The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish contains an abandoned church, school, and parish house in the Newburgh neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio.
Founded by Slovak immigrants in 1885, St. Ladislas was Cleveland’s first Slovak Catholic parish. 1 After outgrowing the neighborhood around St. Ladislas, many of the immigrants began to relocate to Newburgh two miles south of the city in the early 20th century. Many took up work at the burgeoning American Steel & Wire Company plant and in the numerous factories that sprouted up on the fringes of the metropolitan area.
The Slovak immigrants continued to travel to worship at St. Ladislas Church. 1 That began to change when in 1902, they petitioned Cleveland Bishop Ignatius Horstmann to establish a Slovak Roman Catholic parish in the Newburgh area. The request competed with requests from two other Slovak communities who had also requested the diocese establish congregations on the west side of Cleveland and in Lakewood. It was, unfortunately, difficult to form the parish because of a shortage of priests who could perform the ministry in their native language.
The founding members of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish put forth $2,500 to establish the church. 1 The first masses, held in rented rooms owned by Dr. Mae Schimkola in early 1903, were soon overcapacity, which led to the erection of a permanent building that opened on December 6. A parish school was established on the second floor of the church. The new facility was identical in design and construction to the first Methodius Church in Lakewood. 6
The first four pastors came and went in quick succession, partly because of a lack of fluency in the Slovak language and a transfer to a larger parish. 1 The fifth pastor of Nativity, Rev. Vaclav Chaloupka, was a master of the local tongue after having spent time as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Marblehead.
Chaloupka’s first significant action as pastor was to erect a more substantial school. 1 A new facility, designed by Emile Ulrich in the Neo-Classical style, 4 7 was constructed between 1915 and 1916 on the site of the first church building, which was physically relocated one block south to Dunlap Avenue. 1 5 8 It featured a large auditorium with a capacity for 800 students and a bowling alley. 8 An east wing was added in 1924 followed by a west wing in 1930 at which point the school boasted more than 1,000 pupils in eight grades. 5
The school was used not just by the church but by the community. Night school courses in English and citizenship were held under the direction of the Americanization Committee, along with courses for women in various branches of domestic science and in Red Cross work. 8
Chaloupka then oversaw the construction of a new church for the Nativity parish. 4 Designed by William Jansen, 4 the cornerstone was laid in July 1925 and the new sanctuary was opened in October 1927. 6
At Nativity’s peak in the late 1940s, it boasted 1,200 families, a parochial school, a convent, and three priests. 2
Newburgh, an early population and economic center for the southeast fringe of the Cleveland metropolitan area, became a part of the 18th ward of Cleveland in 1873. 1 Fueled by a post-World War II building boom that occurred predominantly in the rapidly expanding suburban areas of the region, the neighborhood began to stagnate and decline in both population and wealth. Chaloupka noted the effects on the Nativity parish, writing:
“They were both raised in Nativity Parish. They lived sensibly and saved all they could. When they had a nice bank account, along came a glib-talking real estate agent and sold them a lot in Garfield Heights. They never noticed that it was far from the nearest Catholic church and school. Only after they moved into their new home did they realize this. Then too they found that school facilities were taxed. The existing school space was very crowded. There was no room in the Catholic school, and in the public school, the children were placed in temporary rooms. All this because the parents wanted a home on the Heights! There would be more happiness in the world today if people would evaluate what they have where they are and compare it to what they would get where they want to go. Mortgages and taxes and inconvenience bring not happiness but ulcers and unhappiness. Think it over.”
Fr. Chaloupka died in 1956 and was succeeded by seven other pastors. 1 The Nativity parish school closed in 1972, and the last resident pastor departed in 1984. In 1990, the ornate stained glass windows were relocated to another church in Lorain County, replaced with simple plexiglass.
Fr. James Petrus was appointed as an administrator of Nativity in March 1990 in what was hoped would be a model for keeping open older inner-city churches whose members fled to the suburbs. 2 Petrus replaced a Benedictine monk who retired. The single Mass each Sunday was celebrated by a visiting monk from the nearby St. Andrew Abbey under an agreement with the Benedictines. Petrus, who had authority as a deacon to preach at Mass, conduct baptisms and weddings, could not celebrate Mass or hear confessions.
Nativity had just 80 members, a part-time secretary, and a part-time janitor. 2
The final mass, held at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish on December 27, 1992, ended 90 years of continuous worship for Slovaks. 1 The closed church, rectory, and school were sold to Our Lady of Peace Center on October 12, 1993, and then to Rivers of Living Waters Ministries on November 3, 1999. 9 As of 2019, the complex is in a severe state of disrepair with significant portions of it collapsing.
- Rev. Joseph Ptasinski, 1903-04 1
- Rev. Julius Kitter, April-October 1904 1
- Rev. Ladislas Necid, October 1904-November 1907 1
- Rev. Joseph Adamek, November 1907-November 1908 1
- Rev. Vaclav A. Chaloupka, January 1909-1956 1
- Rev. John J. Humensky 3
- Rev. James Petrus, March 1990-December 1992 2
These photographs were originally published on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church website, which has not been updated in over 10 years. The images were pulled from an archived copy.
[su_spoiler title=”Sources” icon=”caret”]
- Sabol, John. “Nativity BVM Parish Lives on as Part of Cleveland’s Slovak Community.” Nase Rodina, Mar. 2005.
- “Deacon’s leadership to keep inner-city church alive.” Dayton Daily News, 24 Mar. 1990, p. 7C.
- “Name Priest to Council.” Akron Beacon Journal, 28 Feb. 1964, p. 34.
- “Church of the Nativity / Blessed Virgin Mary.” Cleveland Memory Project, Michael Schwartz Library.
- “School Days Slovak Style.” Cleveland Slovaks, by John T. Sabol and Lisa A. Alzo, Arcadia, 2009, pp. 55–57.
- “School Days Slovak Style.” Cleveland Slovaks, by John T. Sabol and Lisa A. Alzo, Arcadia, 2009, pp. 26–27.
- “Southeast Cleveland.” Cleveland’s Sacred Landmarks, by Foster Armstrong, Richard Klein and Cara Armstrong, Kent State University Press, 1992. p. 148.
- “Nativity Church.” The Slovaks of Cleveland, by Eleanor E. Ledbetter, 1918. pp. 21-23.