Filed Under Religion

Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian

On November 11, 1903, in a rented house on a brick street now called Radnor Road in the Mayfield Heights allotment of Cleveland Heights, Rev. Albert J. Alexander, pastor of Beckwith Memorial Presbyterian Church (later merged into the Church of the Covenant), led a few dozen people in worship. The "Mayfield Heights Branch" of Beckwith Memorial was born. By 1906, having overgrown the house, the congregation began using the basement of the old Superior Schoolhouse nearby. Just two years later it moved yet again, this time to a dedicated church building erected along Mayfield Road. The new church, renamed Cleveland Heights Presbyterian in 1918, boasted an organ paid for by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

By 1935, in the depths of the Depression, the church had dwindled to only 65 members. Under the energetic leadership of a new pastor who added services calculated to attract young families, it began a meteoric rise over the next quarter century. After World War II, under another dynamic pastor, Rev. Yoder Leith, Forest Hill Church grew so large it had to face still another move. The Rockefeller family, whose pre-Depression plans for a first-class residential allotment foundered after only a few dozen homes were built, sold its Forest Hill land across Mayfield Road for new suburban development. The Rockefellers allocated space for a church at the corner of Monticello and Lee boulevards. Forest Hill purchased the parcel in 1946, and in 1950, using souvenir shovels issued by Leith, church members collectively broke ground for a Colonial-style building that opened the following spring as Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian.

By the early 1960s Forest Hill Church counted some 2,000 members, many drawn from the upscale Forest Hill neighborhood with its enduring restrictive deeds, but it stood on the cusp of wrenching changes. Under the leadership of Rev. Leith and associate pastor Rev. Ned Edwards, the church began to embrace progressive social justice issues, especially civil rights, a commitment that would grow over time. Edwards' nomination as senior pastor in 1970 was literally a point of departure as hundreds of families left the congregation out of dismay at its progressive turn. With associate pastor Rev. Robert H. Barnes, Edwards, a committed activist in many social justice-oriented efforts in the Heights, steered a congregation that by 1980 had shrunk to half its early 1960s size. During the 1970s, Forest Hill played a founding role in the Heights Community Congress, the Forest Hill Housing Corporation (now Heights Home Repair Resource Center), and other organizations. Now several years into its second century, Forest Hill Church has continued to be known for its inclusiveness and its many and varied faith-based commitments to social equity.

Audio

A Progressive Presbyterian Church Rev. John C. Lentz describes what first attracted him and his wife to Forest Hill Church and Cleveland Heights. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
The Move to Forest Hill Rev. John C. Lentz tells the story of how Forest Hill Church came to be in Forest Hill. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Walking to Church As Rev. John C. Lentz relates, Forest Hill Church's layout, which reflected a time when many of its 1,500 members tended to walk to church, is less ideal for today's mostly commuting congregation. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Ned Edwards and Bob Barnes Rev. John C. Lentz recalls how pastors Ned Edwards and Bob Barnes remade Forest Hill Church's reputation. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
The Falling Cross Rev. John C. Lentz recounts how some believed the church steeple cross's fall during a storm was a warning against its newfound progressive commitments. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Breaking Down Barriers Rev. John C. Lentz reflects on Forest Hill Church's role in embracing racial integration in the Heights in the 1970s. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Forest Hill Church in Springtime Like a piece of Colonial Williamsburg in Cleveland Heights, Forest Hill Church lends a stately air to the southwestern corner of the Forest Hill neighborhood. The Rockefeller family stood behind both the Williamsburg restoration in the 1920s-50s and the development of Forest Hill. Image courtesy of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
Euclid Avenue Presbyterian, 1908 Located on East 107th Street just south of Euclid Avenue, Beckwith Memorial Presbyterian Church absorbed Euclid Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1906, taking the latter's name, although this 1908 postcard failed to reflect the change. The Beckwith congregation, which would merge with still another church to create the Church of the Covenant in 1920, spawned the predecessor of Forest Hill Church in 1903. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Rev. Yoder Leith, 1960 A former Army chaplain, Leith arrived at the church in 1946. He presided over both the move from Mayfield Road to the current site and the greatest expansion in the church's history. In just the first five years of the 1950s, the congregation soared from 550 to 1,300 members. Image courtesy of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
Forest Hill Church Construction, 1950 Forest Hill Church opened in 1951. Soon thereafter, it offered a number of events to attract people from the Forest Hill neighborhood and beyond. By 1952, the growth was so impressive that a second Sunday service had to be added. Image courtesy of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
New Wing Dedication, 1956 Soon after Forest Hill Church opened its new building, the church's massive growth necessitated an expansion. By the mid-1950s, 600 children (more than the total membership just a few years earlier) crowded into every available space throughout the building. The children broke ground in 1955 for a new educational wing, which opened the following year. Image courtesy of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
148 New Babies and Toddlers, ca. 1962 By the early 1960s, Forest Hill Church was growing by leaps and bounds. This photo in a church booklet at that time illustrates the phenomenal expansion. The congregration, numbering 1,936, reportedly included 148 babies and toddlers. The booklet forecast that the church would continue to grow to 2,400 members by 1965, by which time a leveling off was expected. Image courtesy of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
Rebuilding the Steeple, ca. 1963 Children in the congregation pose beside a new steeple on the front lawn of Forest Hill Church. Following a storm that knocked down the original church steeple, a restoration project got underway. The resulting steeple was considerably taller and more elaborate than the original it replaced. Image courtesy of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
Forest Hill Church, ca. 1964-65 The newly completed steeple appears in this view taken from the corner of Lee and Monticello boulevards, looking north. Image courtesy of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
Abundance Acres, ca. 2011 In 2009 Rev. John Lentz challenged his congregation by giving every member $50 with the understanding that each would return the money along with anything extra it enabled. Among the many creative ideas that these small "loans" spawned was Abundance Acres, a community garden whose produce supported church programs. Significantly, such a garden would have been forbidden under the original deed restrictions in the Forest Hill neighborhood. Image courtesy of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian

Location

3031 Monticello Blvd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118

Metadata

J. Mark Souther, “Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 10, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/542.