History of Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church

 Prior to 1785, Virginia (which then included present West Virginia) had a state church, the Protestant Episcopal.  Roman Catholic immigrants were barred from the state.  Priests had to sneak in at night, ever alert of danger, to minister to the few Catholics who had cloaked their religious affiliation and settled in the state.

Shortly after 1815 the first Catholic family, the Josephs, arrived in the area and settled in the southern part of Wood County near Belleville.  They became the nucleus of a small Catholic settlement, which developed along the North Fork of Lee Creek.

Around 1836 an Irish priest Father James Reid began making regular missionary visits to the faithful at Lee Creek.  Father Reid of the Diocese of Cincinnati had as his mission the entire area along the Ohio River from Cambridge, Ohio to Wood County.

According to census figures there were no Catholic families residing in the town of Parkersburg until the early 1840's.

1841 - In September 1841, the new Bishop of Richmond Richard V. Whelan pays his first visit to the Catholics in Wood County.

1844 - Bishop Whelan dispatches Father Joseph Plunkett on a missionary journey through the western portion of the diocese.  He visits as far as Parkersburg.

1845 - Bishop Whelan on June 1, 1845, appoints the Rev. Austin Grogan, the great "Pioneer Priest of West Virginia", to minister to the Catholics in Parkersburg and several surrounding counties.  He serves until 1849.

1846 - On April 28, 1847, Bishop Whelan purchases the present church lot on Market Street from Beverly and Catherine Smith for $306.00 to be paid over a three-year term.

1849 - The scattering of Catholics along the Ohio River have until now been ministered from Wheeling.  Father Robert J. Lawrence is appointed to serve this area.  Bishop Whelan decides to make Parkersburg a center of missionary activity.  The bishop states in a diocesan report for 1849, that "a neat brick chapel is being erected at this point, which many circumstances indicate as one likely to become prominent on the Ohio River."  A notation in the archives of the diocese states that the cornerstone for this first church was laid on October 27th, 1849.  Father Lawrence moves his missionary headquarters to Parkersburg and becomes the first resident pastor.

1850 - The small brick mission church measuring 30 X 60 is completed at a cost of $1,600.00.  When built the parish consists of six families residing in Parkersburg and six families in the surrounding countryside.  On occasion, the 30 Catholics in neighboring Pleasants County swell their number.  On July 19th, the Diocese of Wheeling is created, being partitioned from the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia.

1851 - The parish boundaries include the entire area from St. Mary's to Charleston and as far east as West Union.  Visits are also made to the Catholics in neighboring Washington County, Ohio.

1857 - On May 1, the railroad line from Grafton to Parkersburg is completed, drawing a huge influx of railroad workers who are predominately Irish-Catholic immigrants.  The Catholic Church in Parkersburg is given the name St. Mary's Rev. Thomas Sheehan is pastor.

1858 - Additional lots adjoining the church are purchased for the erection of a school and rectory, which are built in the early 1860's.  Bishop Whelan appoints Rev. Henry Parke as pastor.  A parish census taken August 1, 1858 shows a total of "303 souls".

1859 - The parish is officially named in honor of St. Francis Xavier.

1863 - June 20, 1863, the state of West Virginia is born. 

1864 - On August 6, eight Sisters of the Visitation arrive at the invitation of Father Parke to begin an academy for girls.  The "Visitation Academy" would later become known as DeSales Heights.  In the parish the sisters teach Sunday school and organize sodalities.

1865 - The Civil War ends.

1867 - In August, Father Parke and the congregation begin construction of a new church to replace the old church which had become inadequate to meet the needs of the growing Catholic population.  Patrick Charles Keely of New York is selected as the architect.  Lysander Dudley of Parkersburg is awarded the contract for the construction.  Meanwhile, at Lee Creek the faithful there begin construction of a small frame church.  With financial help from the European community through the Propagation of Faith Society the church is completed and dedicated to the honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary and named the "Church of the Immaculate Conception."  It becomes a mission church in the care of St. Francis Xavier.

1869 - On May 9, the new cornerstone is laid for the present church edifice.

1870 - On October 2, the substantially completed church is dedicated.  The final cost of its construction is $59,930.05.

