A Tale of Two Churches

Submitted by Susan Miller on Fri, 03/13/2009 - 18:02.

Last evening at a block club meeting in Ohio City, I was made aware of a great potential loss to Cleveland's built environment and history. I was invited to view a presentation to the block club group concerning two churches in that near westside neighborhood. I asked the researcher to share some of his voluminous research and documentation with readers of realneo. The following is respectfully submitted on behalf of Tim Barrett.

The art and architecture of two of Cleveland ’s finest Roman Catholic Churches are endangered as one of the two churches faces the threat of being closed, and worse – being demolished.  This weekend, the City’s Bishop, Richard G. Lennon, will announce his decision as to the approximately 50 diocesan Roman Catholic Churches to be “suppressed” or closed. 

Unfortunately, the architecturally distinctive churches of St. Stephen and St. Colman are threatened since they are only about 3 city blocks apart.  In addition after a 2 year parish review process, a number of parish representatives were clustered together and charged to recommend the closing of a specified number of churches within their own group. 

St. Stephen 1910-30 West 54th Street

One of the results submitted to the Bishop last November from the “cluster” group of 5 parishes that included both of the above noted churches was the recommended closing of the Gothic Revival Church of St. Stephen (built 1873).  

Due to this public recommendation, the effort to bring public awareness of what will be lost if St. Stephen’s closes has been well documented by the local media and is certainly a worthy and justifiable cause.

However, what is being overlooked in this is the equally outstanding art and architecture of the solidly built Church of St. Colman.

St. Colman Church is an outstanding example of the early 20th century Academic Eclectic fashion – nicely expressed in the words of one of its 3 designers, Cleveland architect, J. Ellsworth Potter, “Architecturally, St. Colman’s Church is a free adaptation of the spirit of forms of the Italian Renaissance to the needs and requirements of a modern congregation….a modern American descendant of ancient and honorable ancestors.”

From the very beginning of its design process, its pastor, the Rev. James O’Leary, set out to build a monument – a status symbol proclaiming that the Irish could build as sophisticated an edifice as any currently being built in the city or the nation for that matter.  In the early 20th century, the Irish, although mostly still working class - especially on the near west side of Cleveland, were now being replaced as the lowest rung of the social class ladder by new, mostly foreign speaking immigrants.  The Irish were well on their way to making themselves a part of the mainstream of society. 

Initially O’Leary asked Akron architect William Ginther, who had recently completed the School of St. Colman in 1905, to come up with a conceptual design for his new permanent church.  In 1907 Ginther submitted a twin towered Gothic Revival edifice (see Illustration).  I believe O’Leary rejected this out of hand because by the early 20th century the Victorian Gothic Revival of the late 19th century was quickly becoming passé (as distinguished from the more academically astute 20th century Neo-Gothic of architects like Ralph Adams Cram  often favored by American Protestant denominations of that period). 

At any rate, apparently O’Leary did not want a symbol of the past, but one that represented the progressive vision of its day.  The construction of Cleveland ’s City Beautiful Group Plan was well on its way and the New York architect, George B. Post’s design for the Cleveland Trust Bank on East 9th & Euclid was under construction, to mention just a few local examples.  It was clear that classical form as expressed in these Beaux Arts buildings was the new dominating fashion for buildings of scale. 

No doubt Cleveland ’s new Bishop, John Patrick Farrelly (1909–1921) of Irish roots who spent 11 years in Rome where he was trained and consecrated bishop, encouraged O’Leary to pursue the classically inspired Renaissance form.  O’Leary initially worked with a Count Lenore of Rome who set the scale and fashion of St. Colman Church on the Italian Renaissance style.  Frustrated by the Count’s reluctance or inability to prepare working drawings with proper measurements and detailed specifications so that the project could be bid-out, O’Leary hired 2 local architects, E. Schneider & E. J. Potter to complete the working documents. At the same time, O’Leary had been reinvesting funds from the Sunday collections in such a skillful manner that he was able to contract much of the interior material in Italy and have it shipped to Dublin. He traveled to Dublin to oversee the sculpting of the altars, pulpit, communion rail etc.  Despite delays due to WWI, the church officially opened in 1918 and was totally debt-free (see illustrations).

