One of the first decisions Bishop Amadeus Rappe had to make in 1847 was regarding the construction of a cathedral church in Cleveland . This church is where the bishop’s chair or “cathedra” is located. It represents teaching authority of the bishop and symbolizes the union of the local diocese with the Church of Rome. Cleveland ’s only parish, St. Mary on the Flats, was small and its location was inconvenient to the residential areas of the city. The pastor, Rev. Peter McLaughlin, had bought property in the May Woods section adjacent to Erie Street (now East 9th) in 1845. No building had begun on this site when Bishop Rappe arrived.
Cleveland ’s first bishop decided to use this site for the new cathedral. Work was begun in 1848 with Patrick Charles Keeley as the architect. Keeley would become one of the premier church architects of the 19th century and the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist would be one of his first Cathedral designs. The cornerstone was laid on October 22, 1848 . Additional property was purchased and the first Mass was held in the temporary chapel of the Nativity on Christmas Day of 1848. During the week it housed a school. The cathedral, built in a Gothic revival style, was completed in 1852. The extreme poverty of the diocese forced Bishop Rappe to go on fundraising trips to France, New York City, and other parts of Ohio to help finance its completion.
Rev. Louis de Goesbriand had served as the first pastor of the cathedral until 1853. Bishop Rappe served as the next pastor until his resignation in 1870. The cathedral also functioned as a thriving parish. A school for boys was built in 1857. By 1867, the cathedral hall and a school for girls was finished. Prior to this, the girls of cathedral parish had been educated at the Ursuline convent on Euclid Avenue.
Bishop Rappe’s successor, Bishop Richard Gilmour, named Father Felix Boff as pastor in 1873. In 1876 he was succeeded by Father Thomas P. Thorpe who was finally able to complete the interior and exterior decoration of the cathedral. This included an intricately designed sandstone trim and the addition of a spire in 1879.
The year 1884 saw a thorough interior renovation which included stained glass windows and black walnut furnishings in the sanctuary. In 1888, a new cathedral school was built. The boys were taught by the Brothers of Mary, while the Ursuline sisters continued to educate the girls.
In 1902, the cathedral celebrated its golden jubilee with an impressive celebration that featured parades and extensive work on the building that including the installation of art glass windows from Munich.
In the early 1900s some consideration was given to relocating the cathedral from its East 9th Street site due to changes in the neighborhood. These plans were permanently shelved by Bishop Joseph Schrembs.
The cathedral was redecorated and the crypt, which would house both the remains of Cleveland ’s deceased bishops and the relics of St. Christine that had been received from Rome that year, was rebuilt and rededicated on Oct. 12, 1927. By this time, the high school division of the cathedral school had been phased out, so the newly organized Sisters’ College, a college for teacher preparation, took over the space in 1928. Additional recognition that downtown workers now formed a major part of the congregation occurred in 1929 when a 12:10 p.m. “lunch hour” Mass was started along with a 2 a.m. Mass on Sunday for those in the printing trade and other night workers.
The cathedral shared in one of the greatest events in the history of the diocese when the seventh National Eucharistic Congress was held in Cleveland in 1935. Thousands of people from throughout the United States and the around world came to Cleveland to adore and pledge their fidelity to Our Lord present in the Eucharist. In 1943, the cathedral school, whose enrollment had dwindled over the years, was closed and Sisters’ College took over its rooms.
When Bishop Edward F. Hoban became coadjutor bishop in 1943, he and the cathedral’s rector, Monsignor Richard Walsh, assessed the aging cathedral building and decided that reconstructing the cathedral would be a fitting project to celebrate the centennial of the diocese. Retaining the same lines as the original, the cathedral was extensively rebuilt and enlarged between 1946 and 1948. The firm of Stickle, Kelly and Stickle served as the architects. The marble work and the hand carved Appalachian oak reredos over the altar were created by the local firm of John W. Winterich and Associates. The newly rebuilt cathedral was consecrated on Sept. 4, 1948 .
