In Cincinnati, German-influenced architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries signifies the city's heritage. While the rising tide of commercialism threatens to dwarf the city's historically significant edifices, churches and other religious sanctuaries tend to buck this trend due to cultural and spiritual value. The continuing presence of such monuments is a testament to their engineering quality, unique presentation, inspirational significance, and exemplary maintenance. The Catholic Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption is an example of a classic Bavarian landmark, rooted in the ground as strongly as it is in the community.
Located on Madison Avenue in Covington, KY, the 116-year old church is one of only 35 basilicas in the United States. Commissioned by the third Bishop of the Diocese of Covington, construction took 21 years, mostly because of financial difficulties. Based on the original design, it is still considered unfinished. Nonetheless, it is spectacular.
The Gothic church's façade is based on French Rayonnant architecture, focused more on detail than size. Noticeably omitted is a towering steeple; therefore, the thick, three-story stone exterior has a more centralized focus, and the ornate building can be embraced in one sweeping frame.
Grabbing the attention of drivers and visitors alike, the symmetrical western wall runs adjacent to the street. This is the main entryway where three Gothic arches house as many wood doors. All three arches are capped by circular rose windows; unlike the smaller outlying windows, the larger middle section's is stained glass. On the roof, 26 Italian carved Gargoyles divert rainwater while attentively watching over the church grounds.
Notre Dame-style buttresses support the northern and southern sides of the structure. Additionally supported are the 82 German-manufactured stained glass windows that fill the upper portion of the building's four walls. The size and volume of the windows is instantly recognizable as their colors sparkle against the muted gray of the smoothed stone.
While the western front entrance is entirely masonry, the three remaining sides include impeccably maintained gardens. Two are attached to a large parking lot on the northern side of the building, and a smaller lot on its eastern side. The lushness of the campus isolates it from the street and surrounding area, even though only steps separate them.
The interior of Covington's Cathedral Basilica is the epitome of efficient design; every inch enriches the church – but without crossing the line from class to decadence. Also, the high ceilings, a hallmark design of European religious buildings, allow the soul to stretch. While seating capacity is modest relative to other major churches, it is not obvious; the colors and decorations command presence in this house of worship.
Mosaics of the 14 Stations of the Cross surround the body of pews along the nave and transept walls. In total, an estimated 80,000 porcelain ceramic tiles vividly recreate Christ's last endeavors as they were painted by the Bavarian Redemptorist, Brother Max Schmalzl. Above the stations on the second floor are three organs. The Wicks pipe organ on the southern side was originally installed in 1930 and expanded in 1982 and 2001. A smaller companion organ accompanies the Wicks in the southern apse. Finally, the western end of the building added the Matthias Schwab tracker organ in 1970. Built in 1859 for the local St. Joseph's Church, St. Mary's assumed the treasure when the old church was torn down. The combination of all three organs equals over 82 ranks and 4,576 pipes resonating under the 81-foot ceilings. Every year on Good Friday, a masterful choir accompanies the church's three organs to honor the final moments of Christ's life.
As the exterior alludes, the beaming stained glass windows cast kaleidoscopic light throughout the church. Each set of windows depict important Christian individuals and the experiences that helped shape their teachings. Childhood experiences of Jesus are presented on the the south nave. Christ's adult events are depicted on the, including a 67-foot by 24-foot behemoth, one of the largest stained glass windows in the world. This window represents the fifth century Council of Ephesus that affirmed the Humanity and Divinity of Jesus the Christ by naming Mary "the Mother of God." Outlining these central depictions are dedications to the apostles, saints, and doctors of the early church.
The humble sanctuary is visible from any angle, and in it, the dazzling Italian marble is replaced with wood. Five evenly spaced candles on the altar reflect its diminutive size. Sharing floor space with the altar are a wooden pulpit, carved with the seven patrons of preachers and a tall, thin Bishop's chair, the symbol of the teaching and pastoral authority of the Bishop. In the back, an immense wood baldachin featuring carvings of saints and angels is surmounted by Our Lady of the Assumption, under which a cross hangs. The baldachin looms over the sanctuary, yet covers only half the area between floor and ceiling. A panoramic glimpse of the sanctuary backed by the intersection of the walls with the ribbed vault ceiling is breathtaking. The compilations of arches and vaults sprawl in an open layout that radiates under a colorful spectrum of light. This natural light and presence suspend a moment in time. Silence is the best tone to accompany such a sight.
Six private prayer chapels finalize the Cathedral's efficient design. Tucked away from the central aisle and sanctuary, visitors can find a personal recluse while still enjoying the church's inspirational decorum. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the southeastern corner is the largest and most sacred of the six – complete silence is demanded and no pictures can ever be taken, even on tours. Highlighting this chapel are two Duveneck Murals. The internationally renowned, local artist Frank Duveneck painted these murals in 1910. The entire northern wall of the chapel depicts Eucharistic themes: the sacrifice of the high priest Melchizedek, Christ's sacrifice on the cross, and the Ceremony of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The second fresco high on the west wall shows Christ breaking bread with his disciples at Emmaus. Next to this smaller fresco are more Communion themed stained glass windows which shower light onto the paintings and the gold-plated tabernacle in the center of the room.
What is so phenomenal about this church is that it is a living masterpiece. Like a Renaissance painting, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption applies overlapping shapes, perfectly contrasted colors, and cultural prominence to produce a masterpiece. But the people - the workers, volunteers, parishioners, and visitors – are the ones keeping it alive. Something so harmonious has already stamped its place in history. It can never disappear, can never be replaced.
- Monday through Saturday: 9:30am to 4pm
- Sunday: 9:30am to 7pm
- Self-guided tour brochures are free and available to individuals or small groups at the greeter's desk located at the northern entrance. Brochures are currently available in English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Japanese.
- Docent-guided tours for groups of ten or more can be arranged with at least two weeks' notice.
- Location: 1140 Madison Avenue, Covington, KY
- Phone: 859-431-2060
- Note: Use extension 17 for tour requests and to reach the Cathedral Foundation.
- Website: www.covcathedral.com