Featured in Moreover, Winter 2005
If you drive down Turkeyfoot Road in Crestview Hills, Kentucky you may notice two things. One, the construction of the expansive Crestview Hills Towne Centre, and two a tiny Chapel near a pond on the campus of Thomas More College.
While the 127-year-old Monte Casino Chapel may be small in stature, the interior walls measuring only 8 feet high, it more than makes up for its size in history. The Chapel achieved world-wide fame in 1922 when Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not proclaimed it the “smallest church in the world.”
It was built in 1878 by Benedictine Father Otto Kopf and Brother Albert Soltis, a German-born mason, for the Monte Casino Monastery in the hills of South Covington. The self-sustaining 78-acre Monastery, named after its sister monastery in Italy, was started in 1877 by the Benedictine Brothers of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To support themselves, the monks operated vineyards for sacramental and commercial wine production. The Chapel was built as a quiet place to retreat from the labors of the day; to reflect and pray.
When prohibition was established in 1920, it banned the distribution of wine to other states, leaving the monks with no means to support themselves, so they returned to Pennsylvania. For the next 45 years, the Chapel remained abandoned on the hillside in Covington until local historian, Chester F. Geaslen, began writing articles in the newspaper seeking its rightful owner. Over the years, the abandoned Chapel was stripped of its stained glass windows, door and even the steeple. Geaslen believed something had to be done to save the historic structure and return it to its proper state. In one of his newspaper articles, Geaslen described the condition of the abandoned Chapel.
“Pillaged of all that could be carried away, even the little stone steeple with its hand-chiseled cross. Blackened, is its stone arched interior from smoke and ash, as fires have been kindled on the stone floor where the little altar once stood.”
In 1964, the owner of the property was finally discovered through the city’s tax records. It turns out that a local plumber, Fred Riedinger, had purchased the land and Chapel in 1957 from St. Vincent Abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, but later sold the land to a subdivision contractor. New streets and subdivisions replaced what once housed fields of grapes. In the center of all this new residential development stood a medieval stone Chapel, which looked quite out of place.
The Chapel, however, was still owned by Riedinger, who decided to preserve it in memory of his mother, Alma Riedinger. Immediately, Riedinger was inundated with requests from organizations that wanted to give the Chapel a home. Villa Madonna College, now Thomas More College, was chosen as the home for the Chapel. The next steps were to figure out how to move the Chapel, as well as how to pay for the move and its restoration. The Bishop of the Diocese of Covington and the Knights of Columbus agreed to underwrite the move and preservation, while local builder Matth. Toebben, donated his services to move the historic Chapel. As word of the Chapel circulated throughout the community, the items once removed from the building, such as the steeple and crucifix, were returned. Things were falling into place better than expected.
On April 7, 1965, the tiny Chapel was loaded onto a flatbed truck and moved six miles along Dixie Highway to its new home in Crestview Hills, Kentucky. The trip took eight hours, due to the fact that the Chapel weighed over 50 tons and was so tall that someone needed to ride on the roof of the truck to manually lift the utility lines along the way for the Chapel to get through.
Once secure in its new home on the campus of Villa Madonna/Thomas More College, the Chapel underwent a restoration to preserve it as close to its original form as possible. The stolen items that surfaced were returned to the tiny Chapel, as well as interior restorations.
On September 12, 1971, the Chapel at Thomas More College was dedicated, giving it official recognition by the Catholic Church. Thanks to community support and several individuals who championed its cause, a historical treasure was resurrected, restored and prominently placed for future generations.