St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is about two miles south of Somerset, Ohio in Perry County. It’s of interest to Aquinians for several reasons. It’s the location of the first Catholic Church in Ohio. It was the location of a Dominican Priory where many novice priests and brothers came to pursue their religious studies. Numerous Aquinas friars passed through St. Joseph’s Priory on their way to priesthood. Finally, it’s the location of a community cemetery for priests and brothers of the Dominican Order. Many Aquinas Dominicans are buried there.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is regarded as the cradle of faith in Ohio, as it was the first Catholic church in the state. The original church, dedicated on December 6, 1818, was a log cabin. A second church followed in 1821 to accommodate a growing population. Construction of the present or third church began in 1839; it was dedicated on St. Dominic’s day in 1843. It caught on fire in 1864 during which time the spire toppled down along with the bell. Only the sturdy brick walls survived the fury of the blaze. It was reconstructed without its original steeple and rededicated in 1866.
The third Priory building at Somerset was completed and dedicated in 1882. It was located just to the west of the church. St Joseph’s was a “studium” or House of Studies from 1840 until 1905. After the founding of The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.,, Somerset Priory became a Simple Novitiate for the Province offering only Philosophy courses. Candidates went on to Washington DC to complete their theology studies and subsequent ordination. After a decline in vocations, Somerset Priory became a training house for lay brothers only. It closed in the 1960s and the building was subsequently torn down. Numerous Aquinas Dominicans passed through this building on their way to priesthood. Fathers Sheehan (1919), Vollmer, Crombie (ordained in Somerset, 1939), Segren, and Wade are some of the friars I’ve been able to identify that passed through Somerset Priory.
A postcard view of St. Joseph’s circa 1900 shows both the Church and House of Studies in the background. The scene on the right shows white objects in the foreground which weren't recognizable at first. Further consideration showed they were Dominicans in white habits relaxing on the grounds of the Priory. The winter scene on the left shows Dominicans standing in snow wearing white habits, black overcoats and fedora style hats. The church and Priory are in the far background.
The Community Cemetery
During the early days of St. Joseph’s, the dead were buried close to the first and second churches. The cemetery was then moved to the rear corner of the third church. This too eventually became unsuitable and a community cemetery for Dominicans Friars and Brothers was created in the early 1900’s. Locally known as God’s Acre, it’s located on high grounds north of the church. The area is marked by a chain fence with a large marble cross denoting its location. Many Dominican priests and brothers are buried there. It’s still an active cemetery for the province. Fathers McKenna, Crombie, Tierney, Sheehan, Grady, and Mottey are some of the Aquinas Friars whose headstones I’ve located.
The third church at St. Joseph's with its reconstructed tower
The third Priory at Somerset
Circa 1900 postcard showing Dominican novices with the church and Priory in the background
Enlargement showing Dominicans relaxing on Priory grounds
Entrance to the Community Cemetery at Somerset
Father Tierney's grave with WW 2 marker. He was an Aquinas graduate.