1871 - An associate pastor of St. Xavier, Father Thomas Quirk, begins publication of "The Catholic Messenger" the first Catholic newspaper in the state.

1872 - St. Xavier Catholic Cemetery is established at 14th and Dilloway Streets.

1895 - New stained glass windows and skylight are installed to replace those damaged by nitroglycerin blast.

1896 - First major renovation program on church is completed by Father Hickey.  Church re-opened on July 19.

1901 - In the spring of this year a group of Pittsburgh business parties make an offer of $170,000 for the church and rectory.  Father Hickey purchases options on property at 9th and Avery Street to build a new St. Xavier's.  The church is spared the wrecking ball however when the deal fails to go through. 

1915 - Bell tower is domed and a bell is installed.  This bell, dedicated to St. Catherine weighs over 3,000 pounds.  The bell tower dome is designed by Dietrich Kruger and built by Joseph Simpson Higgs.

1917 - Two more bells are added to tower.  They are consecrated in honor of Saints Brigid and Patrick.

1924 - The Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus come to Parkersburg to reestablish the parish school.

1930 - New Stations of the Cross installed.

1948 - Second major renovation program commences and is completed by Father John O' Reilly.  Much of the renovation program is devoted to structural reinforcement of the church.  (Completed in 1949)

1951 - The parish community builds a new parish school at 9th and Juliana Streets and establishes Parkersburg Catholic High School.

1956 - The Canadian organ builder Casavant builds and installs a new pipe organ in the church at a cost of $27,000.

1957 - Ordinations of priests are generally held at the diocesan Cathedral in Wheeling but two native sons of the parish, Robert Park, and Ed Sadie are ordained on June 1 by Bishop McDonnell at St. Xavier.  Both will go on to do exemplary work in the diocese in the fields of youth work education and social ministry. 

1964 - On November 29 the first of many changes in the liturgy begins as the directives of Vatican II are implemented.  A new altar that faces the congregation is placed in the sanctuary and the Latin Mass gives way to a liturgy predominately in English.  The Council would usher in a series of reforms in virtually every area of the Church for the next several years.  The Council concluded in December 1965.

1970 - Parish celebrates centennial of the church on October 8th.

1978 - Massive restoration program begun by pastor, Auxiliary Bishop James Michaels to restore church to original grandeur.  Church is added to National Register of Historic Places.

1988 - Father Thomas Rafferty, a native son of the parish, celebrates his Golden Jubilee (50th anniversary) as a priest with a special Mass with his parish family.  Father Rafferty distinguished himself as chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital for many years.

1988 - A new vehicle of bringing converts into the faith is begun in the parish called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).  This process, used in the ancient days of the Church, better prepares candidates for Catholicism.  The highly successful program also serves parishioners as a continuing religious education program.

1994 - A new slate roof is installed on the church by the Tri-State Roofing Co.  The slates, imported from Spain, are complimented with all new copper flashing and guttering.

1995 - Father Michael O'Reilly commissions for the most extensive and elaborate restoration work ever on the church ceiling decorative artwork and murals.  The two-year project, which costs in excess of $300,000.00, brings together a host of art conservators, restorers and building preservationists.  Their work and skill brings the famed interior decorations of our church back to their original vibrant hues and clarity.

1997 - Parish purchases additional property lots up 6th and Market Streets for future parish needs.

1998 - The former Kresge building located at 609 Market St. is purchased by the parish for use as a parish hall.

1999 - Beverly Hoffman, a parishioner, takes her vows as a Sister of Charity in Kentucky.

2000 - The Great Jubilee and the 150th Anniversary of the erection of the Diocese of Wheeling are celebrated.  Due to St. Xavier's significance in the history of the Diocese, Bishop Schmitt selects the church as a pilgrimage site for the faithful of the Diocese bestowing special graces to all who visit and pray at the church.

2002 - The parish advances technologically.  In May, the parish website (www.stx-pburg.org) goes on-line.  The website contains parish information, schedules, pictures, history, and links to other church-related websites.  E-mail is used to notify parishioners of news and upcoming events.

