In 1847, the Diocese of Cleveland was erected as the second diocese in Ohio. It was carved from the Diocese of Cincinnati and a French missionary priest, Father Amadeus Rappe, was appointed the first bishop of the new diocese, which consisted of 33 counties in the northern half of the state. There were 42 churches, 21 priests, two convents and approximately 10,000 Catholics at the time.
Before the diocese was created, there were Catholics worshiping in churches scattered throughout Northeast Ohio. One of those, Our Lady of the Lake – commonly known as St. Mary’s on the Flats -- was built at what was then Columbus and Girard streets in Cleveland, making it the first Catholic church in the city – and the only Catholic church in Cleveland when the diocese was established. The structure was dedicated in 1840 and it served as the first cathedral for the diocese from 1847 until the new Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist was completed in 1852.
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Deciding on a location and building a cathedral for the diocese were priorities for Bishop Rappe since St. Mary on the Flats was too small to accommodate the growing number of faithful.
The cornerstone for the new cathedral was laid on Oct. 22, 1848. The next day, Bishop Rappe purchased five additional, adjacent lots. On one lot, now occupied by the cathedral rectory, a temporary frame church known as the Church of the Nativity was built. Mass was celebrated there for the first time on Christmas of 1848. The building served as a “chapel of ease” to St. Mary’s on the Flats until the new cathedral was completed in November 1852.
Bishop Rappe selected Patrick Charles Keeley, who was just beginning his career as a church architect, to design the cathedral. Keeley would go on to design and construct 16 cathedral churches in cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, Boston, Massachusetts and Chicago, Illinois. St. John Cathedral in Cleveland was the first one he completed.
The foundation was completed in 1848 and work on the superstructure began in the spring of 1849. By that September, the walls were 25 feet high. The roof was installed in summer 1850. The slate, which was imported from Wales, was fastened with copper nails. Financial difficulties delayed completion of the structure. In the meantime, three Sunday Masses were celebrated in the basement of the partially finished cathedral which served as a chapel. The adjacent, temporary Nativity Chapel continued to be used for the children’s Mass and another Sunday Mass.
When completed, the new cathedral was described as a plain, substantial brick edifice of the style known as ornamental Gothic. It faced what now is East Ninth Street and measured 170 long and 75 feet wide with a seating capacity of approximately 900 people.
The interior of the new cathedral was Gothic style and included a carved oak altar and statues that were made in France. Within 20 years, a rectory that also housed the diocesan chancery, was built.
Over the years, the interior of the cathedral was improved and embellished, something that wasn’t possible earlier because of financial constraints.
In 1878, the front of the structure was completely remodeled and many carved, ornamented sandstone trimmings were added. In 1879, a graceful spire was added to the central tower in front and a gilt cross was placed atop the spire 240 feet above ground.
Improvements to the cathedral continued, with a complete renovation and painting of the interior in 1884. The main altar was regilded and a large episcopal throne (cathedra) was built in the sanctuary. An altar railing and other sanctuary furnishings fashioned from black walnut were added. Stained-glass windows were installed above the three altars and a vestibule was added to the entrance. New statues were installed and two large, imported marble vases were placed on either side of the altar.
A school for boys was built in 1857 and within a decade, the old Cathedral Hall, its chapel and a school for girls were completed. In 1888, a new school building that could accommodate about 1,000 students and which later served as the chancery, was built. Then the old school and hall were demolished. Cost of the new building was about $55,000. It included a chapel, assembly hall and rooms for various parish societies.
The golden jubilee of the consecration of the cathedral was celebrated in 1902. Another renovation included installation of the current stained-glass windows, which were crafted in Munich, Germany. The festivities attracted about 15,000 people and included a pontifical Mass and a parade of former cathedral school students and Catholic societies from throughout the diocese. During this celebration, the large bronze statue of Bishop Rappe was unveiled on the corner of East Ninth and Superior.
There was consideration given to building a new cathedral at East 79th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland – the site of the former St. Agnes Parish – but that never occurred. At one point, the diocese offered the cathedral site for sale, but eventually decided not to relocate the cathedral.
Additional renovations in the 1920s included painting the church, rebuilding and rededicating the crypt where the first four bishops were buried an installing the relics of St. Christine. In 1928, the old steeple was deemed unsafe and was removed. It was replaced with a much shorter – 145 feet – steeple.
As the centennial of the diocese approached, a decision was made to completely renew the cathedral complex.
The Sisters College (St. John College) was founded and the cathedral school closed, allowing the college to take over the space. Ground was broken in October 1945 for the new St. John College and redevelopment began on other older buildings on the campus. In 1946, reconstruction of the rectory began.
On May 6 1946 the sanctuary lamp in the old cathedral was extinguished, the steeple was removed and a full reconstruction began on the church and surrounding structures. The decision was made to have add matching facings of Tennessee crab orchard limestone on all the buildings.
Sections of the roof and the entire back wall of the old cathedral were removed. The side walls, which were 26 inches thick and deemed architecturally sound, were preserved and formed a shell around which a new cathedral was built. By September 1947, the scaffolding was removed to reveal the sandstone-carved crucifixion scene over the entrance. Work continued until September 1948, when the rebuilt structure was ready for dedication.
Much of the old cathedral was preserved including the side walls and stained-glass windows. The building remained 75 feet wide and the 50-foot ceiling height stayed the same. The transept with the north and south naves was added and the rear wall was extended 38 feet so the new length of the church was 208 feet. Because of the extension, the rectory was joined to the cathedral.
Twelve of the 16 Gothic columns are from the original structure with four new ones fashioned to match. Interior furnishings were new and the mortuary chapel was added at the northeast corner of the building. A new 185-foot bell tower was built at the southeast corner. A side chapel was built to house the relics of St. Christine, another chapel on the opposite side of the sanctuary was built as a Blessed Sacrament chapel and it enshrined a silver and glass reliquary with a relic of the true cross.
Focal point of the interior was the main altar and the hand-carved reredos made from Appalachian oak behind it. Seating capacity was increased to about 1,400. Two Holtkamp organs were installed. The cathedral was consecrated Sept. 6, 1948 with a week of festivities and commemorations. The complex, which included St. John College and the chancery, was named Cathedral Square.
In the 1960s and 1970s, interior changes were made to comply with the decrees of the Second Vatican Council.
The next major renovation took place in the 1970s when the interior of the cathedral took place, pews were refinished, new holy water fonts installed and new shrines were added.
St. John College closed in 1975 and Hagan Hall, which opened in 1976, was renamed The Catholic Center. The following year, work was completed to adapt the cathedral interior to conform with the new liturgical standards of Vatican II. The altar was dismantled and reassembled on a newly built platform that extended into the area where the nave and transept crossed. This required removal of several rows of pews which reduced seating capacity to about 1,200.
The pillars and pelican figure from the old altar were used. The cathedra – bishop’s chair – and the attached presbyterum – seating for priests – were added. The arrangement was modeled after the ancient basilicas in Rome. Ironically, the new placement of the altar puts it almost where the original altar was when the cathedral was dedicated in 1852.
The new sanctuary was rededicated on Nov. 18, 1977. The date commemorated the centenary of Bishop Rappe’s death and the 125th anniversary of the cathedral.
Since that time, additional renovation has been done on the lighting, sound system, floor, pews and more.
Information for this story was based on a publication about the cathedral that was prepared by Father Ralph Wiatrowski, a former diocesan chancellor.
Click here for a story about the beginning of the celebration for the 175th anniversary of the cathedral.