Catholic Biographies: Fr. Joseph Ferneding

Catholic Biographies: Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio

Rev. Joseph H. Ferneding, 1802-1872
Priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 1842 to 1872
Vicar General, 1844-1872

By Robert F. Niehaus

  • Introduction
  • His Family and Training
  • Missionary in the Indiana Wilderness
  • Priest, Church Builder in Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Building St. Paul Church, Cincinnati
  • Retirement to St. Aloysius Orphanage
  • Introduction:

    Joseph Ferneding was a pioneer Catholic priest in Southern Indiana and later in Cincinnati when the Church's presence became a reality there. He was a missionary priest for nine years (1833 to 1842), riding on horseback in all weather conditions to minister to the German and Irish Catholic immigrants scattered in cabins and clearings in the wilderness of the lower third of Indiana. There were tracks and paths, but no roads or bridges for him to follow through forest and over hills, across valleys and streams.

    The only contacts with the Church for thousands of these settler-farmers were by the visits of Father Ferneding and a few other priests like him. He literally covered a territory of 3,600 square miles. Only with his robust strength and endurance was Joseph able to continue his work there as he did for nine years.

    Later in Cincinnati, Fr. Ferneding ministered to the flood of new immigrants there, building churches and schools, as pastor and Vicar General, and then as spiritual father to the children at St. Aloysius Orphanage in the city. He was loved and respected as an extraordinary pioneer in the American church, a hero when heroes were needed.

    His Family and Training:

    Joseph was born into a family of fifteen children to parents who owned a large farm in Holdorf, in the grand duchy of Oldenburg, now the northwest part of Germany, near the Dutch border and the North Sea. Oldenburg was occupied by Napoleon's forces during the Second Napoleonic War, from about 1806 to 1815, until the French troops were finally defeated and withdrawn.

    As a younger son, Joseph decided, or was encouraged, to study for the priesthood. After his primary education in Holdorf he went to the Carolinium Gymnasium, a preparatory high school in Osnabruck. His learning abilities and record there allowed him to enter the Philosophical and Theological University of Munster, a Catholic Seminary not far to the south.

    In 1832, his studies nearly complete, Joseph was attracted to service as a priest in America by the letters home by other Oldenburg Catholics. These included Johann Bernard Stallo, a scholar who found the freedom and opportunities in the U.S. much greater than in Oldenburg. Joseph Ferneding decided to emigrate as well. He sailed for the U.S. and the port of Baltimore in early 1832. The sailing voyage took him from Bremen, up to the North Sea, westward to the Atlantic and then across the ocean, taking about two months. Arriving in Baltimore he traveled overland through the Cumberland Gap in western Virginia to the Ohio River and then down the river to Cincinnati. The trip was long and difficult and, no doubt, dreamt about later by those who survived it.

    Joseph intended to enter the new seminary, St. Mary's, in Cincinnati to finish his last months of study. He was seeking Bishop Fenwick's permission to do this. He knew English, some Latin and his own German language. He had completed nearly all of the theology studies (taught in Latin) for the priesthood. He spent several months teaching German in the Catholic secondary school in the city, waiting for the Bishop's return from his diocesan tour through northern Ohio and Michigan. Bishop Fenwick never made it back; he contracted cholera and died in Wooster, Ohio in September 1832.

    Rev. Frederic Rese, a young Swiss-born priest directing the seminary, chose not to accept Joseph's request to be admitted to study, waiting for Bishop Fenwick's approval. When word was received of the Bishop's death, Joseph decided to wait no longer in Cincinnati. He traveled about 100 miles further down the Ohio River to Louisville and then to Bardstown, Kentucky, to the diocese there. Bishop Flaget of Bardstown accepted him to complete his training in October, and he was ordained a priest July 25, 1833.

    Another challenge nearly delayed Joseph's pursuit of his ordination. Bishop Flaget was reported by Fr. Rese to be not satisfied with the knowledge of Latin that Joseph and another German seminarian showed. He wrote of his concern to Rev. Rese, who relayed this concern plus his own comments on Joseph's qualifications in scholarship to Fr. Probsting, a priest at the parish in Dinklage, near Joseph's home in Oldenburg.

    Fr. Probsting replied in May 1833 to Fr. Rese asking him to reconsider rejection of Joseph for the priesthood. He told him of the Ferneding family's shock at this news and of his knowledge of Joseph's good character. He said that Joseph's married sister and family were emigrating to Cincinnati, and his younger sister Catharine was coming to keep house for Joseph after his ordination. He repeated that the family and people in Holdorf were dismayed at this criticism from across the sea of this young man, who was their family star in scholarship, virtue and commitment to his religious vocation. By the time this letter reached Fr. Rese, Joseph had been ordained. Rese left the Diocese of Cincinnati for Europe several years after this. He did not return. Cultural differences between this American frontier and Rome were uncomfortable for him, perhaps.

