Column: Fenmont Center was designed to serve all members of parish community

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the Fenmont Center located on North Third Street in Hamilton? Well, here is the story.

Hamilton through the 1920s was considered to be a “boom” town with factories manufacturing all sorts of goods sold throughout the nation. Champion and Beckett’s made paper, Mosler made safes, Long & Allstatter made farming and mining equipment, Ford made car wheels, General Machinery manufactured all sorts of heavy equipment including diesel and steam engines.

These firms each employed hundreds, many of whom were St. Stephens parishioners that lived nearby. Manufacturing jobs at Hamilton firms, many of which were skilled trades, paid well for the times.

A social center for the parishioners of St. Stephens Church, which was located in the heart of this triangle of manufacturing firms, had been under consideration during the 1910s. Initially rooms in the old St. Stephen’s school building provided recreational opportunities for parish members, particularly the young men and women of St. Stephens, but were lacking in both appearance and breadth of services.

In 1917, St. Stephen’s parish acquired the old Kennedy homestead at the corner of North Third and Erwin streets and utilized the property to establish larger facilities. In 1922 a brick extension was built at the rear of the property to provide for six bowling alleys and a billiard room. This proved to be insufficient to parish social needs.

One must remember the era in which this all occurred. In the 1920s there was no television, radio was in its infancy and movies of this time period were “pre-code” meaning they could be a bit racy for the taste of watchful parents. On top of this, Prohibition, which was never popular amongst Hamiltonians, was the law. Add to this gambling, both the legal and illegal varieties, which was pervasive in Hamilton, brought a need for wholesome activities to the forefront.

Enter a very energetic priest with a plan. Franciscan Father Diomede Pohlkamp was appointed pastor of St. Stephens in 1924 and set about to raise funds to provide a proper venue for parish families. With only a portion of the funds needed to complete the building in hand, the existing buildings at North Third and Erwin were demolished in the spring of 1929 and the general contractor, Antenen Engineering, began work on the new facility in August.

The name “Fenmont”, submitted by Thomas Cahill of 229 Dayton St., was chosen to honor the memory of the first Catholic Bishop of Ohio, Edward Fenwick, and the Reverend Stephen Montgomery, an early priest in the area.

The Fenmont was designed to serve the all members of the parish community. The 85-by-80 foot gymnasium on the second floor was a multi-purpose facility that included a large stage for theatrical performances and capable of seating 1,000. Also on that floor was a complete catering kitchen, a banquet room and a separate lounge area for ladies. A 60-by-25 foot regulation size swimming pool, a 10 lane bowling alley with 100 private lockers was located on the first floor.

Although initial memberships of over 1,000 and financial pledges in excess of $30,000 were strong as of late October 1929, by spring of 1930, the first signs of the financial maelstrom of the stock market crash and resulting Great Depression were appearing. On May 1, 1930 the Fenmont was opened to great fanfare and extensive coverage by both the Hamilton Daily News and the Hamilton Evening Journal.

Contemporary accounts state that thousands visited the new building during the opening.

Unfortunately, the hardships of the economic collapse of the 1930s which soon followed, allowed little time or money for recreation. As the 1930s unfolded, many employers in Hamilton reduced wages and hours for employees, and those were the lucky ones that avoided outright bankruptcy. Many families suffered tremendously from the loss of wages or employment.

Revenue from Fenmont memberships and programs never came close to projections of the booming 1920s. After the Fenmont opened in 1930, St. Stephens Parish struggled to meet just the interest payments on the building, and the initial debt of $165,000 to construct the facility was only whittled down to $27,500 by July of 1945.

On Jan. 12, 1942 a water line break on the third floor of the 1888 built St. Stephens school building caused catastrophic damage requiring the 300 students to temporary relocate, some to the Fenmont and others to St. Mary’s school on High Street.

In July 1945, a new pastor, Father Conradin Burtshy was appointed to lead St. Stephens and was faced with the news that the school building, located adjacent to the church, had been condemned by building inspectors. At a cost of $25,000, the decision was made to convert the Fenmont into the new St. Stephens school building. The “new” St. Stephens school, formerly the Fenmont, was opened in September 1947.

In 1953, the pool area was covered over to provide seating for a cafeteria for the school children. The former handball courts next to the gymnasium were converted to additional classrooms in 1959 to handle the large influx of “baby boomers” and a library was installed nearby.

A spacious and fairly modern facility for the time, the Fenmont, now serving as St. Stephens school, excelled in its new role. But things were not to last. In the late 1960s, changing neighborhood demographics resulting in declining enrollments forced changes. Efforts were made to bring students in from other parishes as far away as Corpus Christi in northern Hamilton County and Queen of Peace in Millville to keep St. Stephens as a stand-alone parish affiliated school. Unfortunately, those efforts didn’t work.

Just before Christmas, on Dec. 19, 1972, the announcement was made that two other parish schools, Queen of Peace and St. Veronica would merge with St. Stephens to form a new school in the fall of 1973. The new school was named Catholic Community Central School in March of 1973. Catholic Community Central School would go on to educate 90 students in Grades 1-5 at Queen of Peace and 201 students in Grades 1-8 at the St. Veronica facilities.

The halls of St. Stephens School/Fenmont would fall silent from the daily laughter of school children for the final time in May 1973.

After the closure of St. Stephens school, the Fenmont has returned to its original role as a parish community center. Today the Fenmont hosts CYO basketball and volleyball teams from Sacred Heart, St. Anns, St. Peters, Queen of Peace and St. Josephs schools. It also functions as a setting for religious education and social groups.

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