Among the earliest settlers of the young village along the banks of the Cuyahoga River that was to become the City of Cleveland, Ohio, those of the Roman Catholic faith had their religious needs met primarily by priests making the arduous 250-mile journey from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. By the mid-1820s, however, the town’s growing number of Irish Catholic residents established the parish of Our Lady of the Lakes. Known colloquially as — and eventually officially renamed — St. Mary’s on The Flats, that parish’s first wood frame church was erected by 1839 at the corner of Girard and Columbus streets, in the flats along the Cuyahoga.
The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland was created in 1847, and it’s first bishop, Louis Amadeus Rappe, was named. Bishop Rappe envisioned a newer, larger cathedral as the new diocesan seat. Therefore, upon land at the eastern limit of the growing city core acquired several years earlier by St. Mary’s pastor, planning began for The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. The structure’s cornerstone was laid on October 22, 1848 by the Bishop, at the northeastern corner of Superior Street and Erie Street (now East Ninth Street). By Christmas of that year — as construction began on the new Cathedral — a temporary church, known first as the Chapel of the Nativity, but later renamed the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, began operating on the site.
Designed by noted liturgical architect Patrick Charles Keely in Ornamental Gothic, the Cathedral featured such fine elements as imported handcut wood statues and altarpiece. Financial difficulties delayed completion of the new edifice until 1852. In fact, improvements, additions and renovations to the Cathedral and its ancillary facilities have continued with regularity throughout its entire life. A boys’ school was added in 1857, with both a parish hall and girls’ school following within the next decade After an intensive fundraising campaign, a spire and both interior and exterior decorations were completed by 1879. In the mid-1880s, walnut furnishings and stained glass windows were added. German art glass arrived at St. John’s in 1902.
By the Second World War, the Diocese announced further plans to renovate St. John’s, orchestrated by the locally-renowned architectural firm of Stickle, Kelly and Stickle. Originally faced in brick, the core Cathedral was enlarged and refaced in an ashlar pattern of orange-tinted Tennessee Crabtree limestone. A new bell tower was constructed and further decoration of the interior proceeded. Also added was a magnificent organ fabricated by Cleveland’s Holtkamp Organ Company. Its 72 ranks of over 4,300 organ pipes continue to serve the Cathedral today.
Also part of the 1946 renovation was the erection of St. John’s College at the eastern flank of the complex. St. John’s College later merged with Ursuline College, of the Ursuline women’s religious order, and its structure was demolished and land sold to enable the construction of neighboring Eaton Center in 1981.
By Christmas of 1988, parishioners could finally hear the pealing of six massive bells, installed just that year within the long-empty bell tower of 1946. The Diocese celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 1997, an event profiled in an ABC-TV special. Today The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist stands as a distinctive landmark at the very heart of downtown Cleveland’s corporate/financial nexus, offering welcome aesthetic and psychological relief from the many high rise office and residential structures ringing it.