Tales from the crypt

How a basement became one of the hottest spots in town


For 158 years, it’s been part of Province lore.

Visitors to St. Francis Seraph Friary are usually invited to see its most unusual feature: the crypt in the basement. Reactions range from excited acceptance ("Show me the way!") to squeamish rejection ("That is SO creepy!").

But eight years ago, a tour operator aiming to expand his repertoire heard about what’s left of Cincinnati’s first Catholic cemetery. "I read about St. Francis having a crypt in the basement," says Jerome "Jerry" Gels, founder of American Legacy Tours. "I thought, man, this would be great" as part of an "underground" tour of little known gems in Over-the-Rhine. When Jerry approached Guardian Br. Tim Sucher of St. Francis Seraph about the idea, "He was all on board."

The weekend of the first Queen City Underground Tours in 2010, almost 900 people bought tickets for a two-hour walk that took them through historic churches saved from the wrecking ball, a beer hall hidden behind a boarded-up façade on Vine Street, a vast subterranean brewing complex, and the basement of St. Francis Seraph. "After the first weekend," Jerry says, "we were getting 250 people every Saturday" for the tours. Since then, the once-dingy space that doubled as a junk room has attracted more than 50,000 visitors – that’s right, 50,000 – to St. Francis Seraph. "It’s great PR for the Province, the parish, the ministries and Franciscan Media," says Tim, who sometimes provides color commentary for the crowds. Last month, drivers on I-71 did a double take when they saw a billboard advertising the tour. "See the tunnels and crypt," read the text. But according to Jerry, the excitement is warranted. "There is nothing anywhere like the crypt."

It is stark and slightly spooky down there, with headstones propped up along the walls in one room and laid flat in another. Most friars know the story; most civilians do not. St. Francis Seraph, dedicated in 1859, was built on the site of Christ Church, the first Catholic church in Cincinnati, and its adjacent cemetery. Before construction began, the friars encouraged families to move loved ones who had been buried there. When 40 bodies went unclaimed, the builders worked around them, preserving the headstones and remains in a makeshift crypt.

What you see there is what attracts us to any cemetery. The messages carved with ornate script on headstones encapsulate the lives of real people, most of them Irish, most of them dead for 200 years. The one that gets to Tim every time is a small marker for "the son of John," a toddler laid to rest at the age of 2 years, 7 months and 7 days. Memorials range from simple – "In tender remembrance of" – to elaborate. Two headstones bear the same grim poem:

Remember friends as you pass
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me.

"Nothing has a story like the crypt," Jerry says, comparing this stop to others on his tour. "We get people who get tears in their eyes" when they read the headstones. "Every single one you read, you kind of feel this connection. I’ve heard people say, ‘This just really makes you feel what our Irish ancestors went through.’"

Even before the tours began, Tim had decided "We need to make this a more sacred space." He set to work clearing the clutter and cleaning the headstones with a toothbrush. He photographed and framed close-ups of each marker, creating a gallery of images in a former alcove. With input from Fr. Dan Anderson, Tim designed a system of subdued lighting to enhance the space.

"This has been the crowning jewel of our tour," says Jerry, whose connection with the church and the project has deepened in the past two years. (His daughter was baptized at St. Francis Seraph a few years ago.)

A former teacher, Jerry started American Legacy Tours to fund overseas mission trips for his students at Lloyd Memorial High School in Erlanger, Ky. His first excursion, the Newport Gangster Tour, led tourists through the secret haunts of high rollers who made Newport the Las Vegas of the Prohibition era. Entertaining tour guides in period costumes created a "you are there" experience. "We didn’t know if it would work," says Jerry, but it was such a hit, with five-star reviews on the Internet, that he and his partners expanded to Cincinnati.

One of the first stops confirmed for the Underground Tour was the cavernous sub-basement of The Guild Haus – once the Kauffman Brewing Co. – on Vine, across the street from St. Francis Seraph. When Jerry learned about the basement at the church, he thought, "For sure, the crypts are something that would blow people away."

Indeed, it has been "the crowning jewel" of the tours, says Jerry, who credits Tim with "making the tour what it is. He’s been one of the biggest blessings. He often adds his own flair" to a short presentation delivered upstairs before tourists descend to the basement. Tim calls it his "spiel": the story of the immigrant friars, the formation of the Province, the charism of ministry to the poor, and the history of St. Anthony Messenger/ Franciscan Media. Remarks he hears most often: "We didn’t know you were here"; and, "We always wondered what was behind these walls." Some are deflated by the answer to the most obvious question: "Ever see a ghost?"

Nothing paranormal around here, Tim assures them. "A lot of people come from out of town. I think they’re just fascinated by this whole thing." For locals, "It’s exposed them to Over-the-Rhine, not as scary a place as the media makes it out to be." The benefits to the parish go beyond publicity. Jerry gives St. Francis Seraph a portion of the proceeds from each ticket sold. Money dropped in a donation box in the basement goes to the school, which each year receives thousands of dollars in donations. At the end of the tour, guides donate one-third of their tips to the parish. Those donations fund the parish’s outdoor nativity, part of a Christmas tour launched in 2011 by American Legacy.

Is it wrong to profit from a graveyard? Visitors to the crypt are respectful, prayerful, as attentive as relatives at a family funeral. The tours give them a feeling of kinship with those who settled Cincinnati – pioneers for whom hardship was a way of life. According to Jerry, "We need to honor those people."

Click here to learn more about the Queen City Underground tour at American Legacy Tours.