In 1808, Father Edward Fenwick, a Dominican priest, was asked by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore to visit the Dittoe family living about 15 miles east of New Lancaster, Ohio, along the Zane Trace. They had written to the bishop asking for a priest to visit and minister to them and other German Catholic families in their vicinity. Upon finding the Dittoe family, Father Fenwick began the first known Catholic ministry in Ohio at what would become the town of Somerset, Ohio. eventually, St. Joseph's Church was built and then blessed on December 6, 1818. The oldest Catholic parish in Ohio, St. Joseph's remains in Somerset serving its people to the present day under the Dominican fathers.
As the Catholic population of Ohio grew, its first diocese - the Diocese of Cincinnati - was erected by the Vatican on June 19, 1821. Father Fenwick was named Cincinnati's first bishop. The Catholic population in Ohio grew during the 19th century, leading the Vatican erect the Diocese of Cleveland in 1847 and the Diocese of Columbus on March 3, 1868. The new diocese including counties in central, south central, and southeastern Ohio, roughly running from the Scioto River on the west across to the Ohio River along the east. The fledgling Diocese of Columbus comprised 32 parishes and 40 missions. About 41,000 Catholics called the new diocese home. Columbus' first bishop was Sylvester Rosecrans (1868-1878). For the biographies of all of Columbus' bishops, click here.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, the diocesan population grew steadily. By 1900 there were 60,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Columbus, and by 1940 there were 137,000 Catholics. In the late 19th century, the diocese coped with a tremendous influx of immigrants from Europe who were settling in the eastern counties near mining and mill towns. Each cultural group, such as Poles, Slovaks, Italians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and so forth wanted parishes where their language was spoken and their culture was understood.
By the 1940s, language barriers were not as much of a problem as older immigrants came to better understand English and their children spoke English almost exclusively. Over time the ethnic nature and patterns of diocesan parishes became blurred. Today only two ethnic parishes remain in the Diocese of Columbus: Santa Cruz (Spanish) and St. John the Baptist (Italian), both located in Columbus. All other parishes serve geographic regions.
Throughout the 20th century, the rural population of the Diocese of Columbus declined, with a major shift to urban life beginning in the 1920s. After World War II, the Columbus city population began a major shift from urban setting to the suburbs. With these shifts came changes in parishes. As the people moved, the Church moved as well. Parishes in some areas where the population dropped would be closed or consolidated occasionally and new ones opened in areas where the population boomed.
In 1944, the Vatican erected the new Diocese of Steubenville from the Ohio River counties on the eastern side of the Diocese of Columbus. Additionally, a small strip of the eastern part of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati was transferred to Columbus, giving the Diocese of Columbus its present configuration of 23 counties in central and south central Ohio.
The post-World War II years brought tremendous growth, and the 1960s brought many changes, both culturally and in the Church as a result of the Second Vatican Council. As the 20th century ended and a new millennium dawned, the Diocese of Columbus was the fastest growing in Ohio, with the Catholic population approaching 300,000 and served by 106 parishes, 219 priests, 90 deacons, 281 sisters, and countless lay ministers as of 2008.