Cleveland’s St. Joseph Byzantine Catholic Church

A historical and photographic perspective of the long-neglected and gutted St. Joseph Byzantine Catholic Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

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.

St. Joseph Byzantine Catholic Church

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.

21 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, a sad history. However there are several mistakes in your fifth paragraph. I am a Byzantine Catholic, myself, hoping to be able to add clarifications.

    ‘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.’ The Catholic Church is not just Roman. The Orthodox Churches came about by Eastern Catholic Churches going into schism, i.e. separation, from the Catholic Church. But they have always maintained the Catholic Faith. (Even then there were still Catholics of Eastern Churches, which had never split away, the Italo-Albanians and the Maronites. Their communion with Rome is unbroken from the time of the Apostles.) There are actually 23 Eastern Catholic Churches. These Churches existed before the Schism, e.g. the Ruthenian, i.e. Rusyn, having been established by the Equals-to-the-Apostles Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the 9th c. by the conversion of pagans. To convert people is to establish a new faith in them. This is why Pope Francis says it is wrong to try to convert the Orthodox. Thus the effort at this time was, and still is now, not for conversion but for the healing of schism, to welcome back the Churches in schism. It was vital for not just much of but all their Holy Traditions, practices quite different from the Roman (and somewhat different from each other), to continue. That was commanded in 2 Th. 2:15.

    ‘Masses were held on Old Slavonic rather than traditional Catholic Latin…’ The service is not Mass, but Divine Liturgy. ‘Mass’ is from ‘Ite, Missa est,’ ‘Go, the Mass is ended,’ which is an item in the Latin service only. So the celebration of it predates its name. Only in the 3rd c. was Latin first used; before that it was Greek. Before that, in the 1st c. the (Eastern) Divine Liturgy was established. That of St. James is still extant and sometimes used. Therefore ‘Mass’ to mean ‘Divine Liturgy’ is both an anachronism and a calque going the wrong direction in time, illogical twice over. And if you say the Latin is traditional but not the Slavonic, it appears to me you mean using Slavonic is not traditional. Slavonic was the vernacular language Sts. Cyril and Methodius encountered, and they worked, despite persecution, and with approval of the Pope, to build up the local Church in Slavonic, for the benefit of the people and their faith. This was entirely traditional. Latin of course was the vernacular St. Peter encountered in Rome. But long before that, Greek was the vernacular in the empire of Alexander the Great. Most Jews no longer knew Hebrew. So the O.T. Scriptures were translated into Greek in B.C. times, giving us the Septuagint, Scriptures used most by Christ and the Apostles, and inherited by the Byzantine Churches. Furthermore, Orientalium Ecclesiarium, of Vatican II, declared all the Churches, East and West, to be of ‘equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite’. So the vernacular is the ancient Tradition, and each language is as honorable as another.

    ‘A three-bar cross was also used in place of a Catholic cross…’ The cross with three bars is really just a diagram of the Cross Christ was crucified on: the post with a bar for the arms, a bar to mean the INRI sign, and a bar to mean a footrest. It was the most typical one in the Byzantine Empire, so apparently dating from the 4th c. when St. Constantine moved the capital. That’s when the Roman Empire BECAME Catholic! So this cross is as Catholic as any. The Rusyns got it from the Byzantines; it wasn’t an innovation. The cross like this except with only one bar is a Latin cross. I’m not sure if one predates the other, but since things are simpler or plainer in the Latin Rite than in the Byzantine Rite, because evangelization had come from the East, and because of the diagrammatic principle, it seems to me the Byzantine one came first and then was simplified.

    ‘…and clergymen were permitted to get married.’ No, no Christian priests have ever been allowed to get married. Neither deacons. The ancient Tradition is that married men may get ordained, not that ordained men may get married. Even if a priest’s or deacon’s wife dies, he may not marry another woman. I think it would be a form of spiritual incest, since the priest is the spiritual father of the parish. In medieval times, the Latin Church established clerical celibacy, but the other Churches continued as before and still do.