2003 - Renovation work on the parish center, which began in 1998, is completed.  Among the improvements are a new facade and sidewalk that greatly improve the front appearance of the building.  Across from the center, three dilapidated buildings are demolished and a concrete parking lot for the use of the parish is constructed.  Renovations to the church are made to improve accessibility.  A wheelchair ramp and entry are added at the rear entrance behind St. Joseph's altar.  Accessible restroom facilities are added to the sacristy area and in the right front vestibule area of the church.

2004 - Father Casey Mahone is appointed pastor.

2005 - Father Mahone begins a series of lectures on the Catholic faith at the Parish Center beginning in May.  The popular lectures attract a wide audience of both Catholics and non-Catholics.  The topics include "Separated Brethren" which examines various Protestant denominations.  "The Gospel of John" and "The Book of Revelation" complete the lecture series.

April 2, 2005 Pope John Paul the Great dies and is succeeded by Benedict XVI.

2006 - The Children's Liturgy of the Word begins during the 10:30 a.m. mass.  This catechistical program introduces young children to the importance of God's message in the Scriptures.

2007 - On May 25, Father Soosai Arokiadas is appointed associate pastor.  He is a member of a Indian missionary order the "Heralds of the Good News".  This era would see many priests from this order coming to the diocese and receiving their initial training at St. Xavier.

2008 - Additional property on Market Street is purchased for a planned expansion of the church parking lot.

Bishop Michael Bransfield appoints Father R. Eric Hall as pastor of St. Xavier and St. Monica's parishes. 

On October 26th, Father Tim Grassi celebrates a Tridentine Mass for a capacity crowd at St. Xavier's.  This form of the Mass was used prior to 1965 and Vatican II.

2009 - On March 25th, the funeral Mass of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Joseph Albright, a life-long, active member of the parish, is broadcast state-wide via television and internet.  It is the first broadcast ever of a service at St. Xavier.

A downtown soup kitchen, "Stone Soup Kitchen" is opened at the Parish Center to meet the needs of many displaced persons in Parkersburg.

As part of the ongoing capital improvements, additional property is purchased by Father Eric Hall to augment expansion of the church parking lot, and a major overhaul to the decades-old wiring of the church is completed.

2012 - Father Hall commissions a new altar of sacrifice, which was hand crafted from red oak by parishioner Michael McKay.  The first Mass on this new altar was celebrated on April 25.

2013 - Father John Rice is appointed pastor.  A Franciscan missionary from India, Father Vincy Illickal, is appointed associate pastor. 

2014 - The parish is instrumental in bringing a new evangelization/educational tool to the area.  Catholic Radio WOUX FM 105.3 begins broadcasting on September 18th.  Affiliated with St. Paul Radio and EWTN the station offers 24/7 programming to a wide are in both West Virginia and Ohio.

2015 - Father John "jump starts" the church renovation plans which had begun in 2007 as part of Father Casey's "Preserving our Past, Preparing our Future Campaign".  He unites parishioners behind an ambitious makeover of the church.  In January a temporary worship area is arranged in the parish center as work begins on the long awaited floor replacement of the church.  New porcelain tiles with intricate designs and craftsmanship are installed throughout the church, vestibule and sacristy areas.  The church floors are taken down to the joists, leveled and rebuilt complete with new and improved fiberglass insulation underneath.  More than 100 parishioners physically help in the renovation at one point or another.  The renovation becomes a stunning transformation with a refurbishing of the interior chandeliers, a new Children's gathering space, improved wheelchair access, and a state of the art speaker system with audio/visual capabilities is installed.  In addition, sacristy areas were remodeled and the vestibules painted.  Parishioners "go rejoicing to the house of the Lord" on Pentecost Sunday. 

2020 - The coronavirus pandemic sept through the world.  On March 13th President Trump declared a national state of emergency which resulted in the closing of the church for all services.  To keep parishioners engaged Father John used every technological tool available during this crisis.  Masses and services were broadcast on YouTube.  Frequent email blasts were sent to parishioners with parish news, prayers and devotions.  Parishioners without computers were sent mailed notices.  The social media application Facebook was utilized and calling committees organized to contact parishions.  Public Masses and services with restrictions resumed on May 26th.

