The Slovenian community celebrated the 125th anniversary of St. Vitus Church in Cleveland with a Mass and dinner on Sept. 30. It was the first American-Slovenian Roman Catholic parish founded in the state and in the Diocese of Cleveland. St. Vitus is at 6019 Lausche Ave., in what for many years was a predominately Slovenian neighborhood.
Bishop Nelson Perez was the main celebrant and homilist at the 11 a.m. liturgy. Father Joseph Boznar, pastor, was concelebrant and Deacon Robert Kovach Jr. assisted.
Members of the clergy, altar servers, Knights of Columbus, Holy Name Society, parish organizations and representatives and members of the Slovenian community — in nationality dress — gathered at the nearby St. Vitus Village senior citizen apartment complex before lining up on Lausche to walk to the church.
Parish representatives greeted the bishop in Slovenian and English and presented him with a bouquet of red flowers before Mass began. Readings, the Universal Prayer and songs also were in both languages.
In his homily, the bishop asked each member of the congregation to turn to his or her neighbor and wish them a happy birthday for the parish. He noted that Father Boznar, who is the sixth pastor of St. Vitus, has been at the parish for 46 years. “I was in fourth grade when he became pastor,” Bishop Perez said. “And I never imagined back then that I’d be the bishop of Cleveland and would be celebrating Mass for the 125th anniversary of a Slovenian parish in Cleveland,” he quipped.
He offered congratulations to the parish, which has persevered and grown since its establishment by a young priest from Slovenia. He talked about the importance of nurturing both faith and culture. “People brought their culture and their faith with them when they immigrated,” he said.
Bishop Perez also talked about how Jesus told his disciples to go and spread the Gospel to the world. “They didn’t get a manual. They were just told to go and preach. And that word eventually reached the Slovenian people and touched their hearts. It was transferred from them and eventually reached here,” he said. “And then a young priest was told by his bishop to build a church,” the bishop said, referring to the roots of St. Vitus Parish.
He asked members of the congregation how many had been in the parish for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70 years, expressing amazement at the length of time for some. “How about 80 years?” he asked, as a few hands popped up. “Really,” he remarked. “Anyone here 90 years?” he asked. As a couple of people raised their hands, “Wow,” he said.
“Each generation had its moments of discord, then resolution, and all of it helped to make this church a special place. It didn’t just happen because of the priests. Pastors come and go. It was the people of this parish working together with the pastor and continuing to hand the faith on to the next generation – the faith, language and culture – handing that on to the next generation,” the bishop said. “You have a significant task. St. Vitus remains a vital parish because of you,” he added.
As generations pass, Bishop Perez said it becomes more difficult to pass on the language and culture, but he urged them to do so.
“Today you celebrate what was the past and the present. In 125 years, hopefully there will be others here to celebrate the 250th anniversary. We’ll all be long gone. So rejoice today in God’s presence and love in the church you helped build 125 years ago. God bless you,” the bishop said.
After Mass, Father Boznar thanked the bishop for celebrating with the parish.
“I also want to thank you for what you said. It was the first time in 125 years that we heard that faith does not grow from generic roots, but from people. Thank you, bishop,” Father Boznar said.
As he acknowledged the bishop’s recent illness, Father said he had a message from his mother in heaven, “who is a member of the Mothers of Priests and Bishops United. It took Jesus three years to crisscross Galilee and you’re crisscrossing our diocese in a year, which is taking a toll on your health. It means so much to us that you are here today. Thank you, bishop. You deserve to take a break and get some rest,” he added.
“I ask God to continue to show us the way to the future and to walk with us,” Father Boznar said.
After Mass, the clergy and those in the entrance procession lined up in front of the church for an anniversary photo.
The celebration continued with a dinner at the nearby Slovenian National Home on St. Clair Avenue.
Prior to the Mass, Bishop Perez visited and blessed the nearby Joseph House, a ministry that began in the old convent at St. Philip Neri Parish in 1997 as a partnership between that parish and Divine Word Parish in Kirtland. It was established to provide housing and assistance to refugees, who at that time were mainly from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Belarus and some of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
Over the years, Joseph House relocated to a house owned by St. Vitus Development Corp. and then to a storefront owned by St. Vitus Endowment Trust on St. Clair and East 61st Street. It gained new partners with the participation of St. Paul Croatian, Immaculate Conception and St. Vitus parishes. The larger space allowed for the opening in 2011 of a clothing bank that helps not only refugees brought to the “store” by Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services, but neighborhood residents.
In May, Joseph House moved to a much larger nearby retail space at 6108 St. Clair. Dozens of volunteers worked for months to prepare the new location, which was blessed on Sept. 30.
Residents, parish partners, clients and others were invited to tour the new space and enjoy refreshments during an open house that day, said Michelle O’Donnell, Joseph House director of operations.
For more information on Joseph House or to volunteer at the clothing bank, call 216-431-7200.