Filed Under Race and Ethnicity

St. John's Episcopal Church

Originally founded as Trinity Church in Old Brooklyn in 1816, Trinity remained a west side congregation until 1826, when church leaders decided to relocate to the east side of the Cuyahoga River near Public Square. At that time a number of families who attended Trinity chose not to follow the church eastward and instead held services informally before establishing their own church, St. John's Episcopal Church, in 1834. Founding members of St. John's included Ohio City pioneers Josiah Barber and George Lord Chapman, along with prominent architect Hezekiah Eldredge, who was responsible for overseeing the construction of the new church building. Under Eldredge's direction, construction commenced on July 2, 1836, with Bishop Charles McIlvaine laying the cornerstone on Church Avenue near West 26th Street.

It has been widely reported that St. John's was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to the Civil War. According to these reports, slaves hid in the church's bell tower and watched for signals from the lake telling them that it was safe to embark on the final leg of their journey towards freedom. Leaving the church, runaways would venture to the lakeshore where they boarded steamships bound for Canada. However, some doubt is cast on these claims since they are not definitively documented and because on the national level the Episcopal Church was one of the few Protestant denominations that did not split between North and South over the issue of slavery. If the church did not take an abolitionist stance, it begs the question of who aided the fugitives. Perhaps it was founding member and longtime vestryman George Lord Chapman, who was friends with outspoken abolitionist John A. Foote along with fellow church founder and "colonizationist" Josiah Barber. Or it may have been Chapman's wife Eliza. Equally involved in the church, she was described as a woman whose "whole life had been one of active beneficence. For the poor, the sick, and needy, the orphan, the friendless her heart poured out its sympathy and love in words and works which made her beloved as falls to the lot of but few." While the church's official position regarding slavery may have been one of indifference, it does not seem likely that individuals such as the Chapmans would have been able to ignore moral issues of secular nature like slavery, a notion supported by the many reports of St. John's Underground Railroad involvement.

The Civil War years at St. John's were highlighted most notably by the marriage of prominent Cleveland politician Marcus Hanna to Charlotte Rhodes in 1864. Soon after the close of the Civil War, however, disaster struck St. John's, with fire consuming much of the church's wooden interior. Initially believed to be caused by the heater located in the basement, further investigation determined that an act of arson caused the blaze. The tragedy proved to be a blessing in many ways though, as it provided an opportunity to expand the church to accommodate an ever-increasing number of parishioners.

In 1871 longtime minister Lewis Burton resigned as rector of St. John's to lead the two missions that St. John's had spawned, All Saints and St. Mark's. Burton had held the position for twenty-four years prior to his departure, and the following year Marcus Hanna became a vestryman of the church, serving for thirty-one years until 1903, a span which included the appearance of President William McKinley as his guest on at least one occasion for services. Through the Great Depression and World War II, St. John's remained a pillar on the Near West Side, and then in 1953 a tornado devastated the church, causing significant damage to the east wall and roof. Around this time the Inner City Protestant Parish emerged as an interdenominational church, sharing the space in St. John's for a number of years before eventually being absorbed by the Episcopal congregation.

By the 1980s, the nearly 150-year-old building was showing signs of deterioration, and a $100,000 renovation project was required in order to keep it operational. At present however, St. John's is closed, with services last taking place there in December 2007. As the oldest and arguably most structurally unique religious edifice in the city of Cleveland, St. John's is not only a sight to behold but remains a place whose connection to the Underground Railroad, however ill-defined, continues to excite great public interest.

Audio

The Underground Railroad William Merriman describes how Church Avenue in Ohio City was once a key part of the Underground Railroad. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

St John's Church With pointed arch windows featuring tracery elements, steeply pitched roof, and crenelated parapet that once topped the castle-like tower, St. John's exemplifies the Gothic Revival style that became popular for church design in the United States during the middle of the nineteenth century. Source: Library Of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, OHIO, 18-CLEV, 12-1
Historical Marker This tablet explaining the historical significance of St. John's was installed on the church's exterior in 1921. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
St. John's Tower St. John's tower housed the church's bell from 1846 until 1953 when a tornado compromised the tower's structural integrity, forcing the church to relocate the bell to the west narthex. After substantial renovation which reduced the church to its original dimensions, St. John's was rededicated the following year on November 7, 1954. Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 28, 1898
Location of St. John's This 1862 map of Cleveland highlights the location of St. John's within the city's 9th Ward west of the Cuyahoga River. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery of Atlases, Maps, and Park Plans
Bell Fundraiser Announcement, 1845 Less than a year after this announcement, St. John's was able to purchase a bell which doubled as the fire alarm for Ohio City until incorporation by the city of Cleveland in 1854. If reports are accurate, runaway slaves huddled next to the bell in the church's tower while they waited for a signal to depart for the lakeshore and onward towards freedom. Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 16, 1845
Tunnels Below St. John's A priest and another man inspect a section of the tunnels that lie beneath St. John's Church. It is said that these were used to hide escaped slaves fleeing to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Creator: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Hiding Space This hiding space in St. John's basement may have been used by escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Marcus A. Hanna, 1896 Known as "The Kingmaker" for the pivotal role that he played in the election of President William McKinley, Marcus A. Hanna was married in St. John's in 1864 and served as a vestryman of the church for thirty-one years. Photo by W.J. Root, 1896
Rev. Lewis Burton Rev. Lewis Burton succeeded his brother as rector of St. John's and held the position for twenty-four years before leaving in 1871 to lead the All Saints and Saint Marks parishes. As leader of the church for the fifteen years leading up to the Civil War, Burton would more than likely have had knowledge of, if not taken part in, the harboring of fugitive slaves if the reports of St. John's Underground Railroad involvement are true. Photo from Samuel Peter Orth, A History of Cleveland Ohio: Biographical Vol. 2

Location

2600 Church Ave, Cleveland, OH 44113

Metadata

Joseph Wickens, “St. John's Episcopal Church,” Cleveland Historical, accessed December 8, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/652.