2020 - Two major renovation programs were completed during the year.  January saw the completion of an extensive remodeling of the 157 year old parish rectory.  Improvements included new windows, insulation, painting, plumbing and electrial upgrades.  Extensive improvements were also completed at the parish center.  The nearly $700,000 project included enhancements and upgrades to the fire and security systems, lighting, heating and ventilation and new flooring was installed throughout.  Both projects were completed with assistance from many parish volunteers.  The center reopened on December 6th.

Architecture - Elements of Gothic architecture are present in the building however these are subordinate to the dominant Romanesque order of design.  The church was built during a time when the Romanesque design was a prominent design of churches.  The beauty of the church building provides for a direct and sensory spiritual encounter with God.  Entering the church one experiences a space and time different from ordinary life.

Holy Water Fonts - Upon entering the interior of the church, one notices the small marble holy water fonts near the doors.  Catholics dip their right hand in the holy water and themselves with the sign of the cross, as a reminder of their baptism, their faith in the Trinity, and the saving death and resurrection of Jesus.

Gathering Space - The design of the wall that now encloses the worship space and sets apart an area for a gathering space, as well as mothers and children who need a place during Mass, was taken from the existing doors and walls.  Each of the aisle doors mimics the original door behind it, and the center arched door holds a round stained glass window, just as those in the sanctuary.  The gathering place has audio-visual components that broadcast Mass and other liturgical ceremonies that are taking place.

Reconciliation Room - In this room off to your left, Catholics receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or Confession as it was formerly called).  Catholics are obliged to confess to a priest if they know they have committed a serious sin by which they have deliberately cut themselves off from God.

Statues - St. Francis contains several beautiful statues.  Our church statuary includes the Blessed Virgin Mary, her husband St. Joseph, Saint Anthony, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and our parish patron St. Francis Xavier.  Statues are like photographs; they remind us of people we love.

Tile Floor - The 2015 Renovation to St. Francis Xavier was undertaken to replace the red carpet that was installed in the late 1970's.  David Gardiner of Gardiner Hall Associates was the Liturgical Design Consultant who collaborated with the parish to design the floor, taking the color scheme from the murals overhead.  In these renovations, every attempt was made to be faithful to the original design of the church, with the mantra that we were merely completing the work that was begun 150 years ago.  As you enter the church from the Market Street entrance, earth tones dominate, using cappuccino tile representing our early pilgrimage, that the church is made up of human beings.  This where our journey begins.  At the North entrance, the Baptismal font stands in a sea of white marble tile, representing our path to holiness.  The Altar of Sacrifice stands amid a blue field, the heavenly banquet which is our hope.  It is studded with pure white diamonds, to represent the stars of heaven, the saints who are already with God.  (Sirach 43:9; Dan 3:63; Flowing from the altar, we see lines of tile that speak of the overflowing nature of God's grace, and his desire to reach out to all people.  This overflow forms the border of the center aisle and is most evoked by Chapter 47 of Ezekiel.  To get to the altar, one travels as a pilgrim down the center aisle through five crosses, the five wounds of Christ.  At the foot of the altar lies the emblem of the Jesuit order in honor of Saint Francis Xavier who was a founding father of the Jesuits along with Ignatius of Loyola.  The emblem features the letters IHS in the center - the first three letter of the name of Jesus in Greek, with a cross and the nails to represent the crucifixion of his human form.  A sunburst in which the emblem rests is symbolic of the Divinity of Jesus, that he is the Son.  Wood plank tiles were selected for under the pews to imitate the tongue and groove wood that they replaced.  As human beings, we tend to want to stay in our humanity, this is the place where we listen for the voice of God to speak to us, but it is only when we journey outside of the pews that our path to God is active.  The work of leveling the floor and installing the 22 tons of porcelain tile fell to Ollom Tile of Beverly, Ohio.  In the process of replacing floor, it was completely rebuilt from the floor joists up.  HVAC vents were moved, insulation installed, electric wiring upgraded and asbestos was removed as part of this renovation.  The net result is that the floor, and entire building, has been stabilized for the next 100 years.

Stations of the Cross - Along the walls, one notices the painted copper plates marking the fourteen Stations of the Cross - the journey of Christ from His condemnation to Calvary, his death and burial.  Thus one is able to visit in spirit the places where these events took place in the Holy Land, and devoutly recall the Passion and death of our Lord.  Persons can go from station to station privately, or join with the congregation at times of public reflection on the Stations.  This devotion is particularly popular during Lent.  The current Stations of the Cross, though not original to the church itself, were hand-painted on copper plates by Anton Figel in Munich, Germany, in 1929 and installed in the church in 1930, a gift of the Crotty family.

