UPDATED: 5-15-2020



St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, shown here about 1910 (left) and in the 1930s (center),
was erected in 1870, replacing an earlier church that had been built in 1847.
St. Xavier is now Parkersburg's oldest church.

On April 28, 1847, Bishop Richard Whelan in Richmond, Virginia, paid $306 for a Parkersburg lot on Market Street for the purpose of building the town’s first Catholic church. Two years later, he wrote in his diocesan report 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.” The local parish consisted of only twelve families.

However, the completion of the B&O railroad line from Grafton in 1857 brought an influx of Irish-Catholic immigrant workers to Parkersburg that swelled the church’s membership to over 300 people. Five years later, eight Sisters of the Visitation arrived in Parkersburg to establish the Visitation Academy for girls, which would later become DeSales Heights.

Following the Civil War and the creation of West Virginia, the new state diocese in Wheeling selected architect Patrick Charles Keely of New York to design a larger, more elaborate church to replace the simple chapel. The cornerstone was laid on May 9, 1869, and Keely’s Romanesque structure, with Gothic doorways, was completed a year and a half later at a cost of nearly $60,000. German artist Daniel Mueller painted several bright, bas-relief murals, as well as the vaulted ceiling, which the West Virginia Department of Culture and History now call “the most significant examples of ecclesiastical art in West Virginia today.” German artisan Joseph Daris handcrafted the decorative interior and exterior woodwork, including the white Gothic altar. The church was named St. Xavier.

Though the front bell tower was originally designed to stand 200 feet high, a financial shortfall stopped construction at 100 feet, and no money was left to buy a bell. That’s the way it stayed for the next 45 years. Not until 1915 did the parish install St. Xavier’s first bell—a bronze, 3,000-pounder that was christened “Catherine”—and replace the tower’s flat, makeshift roof with a proper dome. Two smaller bells from the same Baltimore foundry were added two years later and named “Brigid” and “Patrick” after the Irish saints. Today these three bells ring several times a day.

On June 1, 1895, a boat carrying 2,500 pounds of nitroglycerin to Burning Springs exploded on the Little Kanawha River and blew out all of St. Xavier’s original stained-glass windows except those facing Market Street.

On May 1, 1960, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy attended early Sunday Mass at St. Xavier while staying at the nearby Blennerhassett Hotel during his successful West Virginia campaign tour that made him the Democratic nominee for President.

In 1978, St. Xavier, more familiarly called St. X by locals, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is Parkersburg’s oldest church building. Over the past twenty years the parish has extensively restored its artwork and murals and renovated the bell tower.

For further information, go to www.stx-pburg.org or read church historian Roger Nedeff’s Substantial Foundations A History of St. Francis Xavier Parish, which is free at Google books.

This is the earliest known photo of St. Xavier, taken from across the street in 1870, around the time of its completion and dedication. The photo was found only a few years ago in a desk rescued from DeSales Heights Academy. If St. X looks higher than it does now, it's because Market Street was several feet lower in those days.     Courtesy of St. Xavier Parish and Roger Nedeff.


Only recently discovered, these photos of St. Francis Xavier's interior were taken shortly after its completion in 1870. Little has changed in 150 years. Only the
upper half of the church near the sanctuary and altar had pews in 1870; others were added four years later. St. Xavier was one of Parkersburg's
first buildings equipped with natural-gas lighting. (Compliments of St. Xavier Parish, with special thanks to church historian Roger Nedeff.)

Looking up Market from near the corner of Fifth Street in the late 1930s. The brick surface
in the foreground is the driveway into the alley behind the City Building.
(Photo courtesy of Roger Nedeff and the St. Xavier Parish archives.)

St. Xavier is known all over Parkersburg for its three bells, which ring several times a day, and at weddings and funerals, and of course before Mass. The first and largest, seen here at the dedication of the bell tower on November 21, 1915, is called the St. Catherine bell. Two others, named for Irish patron saints Patrick and Brigid, were added two years later.   Photo courtesy of St. Xavier Parish.

Inside St. Xavier's bell tower. The tower was originally designed to be 200 feet tall with bells, but after the parish ran into money problems during construction in 1870, it decided to limit the tower to 100 feet and omit the bells until a future generation could finish the job. By 1915, when the first bell was finally installed, the parish gave up the idea of doubling the tower's height and replaced its Florentine-style roof with a permanent, more decorative dome that resembled the dome on an earlier Wood County courthouse (which had been torn down in the late 1890s).   Photo courtesy of St. Xavier Parish.

The interior of St. X around 1906. The insert photo is of Father Edward Hickey.

An aerial photo of St. X from Dan Kemper's drone, May 1, 2020.
(Courtesy of Dan Kemper.)

Colonel John Rathbone was the father of the oil business in West Virginia and the developer of Burning Springs and Volcano. After he converted to the Catholic faith, he joined the St. Xavier Parish and became chairman of the church congregation during the construction of the present church in 1870. Rathbone was also instrumental in the establishment of DeSales Heights Academy. Colonel Rathbone died in 1908 and was buried in St. Xavier Cemetery at 14th Street. This photo of Rathbone, taken during the Civil War, is one of only two that are known to survive.   Courtesy of St. Xavier Parish and Roger Nedeff.


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