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Saint Josaphat Church

A Sacred Polish Landmark is Saved by a Croatian Angel

Many would argue that the heart of Cleveland's historic Polish community lies at St. Stanislaus Church and in Slavic Village on the southeast side of the city. But there is so much more to Cleveland's Polish community than this one church and that one branded neighborhood. In search of housing located close to where they found work in Cleveland's booming late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries industry, Polish immigrants clustered in at least six distinct neighborhoods in the city, each of which they colorfully named either after the church which they built there or to remember a city in Poland dear to them. One of these Polish neighborhoods was Josephatowa, located on the northeast side of the city--very near to where Asiatown is today. It was named after the St. Josaphat Roman Catholic parish established there by Polish immigrants in the early twentieth century.

Polish immigrants began arriving in numbers in this neighborhood in the early 1890s, finding work at a number of factories and mills that were built near the tracks of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, and Pennsylvania Railroad lines. One of these was the mammoth Otis Steel Works (later purchased by Jones & Laughlin) which in the second-half of the nineteenth century built a complex of mills, warehouses, and office buildings that eventually stretched for more than a half mile along the lakefront from East 25th Street to East 40th Street. Poles who worked at Otis Steel, or at other nearby factories or mills, first found housing on Lakeside and Hamilton Avenues, much of it built and first occupied by other ethnic groups, including Irish, Germans, Slovenians and Croatians. From there the colony spread to other streets south of Lakeside.

In the early years, Poles worshiped with Lithuanians at St. George Lithuanian Catholic Church at the corner of East 21st and Oregon (Rockwell) Avenue. But when that parish moved to a new location further east, Poles living in the neighborhood sought and in 1908 received permission from the bishop to form their own parish. At first named after St. Hedwig, the parish was soon renamed St. Josaphat to distinguish it from the identically-named Polish parish founded in Lakewood's Birdtown neighborhood in the same year. For almost a decade after the founding of the parish, masses were held in the chapel at St. John's Cathedral. Then, in 1915, the parish's second pastor, Rev. Joseph Kocinski, undertook to construct a church building on several lots which the parish had purchased several years earlier on the east side of East 33rd Street, between Superior and St. Clair Avenues. The new church, which was designed to seat 800 at church services, was completed in 1917. One of its stained glass windows depicted a fifteenth century battle scene in which a Polish army defeated the German Teutonic Knights. That stained glass window was said to later become a source of irritation for one of Cleveland's bishops who was of German descent.

Like many other Catholic parishes founded by East European immigrants, St. Josaphat had periods of growth and decline. Early in its history it experienced a precipitous drop in membership when a number of Polish immigrants returned to Europe, followed by others who departed to attend St. Stanislaus in the Warszawa neighborhood to the south. But the church persevered, reaching a peak population of approximately 1,000 parishioners in the late 1930s. But then, as large employers like Otis Steel moved their operations away from lakefront, as small industrial shops "invaded" some of the residential streets, and as people began to move from the neighborhood to the suburbs, the church suffered a decline in its membership from which, this time, it did not recover. In 1966, the elementary school closed and three decades after that, in 1998, the church itself was closed by the diocese.

St. Josaphat might have met the fate of other shuttered inner city Catholic Churches, which struggled to find a new use after closing, but fortunately that was not the case. In the same year that it closed, a Croatian immigrant, Alenka Banco, who had grown up in the neighborhood, happened to drive by the church while furniture was being removed. Intrigued, she contacted the diocese and learned that the church was for sale. A patron of the arts who had already opened two art galleries in Cleveland, Banco made an offer to purchase the church. While, according to church officials, it had received higher dollar offers for the property, Banco’s offer was deemed the best, and was accepted, because she proposed to devote the church property to a community use. Banco moved into the former rectory on the property and, with a business partner, began making repairs and renovations to the church building which she renamed Josaphat Arts Hall. In late 2005, she opened Convivium33, an art gallery, in the former church building. One Cleveland journalist with an eye toward turning a phrase said that the historic Polish church had been purchased, and saved, by an angel.