    Missionary in the Indiana Wilderness:

    Despite Bishop Flaget's concern, Joseph was accepted into St. Thomas Seminary, Bardstown. After ordination Fr. Ferneding was assigned to Fr. Robert Abell's parish of St. Louis Church in Louisville, now the site of the Cathedral of the Assumption. He was asked by the bishop to commit his efforts to serving the German Catholics in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, and those in the wilderness area of Indiana, above the Ohio River. The entire state of Indiana was then part of the Diocese of Bardstown.

    Fr. Ferneding found his calling in ministering to these people, saying Mass where he could, teaching Christ's message, offering spiritual counsel and a sympathetic ear, hearing confessions, performing baptisms, marriages and funeral rites. Because of the dispersion of settlers in this large area he decided to move, with Bishop Flaget's approval, to New Alsace, Indiana, a small community west of Cincinnati.

    There he worked among the German settlers in Dearborn, Ripley, Franklin, Decatur and Jackson Counties, an area of over 60 by 60 miles. His younger sister Catharine emigrated to America a year after his arrival. She traveled to New Alsace to join him as his housekeeper and helper and remained with him for the next twenty-three years.

    Fr. Ferneding was the only German-speaking priest in Indiana in the 1830's, with few other priests there. Fr. Simon Lalumiere, a native of Vincennes, ordained at Bardstown, was sent to Daviess County and the counties along the White River in Indiana. He and Fr. Ferneding met in Rockford in 1834 as Joseph was returning to Louisville. Fr. Stephen Theodore Badin, the first priest ordained in the U.S., was doing this missionary work among settlers in the northern part of Indiana.

    Fr. Ferneding traveled in all seasons and weather conditions, with several close calls that could have cost him his life. Contemporary accounts tell of his adventures. These may seem overdrawn, but they were known to the people in this wilderness area and are described in separate accounts:

    When crossing the Whitewater River at New Trenton, Joseph found the river in flood stage, 300 feet wide, of rapid and deep water. He found two men who carried him across in a dugout canoe, with his horse tethered and swimming behind. John Heimburger of Yorkridge and Mr. Ripperger of Blue Creek were waiting at the mill there for their grist. Joseph heard them speaking German. He asked them if there were any Catholics in the area. They told him that they were Catholics from near New Alsace, and that were other Catholics in the town. He rode with them 16 miles to New Alsace, spreading the word as they rode that Mass would be offered at New Alsace in the morning. The next morning Fr. Ferneding said Mass, as promised, with about 400 faithful attending. He promised to return later for Sunday Mass, which he did. He made this his home, and Catharine joined him there. The church, St. Paul was first a simple log structure; in 1837 a new brick church was built.

    This small group of people paid Fr. Ferneding $30 a year. This is less than $40 a month in 1999 dollars. To survive he supplemented this money with stipends for baptisms, marriages and funerals, but his resources were sparse and kept him at the poverty level. Once, traveling to Louisville to minister to the German Catholics, he was out of funds for a place to stay and food. He met an Irish settler who was anxious to have his child baptized. He did so and received $2, which helped him to sleep and eat on his journey.

    On a winter trip from New Alsace to Lawrenceburg he attempted to cross Tanner's Creek, which was filled with moving ice. His horse panicked, and he found himself on an ice floe moving down the river. The floe grounded on a sandbar out in the stream. Joseph was stranded there for ten hours while his friend Francis Walliser found a farmer who lent him a rope to throw to Joseph and tow him to shore.

    He was on another journey near the Wabash River when his horse became mired in quicksand. Unable to save his horse he removed the saddle, threw it to solid ground and jumped to safety himself. He sadly left his horse and walked, carrying his saddle for some miles to an inn. Footsore and fatigued, he met a Methodist minister there whom he knew. The minister, when he heard from Fr. Ferneding about the encounter with the quicksand, asked if he had given his horse the last Sacraments. Joseph replied, "No, I left him to die like a Methodist."

    Fr. Ferneding was shunned by non-Catholics at times, who were told by some ministers that the "papist priests" were creatures of the devil. He stopped once to ask for a drink of water from a farmer, who was obviously afraid of him. Joseph removed his hat and pointed to his boots, saying: "Look at me. I am a man like you. I don't have horns or cloven hoofs." The man gave him his water.

