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St. Alphonsus Catholic Church

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1886–1887, Fr. Anthony Schuermann, Edgar W. Wells
  • St. Alphonsus Catholic Church (State Historic Preservation Office, West Virginia Division of Culture and History)

In 1851, a year after being installed as the first bishop of the newly created Diocese of Wheeling, Richard Vincent Whelan requested additional priests from the Redemptorist Fathers in Pittsburgh. He hoped that they would establish a new church for an exclusively Germanspeaking congregation. According to a history of the parish, Whelan drew the plans and supervised construction of the church. Begun in 1856, it was a simple rectangular building, of brick with Romanesque details. The church was completed in 1858 and named for the founder of the Redemptorist order. In 1871 a tower was added, and in 1874–1875 a parish school was built immediately to the north.

In 1884 St. Alphonsus was placed under the charge of the Capuchins, who, anticipating a new and larger church, assigned Father Anthony Mary Schuermann, recognized for his architectural skills, as priest. Two years later, the old church was demolished, and the present building began to take its place. The cornerstone was laid August 1, 1886, but Father Anthony, who had collapsed before the ceremony, left Wheeling two days later. According to the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, plans were then “placed in the hands of architect E. W. Wells who carried them out faithfully, adding his mechanical ingenuity and artistic skill to those of the worthy Father.” The firm for which Wells worked, Klieves, Kraft and Company, had the carpentry contract for the new building.

The Rundbogenstil base of the original tower, which projects slightly from the center of the facade, likely served as a design precedent for the otherwise very late manifestation of the style that the newer work displays. The extremely wide facade is divided into seven bays, three on each side of the tower base. The finely crafted brick portion of the tower terminates in a belfry that contains a pair of louvered, arched openings in each face. Above, a corbeled brick cornice supports an octagonal frame belfry with a shallow domed cupola, a singularly uninspired twentieth-century replacement of the original broach spire that once soared 196 feet.

The interior is a three-nave basilica, with two rows of five columns separating the space longitudinally. In 1887 stained glass windows by the G. A. Misch firm of Chicago were installed. In 1888 three Capuchin brothers carved the high altar—a 35-foot-tall, 16-foot-wide assemblage that dominates the sanctuary with niches, cupolas, and filigree, framing a life-size crucifixion group imported from Munich.

Before the church was consecrated in November 1905, the eighteen-year-old building had to be thoroughly cleaned and redecorated. According to the church history, the pastor decreed the cleaning because “in a city like Wheeling, more dust and soot collect in ten years than in country places in fifty and seventy years.” New windows by the Austrian firm of Neuheuser, Jele of Innsbruck were installed at this time.

In 1909 the first English sermon was preached at St. Alphonsus, but as late as 1931 some services were still conducted in German. In 1949 its designation as a German-language parish was abolished. Over subsequent years, alterations have been made, but the church's overall form, details, and—most important—its original German spirit survive intact.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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