Monday, June 23, 2003

Bellevue church closes doors

Attendance decline brought end for St. Anthony

By Stephenie Steitzer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BELLEVUE - In the 1960s, more than 65 babies a year were baptized at St. Anthony of Padua Church.

In recent years, though, that number had dwindled to four or five a year, said the Rev. John Kroger.

A decade of declining attendance caused the Poplar Street church - one of Bellevue's two Catholic churches - to close its doors for good Sunday after a final Mass. It was the second Greater Cincinnati Catholic church in as many weeks to close.

"It is hard to see it all come to an end, but we are realistic and optimistic," Kroger said. "We will move on."

About 400 people attended Sunday's final Mass, though Kroger said normal Sunday attendance is about 250. Many of the people at the 113-year-old church Sunday had moved away years ago from the river town of 6,400 for homes in more distant suburbs.

Eileen Draime, 67, grew up in a house across the street, a house that was later bulldozed for the church parking lot. She was baptized there, attended Catholic school and watched five nieces and nephews grow up in the church.

"This is the only church I've ever known," she said. "It's almost like a death in the family."

But Draime, like so many other former St. Anthony parishioners, moved from Bellevue to Fort Thomas.

Kroger said the church grew during its first six decades. At its peak in the 1960s, it celebrated four Masses each Sunday.

Since 1990, Bellevue has seen a 7.4 percent drop in population. Many of the city's Catholic schools have closed or consolidated.The church itself, which was built in 1893, has been kept in shape throughout the years. The wooden truss ceiling and the arc-shaped stained glass windows are in good condition. So are the walls and pews.

During Sunday's Mass, Kroger narrated a slide show of the church's history.

Bellevue resident Harold Stidham, 78, was among many teary-eyed parishioners who packed the church. "It's like losing a part of me," he said.

Stidham married his wife, Martha, who is now deceased, at St. Anthony 55 years ago and has watched his five children grow up in the church. One of his children, Susan Minton, 49, recalled attending Mass every day as a little girl.

"You had to behave," she joked.

St. Anthony is among at least six Catholic churches in the Tristate that have closed in the past five years. Last week, 134-year-old St. Bonaventure Church in South Fairmount shuttered its doors.The newly formed Divine Mercy parish will worship at the Sacred Heart Church on Division Street in Bellevue. Kroger said the Diocese of Covington does not plan to sell St. Anthony Church.



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