    In New Alsace he and Catharine encountered fear and prejudice. A group there objected to the presence of a Catholic priest, hoping to drive him away with annoyances and frights at night. With Joseph away one evening, and Catharine alone, some misguided people, disguised as ghosts, walked about in the old cemetery nearby, moaning. One came to the cabin's open window. Catharine, frightened, released the window, which came down with a bang on the man's knuckles, breaking them. This probably cured this ghost of further graveyard haunting.

    Fr. Ferneding was in the wilderness in good weather and bad, in the heat and cold, with no light after dark save the moon and stars. At times, trying to reach the next farm on a stormy night, he found his way with the lightning flashes and the barking of the farm dogs to guide him. His bed at these farms was often a pallet of straw in the barn loft.

    He served in this mission for nine years, until Bishop Purcell of Cincinnati met him and asked him to come and help minister to the large number of German-speaking immigrants arriving and settling there. By then he had guided the building of twelve to as many as thirty log churches for parishes and mission chapels in southern Indiana.

    Fr. Ferneding was pastor and helped with building the church of St. Paul in New Alsace and lived there from 1834 to 1842. Other churches that he helped organize and build or ministered to were: St. Peter in Blue Creek; St. John in Dover; churches in Millhousen (Immaculate Conception) in Decatur County, churches in Lawrence and Brookville, St. Nicholas in Ripley County; other church communities in Lawrenceburg and Brookville. These are the churches whose records show his part in their founding. The last congregation that Joseph organized in Indiana was St. Joseph, (St. Leon) in Dover, Dearborn County, in 1841. Other churches he helped to start whose records are not so clear are those in St. Mary's of the Rocks, Napoleon and at Enochsburg.

    He helped to found and to raise funds for purchase of land in western Franklin County. In 1836, with the financial help of John H. Ronnebaum and John H. Plaspohl of Cincinnati, Fr. Ferneding obtained a large farm on Salt Creek and helped to lay out a town. This became the location for several Catholic religious communities and a growing population of families. The town was named Oldenburg for the grand duchy in Hannover, where Joseph and a number of other immigrants were born. The first log church, St. Mary's, later named Holy Family, was built there in 1837 by Fr. Ferneding, and a stone church built in 1848. The Franciscan monastery for friars and a convent for Franciscan Sisters were built there in the mid-nineteenth century and are still active today.

    The Diocese of Vincennes, (Indiana) was established in May 1834, soon after Fr. Ferneding began his missionary work. This diocese included all of Indiana and part of Illinois, located above the diocese of Louisville (successor to Bardstown) and west of Cincinnati and Ohio. Bishop Simon Brute was named the first Bishop of Vincennes. This area had only two diocesan priests to minister to the Catholic people in southern Indiana, Fr. Ferneding and Fr. Lalumiere. Bishop-elect Brute learned this when visiting Bishop Flaget in Louisville.

    He asked the bishop to allow these priests to remain, at least for a while, and this was granted. Bishop Flaget told Joseph, however, that he was permitted to be associated with Bishop Brute in Indiana with the condition that he return twice a year to minister former flock in Louisville. Fr. Ferneding did this for at least several years. He performed 16 marriages in 1834; he baptized children there through 1836. It was clear to Joseph that he was responsible to the Bishop of Louisville, he followed his orders and requests.

    Bishop-elect Brute met Fr. Ferneding in Louisville at the home of Fr. Abell when Joseph was also had come to visit his Louisville flock. Joseph spoke to the bishop-elect of the poverty of his New Alsace church and the struggle his parishioners had to exist. He revealed that his pay from the parish was $30 a year, the most the people could pay. With this small amount and some stipends he was barely able to make ends meet considering the cost of his traveling. Brute promised aid and a visit as soon as possible. Fr. Ferneding was offered funds given to the bishop by people in Oldenburg, near Joseph's birthplace. He would not accept this, explaining that the parish and the parishioners' needs were greater than his own. The bishop managed, almost a year later to visit New Alsace and surrounding areas.

    He promised a gift of $500 for the new brick church planned. This was sent to the parish. The bishop visited the church and nearby chapels that Fr. Ferneding had established. He met the people, confirmed those prepared for the Sacrament and blessed these small log churches as houses of God. During the visit, the bishop was moved by the faith of these people. He told Joseph that he regretted that he could not address them in their language. In November 1836 Bishop Brute again visited the parishes at New Alsace and Dover (St. John) to which Fr. Ferneding had been ministering.

