Miracle on Sowinski Avenue: St. Casimir Church becomes the first local church to go green

One may not normally think of a 127-year-old church as a leader in green infrastructure practices, but St. Casimir Church—based in Cleveland's St. Clair-Superior neighborhood—has set an example as the first Cleveland Catholic Diocese church to begin installing a green infrastructure on its campus.

It all started in 2016 when church members, along with several community partners, began discussing a green infrastructure plan for the church that was built in 1891 by Polish immigrants. Thanks to Mike Bramhall of Avon-based Bramhall Engineering, the group decided to apply for a green infrastructure grant from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD
Dedication of St. Casimir Green Infrastructure Project
“Bramhall Engineering offered to survey the site and apply for the grant,” recalls John Niedzialek, a church volunteer and retired soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It started with engineering and we worked forward.”

St. Casimir Church
8223 Sowinski Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44103

The church received a $168,000 grant from NEORSD, opened the project up for bidding, and eventually awarded it to Licursi Construction Inc. “Three bids were made, and Mr. Licursi generously underbid it by $80,000 so, of course, we went with him,” Niedzialek says. “He and his team worked all through the summer.”

The completed project includes a variety of stormwater management practices. Among them are permeable pavers in the parking lot that will allow water from storm events to soak into the sandy ground at the church (instead of flowing into the storm drains), and bio-retention areas behind the church and convent to allow the roof water to collect into basins and drain into the sandy soil (instead of running off into sewers).

In addition, students from adjacent Willson Elementary School painted rain barrels with animals to recognize the stray and abandoned creatures saved by the people of St. Casimir. “The church, with its history dating back to the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago that taught there, has a strong link to St. Francis, the saint known to take care of our animals and nature,” explains Niedzialek.

In total, Niedzialek estimates the total cost of the project at about $250,000—all of which was paid for through the grant and from donations from partners such as Licursi, Bramhall, and Willson Elementary. Other partners included the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District, Lake Soil & Water Conservation District, St. Casimir Alumni Association, Western Reserve Resource Conservation and Development Council, Doan Brook Watershed Partnership, Ohio Interfaith Council, and ProVision Impressions.

“We’re really happy about what we were able to pull off,” says Niedzialek, who also serves as a part-time resource protection specialist with the Lake Soil & Water Conservation District, assistant professor of geography at Lakeland Community College, and volunteer coordinator with the Western Reserve Resource Conservation and Development Council.

On Wednesday, October 24, the Western Reserve RC&D Council sponsored a workshop at the church to showcase the project and teach others not only how to install stormwater practices on their properties, but also how doing so can reduce sewer bills.

Workshop attendees assemble on the newly installed permeable pavers
But Niedzialek is just getting started in his vision for St. Casimir Church and the neighborhood. He grew up in the neighborhood and attended St. Casimir School, but moved away with his family after the Hough Riots when he was about 11 years old.

Niedzialek now lives in Concord, but continues to be active at St. Casimir, where he works with neighborhood groups to revitalize the area. He says he’d like to see people walking to church just as he did as a youngster in the 1960s.

“I would like to work with the community leaders to demolish the blighted houses—especially near the new Willson Elementary School for safety reasons—and reforest the lots,” he says. “[I’d like to] create a forested riparian corridor near the church and Doan Brook, which runs through the Cultural Gardens near the church, which would add value to the existing properties nearby.”

Niedzialek believes these efforts could turn the area surrounding St. Casimir around. “This, in turn, would attract some small businesses, restaurants, and hopefully some attractive housing where one day people from the neighborhood will walk to church again just like the immigrants from Poland did years ago when they built the church,” he says.

In fact, Niedzialek cites the re-opening of St. Casimir’s in 2012—one of 11 Catholic churches reopened after bishop Richard Lennon ordered them to close in 2009. Many Clevelanders credit the “Miracle of St. Casimir” with a dream parishioner Michael Klymiuk-Wieczerski had the night after the church closed.

Klymiuk-Wieczerski said the Virgin Mary appeared in his dream and said, “Don't leave me,” which prompted weekly prayer vigils and tireless letter-writing campaigns to the Vatican. Two-and-a-half years and 139 weekly prayer vigils later, the Vatican ordered all 11 Cleveland churches reopened.

Given the Miracle of St. Casimir, and now the green infrastructure plan implementations, Niedzialek says anything is possible with prayer and an involved community. He says he hopes the same power can be used to bring the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood back to its former glory.

“Wishful thinking? Would it take a miracle?” he asks of his vision for the neighborhood. “Well, we know now that miracles are possible with the reopening of the church.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.