Old Stone Church in Public Square turns 200 this weekend

First Presbyterian Church of Cleveland, better known as the Old Stone Church in Public Square, has a history dating back to Cleveland’s first settlers. It was a congregation founded by 16 men and women in 1820—when the Village of Cleveland’s population was only a few hundred people and there wasn’t much development going on in what would become Public Square. It is the second-oldest congregation in Cleveland, after Trinity Episcopal Church on Euclid Avenue and East 23rd Street.
 

But 200 years later this Saturday, the Old Stone Church will celebrate its 200th birthday—and the rich history of humanitarianism, service, and open doors to all who come upon the church steps at 91 Public Square.

 

Don Guenther, 68, an Old Stone “lifer” and unofficial church historian, was baptized at Old Stone Church and remembers cleaning up after Sunday worship before the nearby Chinese children would arrive for afternoon services.

 

“It’s been a long-term connection between the Old Stone Church and the Chinese community in Cleveland,” Guenther says, adding that Cleveland’s original Chinatown in the late 19th Century was established along Ontario Street, near where the Marriott stands today. Early on, it was the church’s mission to care for the poor Chinese population in Cleveland, he says, and that mission continued for some time.

 

“Until the 1960s the Chinese kids came in for afternoon service and I remember cleaning things up for them.”

 

But long before community relationships were built, the congregation of 16 in 1820 put roots down in the village and established itself as a symbol of spiritual leadership, community involvement, and stability in the heart of the city.

 

In 1834 that symbolism became physical when its member bought the land where the church still sits today for $400 and began construction using Berea sandstone. The original building was replaced in 1853 with a larger structure, but still using the Berea sandstone.

 

“It was the only stone church in Cleveland at the time,” says Guenther. “If you go back in the “Plain Dealer” at the time, it’s just the ‘Stone Church.’” As the sandstone darkened with age and the elements, it became known as the “Old Stone Church,” Guenther points out.

 

“It was jet coal black at times,” he says. “It was cleaned recently, in the 1990s, but we should just leave it be.”

 

The building has weathered two fires—one in 1857, where the interior was destroyed and had to be rebuilt, and one in 1884 when the building next door caught on fire and took out the 250-foot steeple, as well as again damaged the church interior.

 

“So, the interior dates from 1884, but the stone is from the 1850s,” says Guenther. “We got a new steeple in 1998, but we had been without a steeple for 100 years.”

 

Old Stone’s Victorian Romanesque design with golden oak and dark mahogany paneling, carvings, balcony with trussed wood, and a barrel-vaulted ceiling are impressive to this day. The 600-seat sanctuary and the chancel walls feature symbols and inscriptions in a gold stenciled pattern.

 

Old Stone Church 2019The church’s organ—with its original pipes—sits in its 1895 casement. “A lot of it is decorative,” Guenther says. “But it’s a lot of old history and really good stuff.” In fact, the church held a fundraising campaign this year to restore and refurbish the organ.

 

Guenther says perhaps some of the most spectacular features of the church are the nine stained glass windows—four of which are Tiffany windows, signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself.

 

“The windows were donated by wealthy people in honor of their families,” says Guenther, who can also brag about prestigious members like Vernon Stouffer, founder of Stouffer restaurant and food operations chains and owner of the Cleveland Indians from 1966 to 1972.

 

“We are one of the few churches in the country to have a [stained glass window depicting a] sports stadium in our church,” Guenther says. “We may be the only one.”

 

Notable names

In addition to the Stouffer family, Old Stone Church has had members who are credited with helping shape and build modern-day Cleveland. The Severance family and the Higbee family were early members, as was early Sherwin-Williams partner and active Cleveland YMCA advocate Sereno Peck Fenn, where Fenn College took root (and Cleveland State University’s Fenn College of Engineering and other buildings take the Fenn name).

 

Hiram Haydn, president of Western Reserve University, worked with Flora Stone Mather in founding the women’s college, and later became pastor of the church where he was a member. Industrialist and philanthropist Amasa Stone (and Adelbert and Flora Stone’s father) also was an Old Stone member. The Case family also attended Old Stone Church. These names can be seen throughout building and road names in University Circle.

 

Community and Diversity

Many of the Old Stone members were quite wealthy and gave generously, says Guenther. Attempts to buy the church, or more importantly its land, have failed over the years because of its membership.

 

“We have not moved, and we’re not planning on moving,” says Guenther. “Over the years, other churches have left. But we’re very lucky we have the financial resources to stay.”

 

But the congregation also has a mindset of community and equality. Women have always played a strong role at Old Stone Church. “We’ve had a strong presence of women as actors and doers, and in the 1880s they said, ‘we have minds and we can do things too,’” says Guenther. “The Ladies’ Society became the Sisters in Charge.”

 

The Lincoln Catafalque in Public Square in front of the Old Stone ChurchMember Maggie Kuhn grew up in Cleveland, graduated from Case Western Reserve University, and went on to found the Gray Panthers after being forced into retirement at age 65 by the Presbyterian church.

 

“The history of women in our church is really one of pride,” Guenther says. In fact, his own mother was one such pillar of Old Stone Church. “My mother, Ellen Guenther, taught the kindergarten class in the Old Stone Sunday School for 67 years until she retired in 2013,” he boasts.

 

The church has always held Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for anyone who needs to attend. “And when the casino opened, we started the first Gamblers Anonymous chapter,” Guenther says. “Our doors are open for everyone. And our doors were open on September 11, 2001  for people to get support or sit in silence.”

 

Rumors over the years have unfolded that President Abraham Lincoln’s entourage held a service in the church when his body passed through Cleveland in 1865, and therefore creating the “Lincoln pew” inside where Mary Todd Lincoln and her children sat.

 

But, in fact, Guenther says it is untrue. “We believe she never sat in the pew, since the service was held outside,” he says. But there were services for President James A. Garfield inside the church in 1881, and Old Stone Church saw an overflow crowd for services when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

 

And even with the pandemic, the Old Stone Church is still going strong. The doors to the physical church are closed for now, but Sunday services are streamed every Sunday at 10 a.m. on the church’s YouTube Channel and Facebook page. This Sunday, Sept. 20, a special 200th Anniversary worship service will be streamed.

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.
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