Old Confessionals - Midway up the side aisles you will notice a white confessional.  Prior to changes implemented by Vatican Council II, the parishioners to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation used these intricately carved confessional "boxes".

Stained Glass Windows - Like the stations, the stained glass windows are not original to the Church.  On June 1, 1895 a boat-carrying nitroglycerin exploded on the Little Kanawha River destroying the original windows.  The only windows not destroyed were those that face Market Street.  The present stained glass windows were made and installed by the G. C. Riordan Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Many of the windows have various religious and Christian symbols incorporated in them.

Murals - The murals of St. Francis Xavier Church have been called "the most significant examples of ecclesiastical art in West Virginia today" by the WV Dept. of Culture and History.  The three-dimensional, bas-relief style also known as tromp l'oeil painting or "fool-the-eye" make the murals most noteworthy.  Daniel Muller of Munich, Germany, who came from New York City, painted the murals and vaulted ceiling of the church in 1870 for the sum of $3,500,00. The term fresco is also sometimes used, improperly, to describe the paintings.  They are, in fact, tempera paintings or "distemper".  The artist applied watercolor mixed with egg or other adhesive substances directly to the dry plaster surface to create the murals.  Muller intended for his paintings to imitate sculpture.  The five center murals depict scenes from the life of Christ.  The mural on the left side shows the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven.  The mural on the right side depicts our patron saint Francis Xavier at his death on the Island of Cancian in the Japanese Sea where he had gone to do missionary work.  Other paintings are of the 12 apostles and various religious emblems.

Sanctuary - As you walk to the front center of the church, you will see the sanctuary.  As in any Catholic Church, the focal point of honor is the altar, or table of the Lord, at which Eucharist is celebrated.  The ornate white Gothic altar was used prior to Vatican II for the celebration of Mass.  In its center is the tabernacle where the consecrated bread - or Blessed Sacrament - is reserved after mass to be taken as communion for the sick and as focus of special devotion.  Suspended from the sanctuary ceiling is a red votive light that burns constantly.  This "eternal light" denotes that the Lord Jesus, who is the light of the world, is present in the tabernacle.  Located behind the sanctuary are the sacristy areas where the priest and liturgical ministers vest for services.  

Woodwork - Joseph Daris, a German carver of wood, handcrafted much of the interior and exterior woodwork.  This master carpenter, whose work we continue to admire with awe today, crafted the original altars, the confessionals, communion rail, and exterior millwork. 

Baptismal Font - This beautiful metal font is original to the church.  Located to the left of the sanctuary, the top of the font depicts the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist.  Around the font are symbols and depictions of the other sacraments of the catholic Church.  At the foot are statues of the four Evangelists, to show the importance of Sacred Scripture in the Catholic's life.

The Pipe Organ - As you start down the center aisle you will notice the choir loft above you.  St. Xavier's pipe organ is an instrument of 23 1/2 ranks.  This Casavant organ was built and installed in 1956.  The console and pipes are located in the center of the loft.  It is considered by many to be the finest organ in the Mid-Ohio Valley.  The current replacement value is $350,000.

Accessibility - A wheelchair accessible entrance is located at the right rear entrance of the church behind St. Joseph's altar.  Accessible restrooms are located at this entry and also in the right front vestibule area of the church.  Accessible parking is available behind the church and rectory and in the parish lot on the corner of 6th street.

Bells of St. Xavier's - Rising 100 feet above the center vestibule is the bell tower, which was completed in 1915.  The largest bell, dedicated to St. Catherine was hung at that time.  The other bells, added in 1917, are consecrated to the honor of Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid.  These bells have a chime-effect, which is most pleasing to hear.  The MacShane Bell Foundry cast the bells in bronze in Baltimore, Maryland.  Our late bishop, Bernard Schmitt, best summed up the power of bells when he said, "Bells are the voice of God calling men to prayer".



Special thanks to Roger Nedeff for gathering all this information!