PARKERSBURG - St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church has withstood the test of time.
The church was built in the late 1860s and was finished and dedicated in 1870. Since the church was first built its physical structure has remained unchanged for the most part, but the parish has learned to grow and change with the times.
And with its age, comes a rich history.
The sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 532 Market St. (Photo by Emily Balser)
Before the mid-1800s, the local Catholic population was small. It wasn't until 1845 that Catholics, mainly Irish, started coming to the area, increasing the need for a Catholic church.
By 1845, a significant number of Catholics started arriving in Parkersburg, said Roger Nedeff, church historian.
"And that's because of three public works projects," he said.
The first project was the Northwestern Turnpike, known today as U.S. 50. The second was the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, today W.Va. 47, which ran from Staunton, Va., to Parkersburg.
The last project was bringing the B&O Railroad through the area.
"All three of these projects employed a large force of mostly Irish immigrants," he said. "So the Catholic population started increasing."
With the influx of Catholic residents, it was decided that there were enough here to build a church.
The first church that was built, however, isn't the church that stands today. The first church was a small brick church built in the same location on Market Street.
"The Catholic population kept increasing because of the railroad and then the Civil War happened and Parkersburg really boomed during the Civil War," he said. "This was a stopping point for troops."
The present church construction began after the Civil War in 1865, but because of a shortage of materials, wasn't able to be completed for another five years. Along with the actual church building, a house for the priest was also built next to it and is still used today.
The church may be most notable for its architecture and the murals on the walls of the sanctuary. The architecture was designed by Patrick Keely, a prominent Irish-Catholic architect from New York, and the murals, known for their three-dimensional effects, were done by Daniel Muller, who worked closely with Keely on many church projects.
"Back then there wasn't a lot of education, so what the Catholic Church tried to do was decorate their walls with paintings to try to explain Bible stories," he said.
The five center murals depict scenes from the life of Christ. One mural shows the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. Another mural shows St. Francis Xavier at his death on the Island of Sancian in the Japanese Sea.
Other paintings are of the 12 apostles and other religious emblems.
What makes the church unique is that it serves many different Catholics, Nedeff said. In many cities there will be a different church for Irish-Catholics, Polish-Catholics, Italian-Catholics and others. At St. Francis Xavier, the different ethnicities attend one church as more immigrants from around the world began coming to the area.
"The parish became a real melting pot," he said.
Another unique part of St. Francis Xavier is that it has remained a downtown church. Nedeff said it was originally built in its location because it was close to the part of town where most of the Irish-Catholic residents lived, but now most people don't live downtown.
"We never fled to the suburbs like a lot of other churches," he said. "We've always had a unique mission to the downtown."
The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Nedeff said being added to the register is basically an honorary designation given to structures that are 50 years or older, have architectural significance and have significance to the lives of the people, events, activities or developments of an area.
St. Francis Xavier was the first church building in Wood County to be placed on the register, Nedeff said.
In the late 1990s, the church purchased additional property on Market Street which now houses its parish center where the church has offices, educational rooms and a dining hall that, among other things, serves as a soup kitchen for those in need.
Mary Frances Byrd, who recently celebrated her 91st birthday, has been a member of St. Francis Xavier since she was born and comes from a long line of descendants who have attended the church from the very beginning.
"There's nothing different about the church," Byrd said. "That makes it soothing; comfortable."
She explained that it remains just the same as it was when she was a child, except for one part - speaking Latin. Catholic Mass used to be spoken in Latin until around the early 1960s.
Byrd's family has always been part of the church since her great-grandfather began attending it and is the location that her parents were married, as well as she and her husband were married. Many of her family members were baptized in the church as well.
Byrd still attends church every Sunday and sometimes Monday and Friday and still carries her Catholic faith with her in all she does.
"To me, no matter what happens, God is in charge," she said.