Irish Americans of Cleveland

Cleveland Press Articles About the Old Neighborhood

Irish Aided Church Growth Here

100 Years of Nationalities in Cleveland, 33rd of a Series
by Theodore Andrica
Cleveland Press, December 28, 1950

The founding and early growth of the Catholic Church in Cleveland is closely connected with the settlement of the Irish in this vicinity.

The first Catholic bishop to visit the village of Cleveland way back in 1835 was Bishop Purcell of Cincinnati, a native of Mallow, County Cork, Ireland. Of his visit here, Bishop Purcell wrote:

"The Catholic congregation in Cleveland consists of no more than 300 members." From contemporary records we know that these were mostly Irish and German laborers who came here to work on the Ohio Canal, completed in 1830.

Another Irish "first" on the local Catholic scene was the first resident pastor of the then small congregation in Cleveland. He was the Rev. Fr. John Dillon who was ordained by Bishop Purcell in Cincinnati in 1834 and who was sent to Cleveland in 1835.

There being no Catholic church in Cleveland at that time, Father Dillon said mass, first, in private homes. Later masses were said in what was then known as "Judge Underhill's office," a small room on Spring St.; next on Main St. Hill, opposite Union Lane; then again on Prospect St., in "Farmer's Hall,." In the Mechanics' Block which later became knows as Prospect House.

It was Father Dillon who took the first subscription for the erection of the first Catholic church in Cleveland, known I the old days as St. Mary's-on-the-Flats.

Unfortunately, Father Dillon was not to see the completion of the first church. He died on Oct. 16, 1836 at the age of 29. It is regrettable that there is no picture or likeness of him.

Father Dillon was buried in Old Erie St. Cemetery and later his body was entombed in St. John's Cathedral. His final resting place is in St. John's Cemetery.

The second resident Catholic pastor of Cleveland was also Irish, the Rev. Fr. Patrick O'Dwyer, native of Cashel, Ireland, ordained to the priesthood in Quebec. He came to Cleveland 11 months after Father Dillon's death, in September, 1837 and stayed until 1840.

It was Father O'Dwyer who started the building of Our Lady-of-the-Lake Church, known later as St. Mary's-on-the-Flats, on a lot at Columbus and Girard Sts., purchased on October 24, 1837.

In a few months the church walls were erected but the building could not be completed for lack of funds. Father O'Dwyer left Cleveland and the church stood unfinished until Bishop Purcell came from Cincinnati in 1839 and directed the building operations so that mass was said in it for the first time in October, 1839.

Church Cost $3000

The frame building, 81 by 53 feet cost $3000, exclusive of furniture. It was dedicated on June 7, 1840 by Bishop De Frobin-Janson of Nancy, France, then visiting America. Bishop Purcell delivered the dedicatory sermon.

The third resident Catholic pastor in Cleveland was another Irishman, the Rev. Fr. Peter McLaughlin, who came to this city in October, 1840.

Being conversant to some extent with the German language, Father McLaughlin satisfied the wants, temporarily, of the mixed congregation of St. Mary's many of whom were Germans. Under Father McLaughlin's direction St. Mary's-on-the-Flats was entirely finished, a choir was organized and a reed organ was installed.

With a keen eye to the future of the church and of Cleveland, Father McLaughlin purchased from Thomas May four lots, fronting Superior and Erie (E. Ninth) Sts., on Jan. 22, 1845, for $4000. Some of his parishioners accused Father McLaughlin of wasting money by buying lots "in the country."

The purchase of these lots, on which later St. John's Cathedral was erected, was the beginning of unkind feelings toward Father McLaughlin, on the part of his parishioners. Eventually he asked to be transferred and on Feb. 16, 1846 left for Milwaukee.

His successor was Rev. Fr. Maurice Howard, a native of Effin, County of Limerick, Ireland, ordained by Bishop Purcell in 1842.

Father Howard's assistant for a few months was another Irishman, Rev. Fr. Michael A. Byrne, a native of Stranoriar, County of Donegal, who came t America in 1838.