    He returned to Dearborn County in June 1838, and he dedicated St. Paul's new brick church, not yet completed, the bricks being made by parishioners in a small kiln. The labor of 150 families, who were also working their farms, built the church. Bishop Brute returned for what was to be his final visit, a month later to bless St. Paul and St. Peter Church in Blue Creek. He also visited St. John Church in Dover. At the Mass at St. Paul, Fr. Martin Henni, Vicar General of the Cincinnati Diocese spoke to the congregation in German. The bishop then traveled 14 miles with Fathers Ferneding and Henni to Blue Creek, where the small frame church of St. Peter was dedicated.

    Simon Brute died less than a year later in June 1839, weakened by the rigors of this life. Fr. Ferneding continued his traveling, starting a new church in Millhousen, Decatur County. German Catholics came from Cincinnati, led by Maximilian Schneider. He bought land and brought 13 families with him to settle there. These immigrants built a 20 by 24 foot chapel in 1839, and the deed for the 40-acre property transferred in 1840 to the new bishop, Celestine de la Helaindere.

    Another church that Fr. Ferneding started was St. Nicholas in Adams Township, Ripley County, with eight families. This group of Catholics grew to 17 families within a year. They walked eight miles to New Alsace to Mass each week until they built a log church of their own in the years 1837 to 1840. Fr. Ferneding visited here monthly for Mass and the Sacraments and received a small stipend from them.

    Bishop de la Helandiere found Vincennes a diocese in the wilderness, with few clergy, each working to help those Catholics living in scattered communities and farms that they could reach. He was a strong traditionalist, used to the more organized church of the long-settled European states. He did not visit the area where Joseph ministered until over a year later. It is likely that he requested a report on Fr. Ferneding's mission churches and chapel stations. Joseph submitted this to him.

    His report, hand written on notepaper, still exists. In this report the St. Leon parish is omitted, perhaps because it was written before this parish was started. The bishop apparently took Joseph to task, in a letter for not having the church property in St. Leon registered in the bishop's name. The property (one fifth of an acre) was put in the names of five men, acting as trustees for the parish, in trust for the Catholic Diocese. Possibly Fr. Ferneding encouraged this; there is no record that he did. He had not done this with church properties before. The bishop further criticized Joseph for starting the new parish in St. Leon without his prior approval (a rule that Bishop Brute had not applied).

    In May the bishop belatedly gave his approval for the church in St. Leon. However, he added the condition that the German Catholics there were to consider St. John Church in Dover (mainly non-German members) their parish. The bishop was concerned about the St. Leon church becoming a national (German) parish; his ruling was not in keeping with the reality of immigrant community life in this wilderness, nor with the practice in Cincinnati and other diocese.

    Fr. Ferneding was then forty years old; he had served in Kentucky and Indiana for ten years including his year required by Bishop Flaget in the seminary, when his goal had been to serve in Cincinnati since his arrival in America. He was worn by nine years of continual exposure to weather and rigors of horseback travel. He also remembered those years from his boyhood when Napoleon's French troops occupied Oldenburg, applying harsh military rule with contempt for the local farm folk.

    He decided not to accommodate this French bishop, whose written words and attitude were close to those of the soldiers of his earlier years. Fr. Ferneding had never talked to the bishop face to face, due to the delays in the bishop's visit. Perhaps a talk together would have made a difference between them. From comments at his funeral, thirty years later, Joseph was known for his ability to accomplish what he undertook. He was remarkably energetic, determined and courageous. In his dealings he was straight-forward, his approach to others plain and open. It was mainly this open-heartedness and earnest nature that won the confidence and love of the people to whom he ministered.

    Fr. Ferneding blessed his people, said his goodbye and left Indiana with his sister for Cincinnati in March to April, 1842. The bishop's ruling on which parish was theirs to attend discouraged these German folk. The Catholic community in New Alsace was further disturbed by the bishop's assignments of non German-speaking priests after Fr. Ferneding had left. It seemed that the Church had abandoned them.

    Bishop Purcell and Fr. Henni had encouraged Fr. Ferneding to come to Cincinnati. Their diocese was in stark need of German/English speaking priests. When he left Indiana Fr. Ferneding was actually still under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Louisville. The newly arrived Bishop of Vincennes assumed that Joseph was under his control. Joseph apparently had notified Bishop Chabrat of Louisville of his move to Cincinnati. The bishop's secretary wrote to Bishop Purcell of the bishop's acceptance of Joseph's decision, but reminded them that he might need to recall Joseph some day, if he needed him. He never chose to do this.

    Bishop de la Helandiere was not so accommodating. He sent a strongly worded letter to Bishop Purcell, complaining that Joseph left his diocese without his permission, asking that Fr. Ferneding not be given a position or a pastorship in Cincinnati.

    Second Part of Father Ferneding's Biography

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