At 10:15 on a summer Sunday morning, the congregation at Philippus United Church of Christ is readying itself for worship. The choir is lined up two-by-two to march down the aisle, and one small woman singer is working frantically to balance her anthem music and her hymnal. When a man a row behind reaches over to bookmark the first hymn for her, the tension leaves her face, and she smiles her appreciation. But there is no time for visiting. Suddenly, the organ is playing the opening notes of the first hymn, and the choir is walking down the aisle toward the altar. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” they sing, “Lord God Almighty.”
“Come now and worship,” the leader says from the pulpit, and the sun shines brightly through the stained glass windows lining the church from front to back. After the opening hymn the congregation stands up and sits down, then sits and stands again. The smaller children grow restless, and soon they are dismissed to the Junior Church room downstairs where they will be entertained with Kool-Aid and cookies and Bible stories. I grew up in church, and I remember those children’s sermons, the march up the aisle, and the immense relief at no longer having to be still.
The remaining group relaxes and spreads out comfortably in the back pews, moving their feet soundlessly to the beat of the music. After the call and response and the readings from the Bible, the leader asks requests for favorite hymns, and the congregation, obviously familiar with this musical ritual, reaches for their hymn books: one black and one thinner book in green. In the Methodist Church where I grew up, this green book was the Cokesbury Hymnal, and it contained “The Old Rugged Cross” and other ancient but familiar tunes. It also had shaped notes, which is the way many people learned to sing the songs: each shape had a tone, and the singers knew the tones just as we know the notes.
Now someone’s hand goes up in the air—“Green book, page 128”—and the singers swing into the first line, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” the old shaped notes on the page warm and comfortable. The hymns in the black book are more modern; the font is larger and easier to read, but they don’t call to me like the old green hymnal with the small print and the worn pages.
Church was an important part of my childhood. My family belonged to a poor church in North Detroit. Our minister was old and retired from the First Methodist Church in Boston, but he still wore the formal black robes with velvet stripes on his big, billowing sleeves, and our service was as formal as anything you might expect to participate in at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The choir was small. The members were mostly my family and me (I was tall enough to wear a choir robe), and I can still see my Aunt Dot downstairs in the robing room, the glints sparking off her coppery hair. She was late, as usual, but she insisted on applying one more coat of lipstick while she looked in the mirror of her locker.
By this time, the organist in our small church had already played two choruses of the Processional hymn, and she was beginning to sound impatient. When we arrived in the choir loft the minister said, “The Lord be with you,” and we answered “And with thy spirit.” By the time we reached the anthem we were a little nervous. The minister liked to do difficult music, but we were from Tennessee, and we leaned toward the familiar music we had always heard. An uneasy compromise prevailed. One of my cousins, Baxter, was a faithful choir member but his singing was slightly off, and when we sang counterpoint he tended to fall slightly behind.
“The valleys stand so thick with corn,” we’d sing, “That they laugh and sing/ They laugh (they laugh)/and sing (and sing).” By the end of the anthem Aunt Dot would be giggling behind her choir book at cousin Baxter, who “laughed and sang” just a little later than everyone else.
“Philippus is a 125-year-old church,” Rev. Sam Wyatt tells me the next day when I reach him by phone. He has been on vacation, and is hurried, but he is glad to give me a small piece of time from his busy day. His voice is sweet and high, a little like Barry Fitzgerald’s voice in Going My Way. I can easily picture him with a cowlick in his hair and reading glasses worn down on the tip of his nose. He is usually at home in one of the worst sections of Over-the-Rhine: a small patch of alcoholism, prostitution, and drug addiction at the corner of Race and West McMicken Streets. Instead of holding out against what some would see as the dregs of society, he welcomes his wayward flock with open arms.
“Yes, Philippus is a 125-year-old church,” he tells me a little brusquely when I ask about some of the historical aspects of the church, “but we’re more interested in being the church of the future.” It was built by the old brewers in the late 1890s, in the years when this district, officially called the Mohawk District, was the home of all the breweries in Cincinnati. Christian Moerlein was the largest brewery in
the state (the Moerlein family still comes back to Philippus). In fact, when Moerlein opened its craft brewery five years ago in Over-the-Rhine they made a beer named Philippus. The congregation was invited to come and help tap the first keg and drink a glass of the new beer. “It was a very special time for us,” Wyatt says.