By 1960, the neighborhood around the cathedral had become shabby but the Erieview project soon began the redevelopment of the area. The facilities of St. John College (formerly Sisters’ College) were expanded in 1964 with the addition of a dormitory. In 1975, when the college closed, this dormitory would be remodeled to become the Catholic Center.
In 1977, Bishop James Hickey (later Cardinal Archbishop of Washington , D.C. ) and the cathedral’s pastor, Monsignor Robert C. Blair, began a new phase of cathedral renovation. In conformity with the liturgical mandates of the Second Vatican Council, the cathedral’s sanctuary was redesigned and the main altar moved to its current location in the nave crossing. An interesting historic note is that the present location of the altar is the same as it was in the cathedral of the 1850s.
In 1988, a project was begun by Bishop Anthony M. Pilla and Father Theodore Marszal, the cathedral’s rector, to obtain real bells for the cathedral’s tower. Proceeds from that year’s cathedral Ball were used to purchase six bells ranging in size from 375 to 3,300 pounds. The bells rang for the first time on Christmas Eve of 1988 and have since become an accustomed part of downtown Cleveland ’s atmosphere. The year 1991 saw the construction of a new baptismal font which was installed in a prominent location near the sanctuary on the north side of the cathedral. In 1996, the cathedral and the rest of the Diocese of Cleveland rejoiced in celebrating Bishop Pilla’s election as president of the National Council of Catholic Bishops. In honor of Bishop Pilla’s 15th anniversary as Bishop of Cleveland, the people of the Italian-American community donated the funds necessary to undertake a major renovation of the cathedral’s sacristy. Bishop Pilla and Father David C. Weber, the cathedral’s rector since 1993, worked with GSI Architects Inc. to complete a plan that would gut the old sacristy to the walls in order to build a more prayerful and efficient space to prepare for the many liturgies held at the cathedral. Construction began on the two floors of the cathedral’s sacristy and meeting rooms in October of 1996 and was completed in time for Lent and Easter of 1997.
As the Diocese of Cleveland moved toward its 150th anniversary, the cathedral was selected to host the taping of the ABC Network’s television special “Celebrating Christ’s Splendor.” With the sponsorship and aid of the Catholic Communications Campaign, this liturgical service was taped and broadcast to cities throughout the United States on Easter of 1997. Later that same year, the sesquicentennial year of the diocese was officially opened at a Mass held on April 23. Representatives from every parish and diocesan institution gathered at the cathedral to celebrate God’s blessings to the Diocese of Cleveland throughout its 150-year history.
In 2006, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla celebrated his 25th anniversary as Bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland. People from throughout the diocese gathered for a gala celebration of the event on Jan. 6. On Tuesday, April 4, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI announced the appointment of the Most Rev. Richard Gerard Lennon as bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland. On May 15, 2006, Bishop Lennon was installed as the 10th bishop of the 159-year-old diocese, succeeding the Most Rev. Anthony M. Pilla whose retirement was also officially accepted by the Vatican.
Due to health reasons, Bishop Lennon requested early retirement from the Holy See in late November 2016. Pope Francis appointed Bishop Daniel E. Thomas , bishop of the Diocese of Toledo, as Apostolic Administrator until a permanent episcopal appointment is made for the Diocese of Cleveland. He will leave that role when Bishop Nelson Perez is installed on Sept. 5, 2017.
Today, the cathedral stands in the middle of vibrant theater entertainment, professional sports venues and a thriving commercial district. It is still the setting for episcopal liturgies and ordinations. It has grown into a vibrant and growing parish community serving over 1,100 members. Centrally located, the cathedral staff and parishioners reach out to the poor and the troubled. Many attend Mass at the cathedral because of the beauty of its liturgy and the artistry of its musicians and choir, under the direction of Gregory Heislman. As the mother church of the Diocese of Cleveland, the cathedral is the spiritual home of over 750,000 Catholics. The cathedral, in the heart of downtown Cleveland, is an historic building which stands as an enduring symbol of all those who have worked to build the Diocese of Cleveland over more than 150 years. Its presence is a reminder of the Church’s call to serve the spiritual and material needs of God’s people, and as a sign of our commitment to continue to spread the message of God’s love to future generations.