St. Josaphat - Exterior
St. Josaphat - Exterior A view of the historic Polish church on East 33rd Street, taken in 1940. The parish was founded in 1908, and the church constructed during the years 1915-1917. It was designed by architect A. F. Wasielewski, who also designed the Immaculate Heart of Mary church in Slavic Village. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Nineteenth Century Map of Ethnic Cleveland
Nineteenth Century Map of Ethnic Cleveland This map identifying ethnic neighborhoods in Cleveland appeared in the Cleveland Leader on July 22, 1896. By this date, the area of Cleveland's near east side, bordered by the Lake on the north, Payne Avenue on the south, and by East 17th and East 40th Streets on the west and east, was already recognized as a Polish neighborhood. It was later called Josephatowa after the parish that Polish immigrants founded in that neighborhood in 1908. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Otis Iron and Steel Co
Otis Iron and Steel Co Founded by Charles Otis in 1873, the company was the first in the United States to produce steel in an open-hearth furnace. By the end of the nineteenth century it owned and operated a mammoth complex of mills, warehouses and office buildings that stretched along the Lake Erie waterfront from East 25th to East 40th streets. For years, it was one of the major employers of Polish immigrants in the Josephatowa neighborhood. Otis Steel was later purchased by Jones & Laughlin, who closed the company's lakefront operation shortly after the end of World War II. Today, much of the land upon which Otis Steel was once located is occupied by the Innerbelt and the Memorial Shoreway, including the infamous Deadman's Curve. This photograph of the complex was taken in circa 1910. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Gallery
Alexander and Lottie Pianka Wedding Photo
Alexander and Lottie Pianka Wedding Photo Alexander Pianka was born in Dobry Las, a small village in northeastern Poland, in 1890. He immigrated to America in 1910, settling in the Josephatowa neighborhood of Cleveland, where he found work at Otis Iron and Steel Co., and later at W. S. Tyler, another large employer of immigrants in the neighborhood. In 1913, Alexander married Wladyslawa ("Lottie") Zalewska, also a Polish immigrant. The ceremony was performed in St. John's chapel by Father Joseph Kocinski, pastor of St. Josaphat parish. Raymond Pianka, Cleveland's Housing Court judge, is a grandson of Alexander and Lottie Pianka. Source: Raymond Pianka.
St. Josaphat Elementary School
St. Josaphat Elementary School In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cleveland's immigrant communities often built schools, as well as churches, to foster their religion and native language. In 1911, St. Josaphat parish opened an elementary school in a house it had purchased at 1417 East 33rd Street. Later, when the parish church was built in 1915-1917, the school house was razed and a new school building constructed to the rear of the new church. In this circa 1927 photo, St. Josaphat elementary school students stand in front of the church. With them is the parish's third pastor, Father Joseph Spanowski. The elementary school operated for over 50 years before closing, because of declining enrollment, in 1966. Source: Raymond Pianka
Otis Iron and Steel and St. Josaphat Church
Otis Iron and Steel and St. Josaphat Church This 1937 Cleveland Plat Map shows the proximity and relative sizes of the Otis Iron and Steel Co., which was a large employer of Polish immigrants in early twentieth century Cleveland, and St. Josaphat Church, which was the neighborhood's Polish church during that same period. Otis Iron and Steel is identified within the large circled area, and St. Josaphat Church in the smaller circle. The large Otis Iron and Steel complex was demolished decades ago, its land now occupied by portions of the Innerbelt and Memorial Shoreway. St. Josaphat's Church closed in 1998. The building is now known as Josaphat Arts Hall, home of Convivium33 Art Gallery. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Renovation and Renewal
Renovation and Renewal In the decade of the 1950s, St. Josaphat's church underwent extensive interior renovations, which included redecoration, the installation of new altars and repairs to stained glass windows. Also during this decade, as the number of Polish-Americans living in the area declined, the church began to minister to new groups moving into the neighborhood, especially migrants from Puerto Rico and Appalachia. Shown in this 1958 photo is the renovated interior of the church, which was completed during the pastorship of Father Stanislaus J. Ciolek, a son of Polish immigrants, who grew up in the Josephatowa neighborhood. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Last Holy Communion Class
Last Holy Communion Class Despite extensive renovations to the church and the church's renewed outreach to the surrounding community in the 1950s, enrollment at St. Josephat grade school continued to decline and in 1966 the diocese closed the school. The photo above is of the last class making their First Communion at the church, which occurred on April 17, 1966. Father Ted Mihalski is in the center of the photo. Sharon Plona Jesse, who contributed this photo, is the girl in the first row, first from the right. Source: Sharon Plona Jesse
Summer Festival Kitchen Workers
Summer Festival Kitchen Workers Every year St. Josaphat held a three-day summer festival to raise funds for the maintenance of the church. Food for the festival was prepared by parishioners. Especially memorable were the chicken dinners. Here, women working in the kitchen preparing some of those dinners for a summer festival held in the late 1960s pose for a photo. Standing in the front row (from left to right) are: Cecilia Miller, Dolores Plona, unidentified, unidentified, Florence Nash, Jane Budzick, Agnes Mistruck, Louise Ciolek, Laura Plona, Cecilia Jufko, and Carol Bernhardt (young girl on right). In the back row are an unidentified woman and John Jufko. Source: Susan Plona Jesse
Stanleys Delicatessen
Stanleys Delicatessen Located at East 33rd Street and Payne Avenue and owned and operated by Stanley Rudnicki for 40 years, it was one of the most popular stores in the Josephatowa neighborhood. Rudnicki opened the store after coming home to Cleveland following his World War II military service. The store closed in 1987. Source: Joanne Rudnicki Maikut
The Battle of Grunwald
The Battle of Grunwald In 1410, united Polish and Lithuanian forces defeated German Teutonic Knights in this battle, which not only secured both kingdoms' continued access to the Baltic Sea, but also signaled the beginning of a period in which Poland became a dominant power in Europe. The three-paneled stained glass window at St. Josaphat, which portrayed this battle, was commissioned by Father Joseph Kocinski, a Polish immigrant, who was pastor of the parish during the 1915-1917 construction of the new church. Years later, Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs, who was of German descent, was reputed to have said to Father Kocinski, after observing this stained glass window, "If I had been bishop at the time, I would have never appointed you pastor of this parish." To which Father Kocinski responded, "If I had been pope at the time, I would never have appointed you bishop!" Years later, in 1998, when the church closed, the three-paneled stained glass window depicting the Battle of Grunwald mysteriously disappeared after it had been removed from the church during the desanctification process. Source: Raymond Pianka
Josaphat Arts Hall
Josaphat Arts Hall St. Josaphat Church was preserved and saved from possible demolition, when it was purchased in 1998 by Alenka Banco, a Croatian immigrant who grew up in the neighborhood. Banco converted the church into an art gallery and re-opened it to the public in 2005. One journalist dubbed her the angel who saved a sacred landmark. In 2006, Banco was honored for her work with preservation awards from both the Cleveland Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture and the Cleveland Restoration Society. This photo of the interior of Josaphat Arts Hall was taken in 2015. Creator: Jim Dubelko


1411 E 33rd St Cleveland, OH 44114


Jim Dubelko, “Saint Josaphat Church,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 16, 2024,