Prior to the 1920s, African American Catholics in the Diocese of Cleveland attended primarily white parishes, where many said they felt unwelcome. Some migrated to Cleveland from Louisiana and Alabama where Black Catholics had their own parishes.
With support from Father Joseph Smith, pastor of St. Philomena Parish, where some Black Catholics worshiped, they petitioned Bishop Joseph Schrembs and requested permission to establish their own parish. They had been meeting in basements or lower sacristy areas of some churches due to segregation.
According to Phillis Fuller Clipps of St. Adalbert/Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish historian, about 40 Black Catholics met with Bishop Schrembs in 1920. They received his blessing and the new parish was announced on April 11, 1922. The first services took place on June 18, 1922, in the chapel at St. Joseph’s Franciscan Monastery on Woodland Avenue in Cleveland. Parishioners met there until their church was built.
“Bishop Schrembs first named a pastor for the group (Father Thomas McKenny, who had been Father Smith’s assistant at St. Philomena) and then estimated that $25,000 would need to be raised in order to build the church. In addition, he recommended that if anyone donated the full amount, the donor would have the right to name the church,” Phillis said.
Kathryn and Emma Smith donated funds to purchase property for the new church in honor of their brother, Father James Smith. Phillis said the sisters stipulated that matching funds be raised in order to ensure financial security for the new parish. Thanks to donations from parishioners, clergy and other parishes, $46,000 was collected. Parishioners had card parties, bazaars, chicken dinners and other fundraisers.
Property was purchased at 2354 E. 79thSt. between Central and Quincy avenues and the cornerstone for the new church was laid on Dec. 3, 1922. The small brick building, which seated about 250, was ready for use in June 1923, according to diocesan records. It featured a 15thcentury bell donated by a non-Catholic family and the organ was donated by wealthy Cleveland businessman and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Sr., a former neighbor and friend of Msgr. Joseph Smith.
By the summer of 1922, Father McKenny secured the services of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Phillis said he traveled to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area to meet with St. Katharine Drexel, who founded the order to minister to Native Americans and African Americans. She visited the parish often while the sisters did social and educational work.
The sisters continued ministering at the parish and staffed the school, which opened in 1924 in a frame, three-room building at the rear of the church, until 1985. Additional classrooms were added each year and property was purchased for a new convent adjacent to the school. In 1930, there were about 180 students in grades K-8.
The Depression years took a toll on the parish, which was rescued from bankruptcy in 1937 when Msgr. Smith took over the mortgage. The Society of the Precious Blood from Carthagena, Ohio took over the parish in June 1937.
By 1961, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament had outgrown its church and many of the Bohemians who established the larger, nearby St. Adalbert Parish in 1883, had moved to the suburbs. Father Gary Chmura, St. Adalbert pastor, said the parishes merged in 1961 at the St. Adalbert site on East 83rdStreet. A new school was built at St. Adalbert and Father Gary said students helped move to the new building by carrying books and school supplies.
St. Adalbert/Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish closed in 2010 as part of a diocesan restructuring, but after appealing to the Vatican, it reopened in August 2012 with Father Gary as pastor.
The parish continues to thrive today and most prominent African American Catholics in the diocese can trace their roots to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament/St. Adalbert, Father Gary said.
Did you know: The first African American Catholic parish in the United States was established in 1841 in New Orleans, Louisiana by free people of color on land donated by the Ursuline Sisters. They requested that it be named for St. Augustine of Hippo, one of their patron saints. The landmark church, dedicated on Oct. 9, 1842, is near the city’s famous French Quarter. It still has its original pews and remains in use.
Photos provided by Diocese of Cleveland archives.