Four cornerstones: historic ethnic churches thrive in a modern world

In 2012, Buck McDaniel moved to Cleveland from a small town in rural Mississippi.

“The only artists in the town were basically church musicians, so if you wanted to do music, you were involved in some way with a local church music program,” he says, adding he made the move north to pursue a bachelor of music at Cleveland State University. At that time, he didn’t realize that his interest in music would bring him right back to where he started—houses of worship. Except this time, the notes would play out in many of Cleveland's oldest and most historic churches.
As a newcomer to the city, directing the choirs, playing organs and executing leadership roles in a large network of Cleveland churches has given him a unique perspective on Cleveland, one that might, for many locals, be so close to home it becomes hidden in plain sight.

“I think Cleveland is really good at celebrating its varied ethnic heritage and a great visual example of this is the diversity of ethnic, urban churches found across the city," says McDaniel. "As is often the case, each church demonstrates a historical architectural perspective.

“Even if you aren’t religious," he continues, "one can appreciate the variety in approaches and styles in historical sacred architecture and allow it to beautify one’s experience with the inner city.”

Thusly advised, Fresh Water contributor Jacqueline Bon set out to explore a quartet of such houses of worship.

St. John’s Episcopal, 1836
2600 Church Avenue, Ohio City

St. John’s is the oldest church in Cuyahoga County.

In good company with the East side’s historic Cozad-Bates House, it is a widely recognized Underground Railroad location and also the city’s first authenticated such site.

Founded by Connecticuters who established themselves in fledgling Ohio City, St. John's construction pre-dates the city’s wave of European immigration. Nestled at the corner of Church and W. 26th, the gothic rival structure is located south of the middle-class, gentrifying “Hingetown” and north of public housing.

<span class="content-image-text">St. John’s Episcopal</span>St. John’s Episcopal

“St. John’s represents a place for people to share in the arts and open dialogue and a place for hope, which it has been since 1836,” says former project director Timothy Holcomb of the long-lasting symbol of liberation and sanctuary. “The idea is to be as inclusive as possible and to bring together different sections of the community.”

Ohio City was known as a hub for abolitionist activity, partially because of its proximity to Lake Erie. Although the precise history of St. John's involvement in the Underground Railroad was never fully documented—doing so would have meant recording partially illegal activity—runaways are said to have waited in the bell tower for a light signal. Then a wagon would shuttle them to Lake Erie and the freedom beckoning from the opposite shore.

“St John’s alleged involvement in the Underground Railroad lent itself to being a pertinent location to present a concert of works by black American composers, some of which were also gay or queer,” says McDaniel. “My choir at St Andrew’s (the oldest African American Episcopal congregation in the city) has performed as part of Station Hope each year." In my opinion, their involvement forms an interesting dialogue with the history of the space.”

By the later 1900’s St. John’s was in transition amid a rapidly changing community. In the ‘70s, Native American activist Russell Means opened the Cleveland American Indian Center in the church’s basement. In the ‘90s, the local hip-hop group, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, recorded their first album in the parish hall. But by 2007, the struggling church temporarily closed.

Today, St. John's is a neighborhood hub, hosting an eclectic roster of events that harken back to its inclusive history. This year will be the church's fourth year celebrating Station Hope. Cleveland Public Theatre puts forth this free multi-arts event honoring the Underground Railroad, the church's history and contemporary social justice struggles.

The church is home to other events. Last summer, St. John's hosted Runway Freedom, a multicultural fashion show and fundraiser to promote cultural diversity and raise awareness of human trafficking. This weekend, on Saturday, Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m., the church will host "The Syndicate for the new Arts, Composition for Saxophone.

The Syndicate is a musician-run, Cleveland based, contemporary music ensemble that specializes in championing composers and artists that live and work in the Rust Belt. “One of the predicaments that new music ensembles face is that our art tends to be stigmatized and highly academic,” says executive director, Joshua Rosner. “St. John's has allowed us to present some really complex and difficult work in a safe and accessible environment. Every concert, open rehearsal, and composer talk we present at St. John's is free and open to the public.”
<span class="content-image-text">Our Lady of Lourdes</span>Our Lady of Lourdes 
Our Lady of Lourdes, 1891
3395 East 53rd Street, Slavic Village

This historic church is located in a section of Slavic Village that was once called “Little Bohemia.” The light-filled brick structure features stone details and a high Victorian gothic style with wall buttresses, large stained glass windows imported from Munich and a unique statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. For decades, the church was an epicenter for immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“Beautiful architecture can make any performance more profound, but I think what is unique about Cleveland is that many of these structures can make one feel quite European,” says McDaniel. "For example, performing historic Bohemian national songs on holidays such as St. Wenceslaus Day can take on extra significance when you’re surrounded by Czech-language engravings in this beautiful, historical building that once housed a majority Czech-speaking community."

Presently, Our Lady of Lourdes includes a large population of Spanish speaking parishioners and weekend masses are celebrated in English and Spanish. Father Joseph Callahan was a missionary in El Salvador for 15 years and became fluent in the language during that time, which he utilized to serve the Hispanic community upon returning to Cleveland.

For over 30 years, Joseph Kocab has attended Our Lady of Lourdes. It’s part of his heritage; it is the church where his grandparents were married and where his grandfather was baptized. Kocab is a third generation Czech and has devoted nearly five decades of his life to uniting the Czech community through his radio show, “Czech voice of Cleveland,” where he delivered community news, polkas, waltzes and marches through the airwaves.