Primarily due to cost considerations, many decorative appointments in 19th and early 20th century churches were commonly executed with faux finishes (painted finishes or composite materials made to look like fine marble or wood).  This is not the case at St. Colman - all interior furnishings and finishes are real.  In addition, not only were the style and monumental scale of the church meant to be a symbol of status, but the choice of craftsman to do the work was also significant.  Irish craftsman, both in Ireland and a number brought from Ireland to Cleveland, were contracted to do the sculpting.  The local newspapers document O’Leary’s reason for this as well as his own contributions to the project:   

  • Cleveland Press 6/3/1918: O’Leary: “…the purpose in patronizing the Irish craftsmen, … was to show what fine quality work in this line can be obtained in Ireland ”
  • Catholic Universe 1918 notes that the altars, communion rail, pulpit, and Stations of the Cross were made in Dublin under O’Leary’s personal direction.
  • Quoting O’Leary from the same source:”…it afforded him much pleasure to have the practically finished building reflect so well what he had in mind.”
  • The baptismal font is signed, “Edmund Sharp Dublin, Ireland”.
  • It has recently been discovered that a William Doyle & William Margetson were brought here from Ireland.  Notes from immigration documents at Ellis Island list these two Irish craftsmen’s destination as the Church of St. Colman, Cleveland, Ohio.  Records at the church verify that they worked there under the stewardship of Edmund Sharp.

All of this illustrates the great amount of effort, expense and personal sacrifice that was exerted in order to build a house of worship that would be the pride of not only the Irish, but of the region.  Considering its fine material and the fact that it is presently in great condition (extensive renovation of the building has undertaken over the last decade), it would be nothing less than decadence to destroy such a landmark. - Tim Barrett

I would like to add that what is presented here is the tip of the iceberg as to why it is important to save both these churches intact as great examples of Cleveland's rich cultural and religious heritage. How one might come to a judgement on this matter is beyond me - both churches are alive, intact and are living legacies of the immigrant communities that built the city we inhabit today. To destroy either of them would be a sacrilege - even to one who is not a Roman Catholic. These are not churches to be recreated as galleries or condominiums, they should be maintained intact as they are, protected and respected for the stories they tell. If nothing else, they should become parts of the collection of the Cleveland Musem of Art. How many indulgences would the destruction of one of these churches buy? How much sin could be washed away if any or would the diocese commit Cleveland to eternal purgatory for such a sacrifice?

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Thanks for posting this Susan, I love both of these buildings.

Say no more, I am thoroughly convinced that both structures should be saved, not only saved but preserved as much in their original state as possible.

How can we do this? Where will the money com from? We need to find new uses for  both buildings if they are no longer needed as Catholic churches. What do other cities do? What do they do in Europe?

I guess people like me are part of the problem. I'm Roman Catholic but I never go to church, and of course I never put money in the collection basket.

Catholicism on the auction block

In France they tear them down: The destruction of France's churches

In NY they fight or they sell and regroup: Sacred Space but Earthly Challenges

In Boston they wring their hands and list them on the National Register: Historic Trust lists Catholic Churches (none so magnificent as Cleveland's)

In Somalia Islamists tear them down and replace them with Mosques: Somali insurgents want to raze non-Muslim places of worship

In Cleveland, Catholics left the city and left the faith - do those nuns and priests have doubts now?

You could contact a curator at the CMA and see if they would consider purchasing St. Colman for their collection. Would it be a first - for a museum to own a church as a part of a collection? Faster than wind on the lake to put Cleveland on the map if it was.

What is so very shameful is the city's culpability. It is not the churches that have significant deferred maintenance, but the neighborhoods. With no point of sale inspections, the neighborhoods fall into ruin and more and more people move out. Crime seeps in and drives out the last few. As Laura has asked here before, Where's God? I don't know, but no number of Hail Marys would help me sleep at night if I had to decide to let one of these edifices fall. But then I am not  a Catholic - I was raised in the protestant faith - the guilt that keeps on guilting. I think that people will return to faith of some kind if only for community when the reality of the long emergency sets in.

They'll gather in whatever spce they can find and hear storeis of the magnificent edifices they used to visit for communion. We're erasing our history at an alarming rate. Even public buildings are going retail on the public mall. Heaven help us.

Other denominations

  The Catholic Church will rarely let other denominations assume their shuttered churches.  Other denominations do allow a transfer.  Trinity UCC in my neigbhorhood just transferred to a Spanish Baptist congregation.

At the very least, if the Catholic Church is walking away from these buildings, allow the congregations to keep the artifacts and, if possible, allow the congregations to find a new denomination for the church.  I don't need to tell you why this sort of proposal doesn't fly with the Catholic Church, do I?

St. Colman - closing

So the diocese has spoken - St Colman will close.

Read more:

Applause, dismay from parishioners learning of closings, mergers in Cleveland Catholic Diocese downsizing

What closing means... I don't know. Call CMA or something... other ideas? Icon anyone?


the sucking swirling sound of the Catholic Church closing

CNN reports on closing churches: http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/03/25/cleveland.catholic.parish...

There is a Facebook group for saving St. Colman's and this website: http://www.stcolmanparish.org/ stay tuned...