Now, Philippus has a more serious agenda. Five days a week, the prostitutes who hang out in front of the old theater on McMicken, west of the church, are given a place to clean up, a bagel and a cup of coffee. The gym is open for the neighborhood kids to organize basketball games, addicts are given clothing and shoes in some cases.
Wyatt seems to know there is something more to a church than pews and a steeple. Philippus defines itself as open and accepting, welcoming the LGBTQ community, offering the sanctuary for gay and lesbian marriages. Ceremonies on this morning are peppered with both gay and lesbian attendees, single parents, the well-dressed (Sunday clothes), and the casual.
“Wasn’t it hard to get the congregation to go along with being an ‘accepting’ church?” I ask.
Wyatt says not. “I’m proud to say that when the final vote was cast [in 2015], there was not one dissenting ballot.”
After the final hymn is sung by the excellent choir, and the last call and response chanted, I walk out into the bright Sunday morning. My friend Susan has told me a charming story. Back when
the WPA was building steps up and down the steep hills of Cincinnati, a flight was built from Ohio Avenue to West McMicken, the corner on which Philippus stands. “I heard a great story about a family who came to church here,” Susan said. “The whole family attended, but the youngest girl couldn’t walk up and down the steep steps.”
“How did they get her to church?” I asked. I couldn’t see so much as a bus stop anywhere.
“Well, the family had seven strapping German boys, and they took turns carrying her up and down the steps,” Susan said, her hazel eyes crinkling at the corners. “The little girl got to go to church every week with the rest of the family.” Everyone was included; no one was excluded. It is part of the reservoir of stories that make Philippus a welcoming place, a place of grit and determination, much on view in the framed pictures hanging on the walls outside the sanctuary. They are pictures of each Sunday School class since Philippus became a church. The women in the pictures wear high-collared blouses and dresses, their hair pulled back and up into elaborate chignons, while the men wear their hair parted in the middle like Alfalfa in The Little Rascals. I can’t help but wonder about their long-ago lives. What were they thinking when the shutter snapped? In those years after the Civil War, so few people had had their pictures taken. What must they have thought of cameras? What would they have thought about selfies?
Everyone was included; no one was excluded. It is part of the reservoir of stories that make Philippus a welcoming place, a place of grit and determination.
The Germans who came together in Cincinnati in 1814 were far from the homeland, mostly poor, uneducated, and they knew they needed a church. They began their meetings in a schoolhouse where they argued their way to a denomination that seemed right for them. Philippus is descended in a direct line from the German Evangelical Protestant Church, which grew out of the Reformation. It was built by and for brewers and brewery workers in one of the largest community of breweries in the United States. When the church was erected in 1891, there were around 40,000 people living in Over-the-Rhine, the most populous neighborhood in the city. More than 300 bars and taverns lined the streets, and children were sent to fetch their family’s bucket of beer daily from one of them. The bars, in turn, contributed money and labor to the church. Interestingly, Music Hall was built at the same time as Philippus. Music Hall was originally built for the May Festival chorus and the Sängerfests (singing festivals). The trend in those long-ago years was toward choral singing, not instrumental music. Germany continued to play a large part in the fellowship of Philippus. There was a German congregation, and sermons were preached in German until 1983.
My old friend, Jim Tarbell, is my go-to expert on anything Over-the-Rhine. “Of course I’m fascinated with Philippus,” he says to me one night. “That they keep body and soul together and keep the facilities up as well as they do fills me with hope.”
“Originally, Philippus was supported more than any church by Christian Moerlein. In fact, the old building that housed Christian Moerlein [is now inhabited by a new brewery] called Rhinegeist. One of the coincidences so peculiar to Over-the-Rhine is that you can sit in Rhinegeist’s rooftop garden and sip a lager beer while you’re almost sitting in the palm of what we used to call the Godfinger, the iconic emblem of Philippus, and for that matter, Over-the-Rhine.” He means the famous golden digit, pointing the way to Heaven.
Everyone needs a place to belong. Families can fail; careers can turn out to be unsatisfying; love affairs…well, 40 to 50 percent of marriages fail. We have psychologists, life coaches, astrologers, sob sister columnists, and we’re still in pain. Cincinnati’s secret is in the strength of its families, which have been kept together by its churches—churches like Philippus United Church of Christ. If there is some dark blood between the church and the breweries, put it down to a simple matter of Saturday night and Sunday morning.