Filed Under Religion

St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Church

Founded in 1904, St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Church was the first Romanian Orthodox parish established in the United States. Originally located on Detroit Avenue, the parish's development and eventual relocation to Warren Road parallels the story of the Romanian immigrant experience in Cleveland.

The Romanian population of Cleveland primarily emigrated from the province of Transylvania during the first fifteen years of the 20th century. The choice to leave their homeland was influenced by a combination of factors that included an economic depression and the Austro-Hungarian Empire's effort to abolish the culture of other nationalities through restrictive laws governing marriage, work, and land ownership. Most immigrants were drawn to Cleveland by the availability of work, and the promise of one day returning home to purchase land. Viewing their time in America as temporary, there was little to no emphasis placed on creating permanent structures or assimilating into the larger community. The religious needs of the Romanian immigrants were attended to by traveling Orthodox clergy or the Russian Orthodox parish of St. Theodosius in Tremont.

During this first wave of immigration, the Romanians created a network of fraternal organizations that provided assistance such as death benefits and aid for sick or injured workers. Once these organizations were in place, the immigrant community focused on the creation of churches. Announcements were distributed throughout the West Side neighborhood, and in August of 1904, 101 persons attended a constitutional meeting to establish a Romanian church. Divisions quickly formed within this congregation between Romanians of Greek-Catholic and Orthodox faiths, resulting in the founding of both St. Mary's and St. Helena's church. A Romanian Orthodox priest was assigned to the former parish, and plans were made by 1906 for the construction of the church.

At the opening service of St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Church in August of 1908, police stood guard outside and dispersed crowds attempting to interfere with parish members entering the church. Just nights before, vandals had thrown rocks through the stained glass windows. The parish's first pastor had resigned, but was still being served warrants for libel against parish members. Plans for the church's construction had resulted in warring factions within the Romanian parish. The pastor had presented plans for a large church that cost $25,000; leading members of the parish opted for a much smaller design that would only cost $7,500. While the church was an important aspect of life, the congregation opted for the smaller structure. Much of the immigrant community was sending money to family back home, paying dues to fraternal societies, and saving their earnings to purchase land in their birthplace - they saw little need for permanent, grand structures. Supporters of the more elaborate structure desired the church to act as an anchor for the growing, transient Romanian population. Despite its turbulent beginnings, St. Mary's would play a central role within the community; it not only provided for the spiritual needs of it members, but offered a place to congregate, socialize, and develop relationships that aided newcomers to Cleveland in finding work and housing.

Romanian immigration into the United States had peaked by the beginning of World War I. With nearly 12,000 Romanians living and working in Cleveland prior to the Great War, the number would decrease by half in the years that immediately followed its conclusion. As was the case since the beginning of the 20th century, many Romanians left Cleveland once they had saved enough money to return home and purchase land; this task generally took about three years. Previously, new immigrants had replaced those that left. Following the war, however, the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted the annual number of Romanians entering the U.S. to around 600 a year. As the transient population atrophied, the number of Romanians living in Cleveland drastically declined. Additionally, the Paris Peace Treaty designated Transylvania, homeland to a majority of northeast Ohio's Romanian population, a part of Greater Romania. Many who had emigrated to escape persecution by the Austro-Hungarian Empire returned to the land of their birth.

Those remaining in America developed a permanent settlement between West 45th Street and West 65th Street that lasted until the mid century. The predominately transient male population gave way to families of Romanian descent. Even as the immigrant population dwindled, however, the church continued to grow. St. Mary's thrived by shifting its focus to meet the needs of a changing community. While in 1928 the parish had dwindled to 43 paying members, the church sponsored educational and service opportunities for the Romanian settlers and their children, and became active in promoting the preservation of its congregation's Romanian heritage. This change in focus coupled with strong pastoral leadership soon saw the church grow to over 600 members - becoming the largest parish in the Episcopate. With the growth of the church, the restraints of the original structure's size became evident. The parish hall, built in 1926, was enlarged in 1937 to provide space for dances, sports, and church programs. By 1940, planning began for the construction of a new church. Delayed by World War II, a design was finally prepared for a new structure in 1950.

Initially, the church was to be constructed at the Detroit Avenue site; parishioners called a last minute general meeting in 1954 to vote on the location. Younger members of the parish led the movement to relocate their parish to a new site on the outskirts of the city in the Westpark neighborhood. The relocation of the church reflected both the assimilation and exodus of the Romanian community from what is now the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. As with many of Cleveland's immigrant enclaves, the process of acculturation over generations eventually weakened the community's ties to the neighborhood. With the increased prosperity of each consecutive generation, those that could afford to leave the aging city often moved away towards the suburbs. At a special meeting of parishioners called in 1954, it was overwhelmingly voted to sell the Detroit Avenue property and relocate the church at its current location on Warren Road. On August 21, 1960, the new St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Cathedral was consecrated. The cathedral would continue to help preserve the heritage and community of the Romanian immigrants that once lived in the ethnic enclave that is now the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. The parish would also take on new challenges and meaning as Cleveland became home to a new a new wave of Romanian immigrants following World War II.

Images

St. Mary Orthodox Romanian Church, 1934 While St. Mary's was dedicated in 1907, the interior was sparsely furnished and few church appointments could be made. Feeling the effects of a recession, the congregation was unable to make its mortgage payments and the parish was briefly dissolved two years after its opening. In 1910, the parish was able to meet the bank's conditions, and regained possession of the church. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Romanian Wake, ca 1920 Prior to the building of churches, the Romanian community established mutual benefit societies to help provide security and aid to a transient population. These societies helped cover the costs associated with work injuries or funeral expenses for the immigrant laborers. Image courtesy of St. Mary Orthodox Romanian Church
Church Service, 1938 The political unrest of Eastern Europe cascaded down to the small Cleveland church during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1935, the church voted to remove all members associated with the International Workers Organization due to their socialist beliefs. St. Mary's withdrew itself from the Episcopate in 1942, a time when Romania had allied itself with the Axis powers of World War II. The church rejoined the Episcopate in 1947. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Last Service on Detroit Avenue, 1957 On May 19, 1957, a final service was held at St. Mary's location on Detroit Avenue. Pictured above is the procession in which relics and sacred objects were removed from the grounds. The building was sold to a group of Russian Orthodox refugees for $65,000. The sale sum was received in small payments until the new church was able to secure a loan from a bank. Image courtesy of St. Mary Orthodox Romanian Church
Construction, ca 1960 Designed by Haralamb Georgescu, the structure was modeled after a style of wooden churches found in Romania. Characterized by a steeply pitched roof and towering spire, St. Mary's was the first modern attempt to replicate this striking church design. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Mural Beyond its unique design, St. Mary's is best know for its religious iconography. The interior and exterior of the church complex is adorned with murals, panels, statues, paintings, and a 60 foot frieze depicting Romanian history. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Troitsa, ca 1988 The wooden sculpture located on the grounds of the St. Mary complex is a Romanian folk cross known as a Troitsa. The religious symbol was created by Val Cercel, and erected in 1988. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Interior St. Mary's interior mosaic replicates Byzantine era iconography. Following in the Orthodox religious tradition, sacred images adorn the walls and ceilings, surrounding and looking over those who enter the church. Image courtesy of St. Mary Orthodox Romanian Church

Location

6201 Detroit Ave, Cleveland, OH 44102

Metadata

Richard Raponi, “St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Church,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 3, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/451.