    ‘But the allowance of marriage by the clergy caused quite the stir with Roman Catholics, a decree in 1907 permitted only celebrate priests to be admitted into the United States.’ Celibate. (N.B. Those were monks.) Thank God the decree was superceded, in 2014. Supposedly, Latin Rite Catholics were scandalized by the priests (who of course lived chastely in their families and led orderly lives, so I have no idea how that could have happened), but as a result of the decree, vast numbers of Catholics of EASTERN Rites were ACTUALLY scandalized! They defected to the Orthodox, and I think very few have come back. What a shocking disaster!

    Anyway, sorry to sound picky! Just wanted to make sure things were clear.

    1. Sorry, I meant, ‘as you said, vast numbers defected’. Was concentrating on the other paragraph and forgot about that one.

    2. Re-read your explanation Greta and it is excellent. Once before I commented on the Greek Catholic. My father was a Rusyn and mother a Warsaw born Pole. I was raised in the Polish Church and the last few years have researched the Eastern Churches and can say they are equal and Catholic too. The Greek East actually did spread the faith and have been there from the beginning. Your writings I did learn from my father but in not such important detail. I can use your writings to explain to others how the churches were established and how they differ

  2. It was a beautiful church and the parishioners very dedicated. My father was Rusyn/Slovak and his family went to the Byzantine and Orthodox Churches ( they joined the Orthodox because of bigoted treatment by the Roman Rite Bishops). Myself had a Polish born mother and raised in the Polish Catholic Church. glad to have experienced both rites which are so similar in dogma and devotions. Understanding and sharing is so important is our quest to follow the teachings of Jesus.

  3. what is the address for the abandoned church? i’m having trouble finding it online due to the new church having the same name

  4. I was born in Cleveland and lived not far fro the church as a young, recently married man. It was still in use and quite beautiful when I lived there in 1964. Alas, I was able to see what lay ahead for Cleveland and left for California in late 1965. I have no regrets leaving as I didn’t have to be in Cleveland as the city I loved collapsed. I hope it can come back but have very little faith that will happen. Almost all the development is either tax financed or spec rehabs in hopes the hipsters will move in.

    Unfortunately, the city is still plagued by one of the worst climates in the eastern US and continuing crime and blight. Every time I go back I’m shocked by how much has been abandoned and lost. Every single school I went tt is now closed and only one of the churches remains open. The population when I was born was over 900,000 and it’s now down to 388,000 and continuing to drop. The city was built with an infrastructure for nearly a million people and now over half the people have left with the city still trying to pay for that infrastructure from a declining tax base. Without a major influx of people or turning half the city into a nature preserve, it’s very hard to see how Cleveland can come back.

  5. My childhood was built around the Saint Joe”s Church as several generations have done before me. I have such strong memories of Sunday masses and the choir sing out with praise led by so many of the Stefanchik, Harrigal clan…. Oh such fine memories of celebrations, Weddings and saying goodbye to loved ones in the family and congregation. Thank you, Old Saint Joe’s for such a strong warm childhood.

  6. Atheism is thriving in America. According to new stats 30% of American’s consider themselves non believers! With each new generation non belief in a god will prevail! There’s hope for humanity after all!!

  7. Joan, the parish moved to Brecksville. Mass was held in a school until the new building could be built. The St. Joseph parish thrives today. Some items were moved to the new church. The piano you see in some of the photos on the Web must have belonged to the Baptists, as musical instruments were/are tabu in the Byzantine Rite.

  8. When I visited, there was no access. I would love to take some photos. It is attached to the active church next door and I couldn’t find an entrance without trespassing. Any ideas?

    1. Matt. From the pictures it looks as though they entered through a side door near the altar towards the back. If I’m orientated properly it would be on the left side most of the way back.

  9. I possess a a small section of the stained glass which I dearly appreciate. I went to school for there for three years and left during the white plight to the suburbs. My parents grew up in the church community where they met and had married while in the choir. My fathers family had several siblings so lots of my cousins went to school there.

    It is such a shame that it has met this end. Thanks for the photos and essay. The light of the stained glass still does shine for me.

  10. Oh my!! What a sorrowful sight!! I can easily equate this with the soul who has lost his faith and is in a deteriorating state. Can you imagine, millions of souls who abandoned the Faith and this be a reflection of the state of their souls? And this repeats itself all across our nation. We all would do ourselves a great favor by visiting such a Church and get it into our hearts just what we need to do. Then we would not be shame faced about the negligence we allowed to happen to our ourselves ,our Lord's House.

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