Cleveland’s St. Joseph Byzantine Catholic Church
For far too long, cities in the United States have taken the case of rehabilitation of historic properties with a grain of salt. It is typically done towards the end-stage for a neighborhood, when there are precious few buildings left to save or when gentrification has set afoot. But what happens when there is no case of future rehabilitation of a particular neighborhood, when the building is stripped, gutted and left to collapse upon itself?
In general, rehabilitation or restoration of historic properties can be obtained with local, state and federal historic tax credits, rebates and tax abatements, which only increases the chance for a commercial loan to finance the project. There are not many cases, unless the next use of the property is arguably more density, a differing land use or some other mitigating factor, that a building could not be reused.
Earlier in November 2012, I came across the beautiful St. Joseph Byzantine Catholic Church in the Union-Miles Park neighborhood that was constructed in the Byzantine Revival architectural style. It had hints of Mission Revival or even Spanish Colonial Revival architectural styles, marked with semi-circular fenestrations, a low-pitched clay tile roof, and interior walls finished with smooth plaster. Two copper domes rested on the towers.
The neighborhood was relatively stable, decreasing in value and occupancy the further west towards East 93rd Street. Union-Miles originated as Newburgh Township which was founded in 1820 around a square known as Miles Park, which had been developed by the Union MIles Development Corporation. That area was once known as the Village of Newburgh but was later absorbed into the city of Cleveland. Its population began to climb steadily in the late 1800s and early 1900s with Slovenians.
The church, as neglected as it was, was the focal point for the Slovak community. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to convert Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Austro-Hungarian Empire only to find resistance. The Byzantine Rite Catholic Church was instead founded that retained much of the Eastern Orthodox traditions while still acknowledging the leadership of the pope. Masses were held on Old Slavonic rather than traditional Catholic Latin and the Julian calendar was observed, rather than the Gregorian. A three-bar cross was also used in place of a Catholic cross, and clergymen were permitted to get married.
By the late 1800s, a significant Carpatho-Russian Orthodox population migrated to Cleveland. But the allowance of marriage by the clergy caused quite the stir with Roman Catholics, and a decree in 1907 permitted only celebrate priests to be admitted into the United States. Thousands of Byzantine Rite Catholics defected to the Russian Orthodox church, and as a result, the majority of the city’s Russian Orthodox churches were constructed by former Byzantine Rite Catholics.
Musings for a church specific to the Rusyn population began in 1909, but it was not until 1912 that the first general meeting was held in Jelinka Hall on Aetna Road to organize a parish. A decision was made to purchase several lots for a church and school on June 16 and a contractor was soon hired. Within two months, the first church was completed for $3,000. The first Divine Liturgy was offered in January 1913.
In 1924, married priests were once again allowed to enter the United States, but married men could not be ordained as Byzantine Rite clergy. It was also the year that the nation enacted a national quota system for immigrants that impacted those from eastern and southern Europe. Between 1920 and 1938, only 7,500 Carpatho-Rusyns left for the United States. But by the 1930s, more than 30,000 Carpatho-Rusyns had settled in the city.
After saving funds for a larger facility, a motion was passed on September 17, 1928 that a new church be built on the site. It was designed by Polish-American architect Joseph E. Fronczak and a general contract was let for $60,000. The old church was renovated into a recreational hall.
There is not much of the interior remaining intact. The stained glass was removed, as was most of the flooring and required supports. The plaster has delaminated from the brick in many places, ruining what was intricate mural paintings.
Below: The apse mural above the altar. Center with a radiated golden glow is Christ as a child with Mary and Joseph on both sides supported with angelic faces. Moses is to the left holding a tablet of the ten commandments, John the Baptist on the right and God the Father towards the top.
Ground was broken in the fall of 1955 for a $400,000 eight-room school and parish rectory, which also included remodeling the convent and the razing of the original 1913 church. The old parish rectory, a wood framed building, was moved to an adjoining lot and enlarged to serve as a convent for the Sisters of St. Basil the Great. A cornerstone was installed on June 10, 1956 and the school – the third for Byzantine Catholics, was completed that fall. A high school was added in August 1957, the first built for Byzantine Catholics, and consisted of four temporary classrooms in the school building completed just a year prior. A formal high school wing was constructed in 1958.
But the suburban flight was starting to occur. In the fall of 1961, the new St. John Byzantine Central Catholic High School opened in Parma and featured 16 classrooms, laboratories and shops. Originally planned as an elementary school, the facility was built at the Byzantine Catholic Center which broke ground in May 1959 and opened a year later at a cost of $500,000. As a result of the school’s opening, St. Joseph’s high school, with 124 students, was closed and the room reused for elementary students.
Below: A 1973 photograph by Clay Herrick.
By the 1970s, the neighborhood began to decline both in population and in demographics. The congregation was steadily shrinking and the original neighborhood composition was being replaced with those of African-American descent with no connection to the Slovak community. With the Easter service in 1980, St. Joseph’s, which had dwindled to 100 active members, closed its doors on Cleveland. The building had been sold to the Greater Zion Hill Baptist Church, a mostly black congregation, for $65,000. Members of both churches joined for a service at 4 PM April 13, which marked the time when the building was officially turned over to the Baptist congregation.
After Zion Baptist struggled with the maintenance of the church building, it was sold to the House of Glory on November 1, 2002 where it was transferred in a quit claim deed to the Tiger Financial Corporation and sold to the Greater Tabernacle Church for $50,000 on July 14, 2010. The flooring was removed several years ago for scrap, and the property remains open and in a vastly deteriorating state.