
In the late 19th century, the diocese saw a tremendous increase in the number of immigrants from Europe, which resulted in a population of about 137,000 Catholics in the diocese by 1948. Each cultural group coming from Europe – including Poles, Slovaks, Italians, etc., wanted parishes in which their own language was spoken and their culture both understood and embraced.
As the immigrants became acclimated to the U.S. and the English language, the ethnic nature of individual parishes became blurred. Today, there are two ethnic parishes remaining in the diocese – Santa Cruz (Spanish) and St. John the Baptist (Italian) – while the rest of the parishes serve a geographical region.
Following World War II, the population of the city of Columbus began a major shift from urban setting to the suburbs. As a result, parishes also shifted opening and closing along with the population movement. In all, there has been a tremendous growth in the diocese, making it the fastest growing in Ohio. There are now nearly 300,000 catholics who call the Diocese of Columbus home, with 106 parishes, 219 priests, and 281 sisters giving counsel to the faithful.
The Reverend Robert J. Brennan, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, was appointed the 12th Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Columbus on January 31, 2019, by Pope Francis.