“There was no Czech newspaper being printed in Cleveland at that time and one way of keeping the people acquainted with what’s happening in the neighborhood was with community radio,” says Kocab.

“The movement to the suburbs and the internet has diluted the ethnic culture a little bit," he adds, "but there is always a little interest.” Kocab recalls attending events throughout his youth at the nearby Bohemian National Hall, 4939 Broadway Ave., which was built in 1896 and is home to the Cleveland Czech Cultural Center and Museum. The gorgeous structure includes an historic auditorium, full stage and balcony. The Hall still hosts Sunday dinners and food fests, Czech Day and an Annual Holiday Fair.

St. Vitus Church, Founded 1893, built 1930
6019 Lausche Avenue, St. Clair Superior

Cleveland contains the largest population of Slovenians outside of Slovenia, which is a small republic in Central Europe with a population of about two million people. St. Vitus is known as the Slovenian Mother church in the United States.

“St. Vitus is a 125-year-old church and serves as the center of our community,” says Father Joseph Boznar. “The Slovenian groups are still very recognizable in many ways. We use the language in the church and we have musical groups that perform concerts. We are connected to many Slovenian organizations and second, third and fourth generations are all involved. We are Americans, but these roots give our parishioners a lot of stability,” he says, adding that the church has seen the generations come and go.

<span class="content-image-text">St. Vitus Church</span>St. Vitus Church

Tony Petkovsek, a lifelong member of the church, just moved into the organization’s new 30-suite apartment building, St. Vitus Village, on Lausche Avenue. Petkovsek hosted a daily Slovenian radio show for 50 years and then a weekly installment for the past five years. You can find him on the airwaves Saturday from 12 – 3 p.m. on 101.5 FM or 330 AM playing Slovenian polka music and presenting Slovenian community news. Petkovsek also founded The Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, 605 E. 222nd St., in 1987, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of “the happiest sound around."

In 2013, the St. Clair Superior neighborhood launched a festival to honor its Slovenian roots that has grown in popularity every year. Cleveland Kurentovanje, which is celebrated in February, is connected to Slavic paganism and mythology. The first modern Kurentovanje was started in 1960 in Ptuj, Slovenia and the festival is now 11 days long and attracts visitors from all over the world.

Kurent is a 10-foot-tall mythological creature that attends the event and is said to scare away winter. The costumes for the festival are each made by hand in Slovenia. Each year the parade starts at noon from St. Vitus Church on Lausche Ave. to the Slovenian National Home on St. Clair—call it a would-be Cleveland Mardi Gras.

<span class="content-image-text">Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus</span>Shrine Church of St. StanislausShrine Church of St. Stanislaus, 1886
3649 East 65th Street, Slavic Village

St. Stanislaus is a significant part of the religious, educational, cultural and social fabric of Slavic Village. It's also the epicenter of the neighborhood's Polish heritage. Cleveland’s "Polish Mother Church" is the largest and oldest of the city's Polish churches. Eleven hundred families are registered to the church, a quarter of which live in neighborhood.

The striking details of St. Stanislaus include its blue vaulted ceiling adorned with 4,000 gold leaf stars. The church's construction took five years and began in 1886 when its red brick structure and soaring spires were built on top of a potato farm.

The neighborhood is also home to the Polish-American Cultural Center, 6501 Lansing Ave., which includes a museum and galleries. Founded in 1998, the nonprofit provides resources for those seeking to learn more about Polish heritage through culture, traditions, language, history, literature, and the arts. They also host concerts, picnics and Sunday brunch.

In 1998, St. Stanislaus received a $1.5 million renovation that restored the original interior artwork to its former glory and integrated modern amenities. David Krakowski, St. Stanislaus Director of Music and Liturgy, raised the funds for the restoration and expansion of the Schuelke pipe organ, which was installed in the church after the devastating windstorm of 1909.

When Krakowski reflects on his own heritage, his recalls his Polish grandparents. “There was no economic opportunity there," he notes. "During that time, they were used to working so hard that they were perfect for the American workforce, making dollars when they were used to dimes and looking ahead for their family’s future.”

While this list is in no way complete, other ethnic historical churches of note include St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 2171 E. 49th St. in Midtown, which was founded 1891 and is the oldest African American Episcopal congregation in the city. St. Steven Roman Catholic Church, located on West 54th Street near Lorain Ave., was founded in 1869, and was home to the largest number of German Catholics in Cleveland, the parish still holds German masses the first Sunday of the month. Organized by Russian immigrants in 1896 and constructed in 1911, St. Theodosius Cathedral, 733 Starkweather Ave. in Tremont, is the oldest Orthodox Christian church in Ohio and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Holy Rosary Church, 12021 Mayfield Road in Little Italy, was founded in 1892 as an Italian parish. Holy Rosary sponsors the annual Feast of the Assumption. The 2017 festival will mark 119 years for the event.

Jacqueline Bon
Jacqueline Bon

About the Author: Jacqueline Bon

Jacqueline Bon is a freelance writer that has been contributing to Fresh Water Cleveland since 2014. As a journalist by trade and self-taught photographer, she has a lot of curiosity in people and their stories. She is a graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and has pursued film and digital photography for a decade. She is likely to be the first person on the dance floor, especially if you put on Prince.