St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church, located on West 54th Street near Lorain Avenue, is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful interiors in Cleveland. Included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, its spacious inside is adorned with intricately carved alters and statuary, stained glass windows, and ecclesiastical artwork.
The highly ornate interior of St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church is a reflection of the German parish that funded and built the church. In 1860, residents of German descent constituted one third of Cleveland's population. They remained the largest ethnic group settling in the city until the mid 1890s. While many of Cleveland's German inhabitants arrived from within the United States, other Germans immigrated from their homeland for reasons including religious persecution, political unrest, and economic depression. Many were professionals and skilled craftsmen, and Cleveland's German population quickly became one of the most influential and prosperous ethnic groups.
The parish was founded in 1869 in response to the growing German population on Cleveland's West Side. St. Stephen's was the daughter church of St. Mary's of the Assumption of Mary Church on West 30th Street, and was organized to serve the German-speaking residents west of West 44th Street. A two-story building was constructed in 1869 that housed both a school and church. The parish continued to grow, and the cornerstone for a new St. Stephen church was laid in 1873. Initially delayed due to the Panic of 1873 and the economic depression that followed, finances to resume construction on the church were in part gathered by the mortgaging of personal properties by parishioners. The present church was completed and consecrated in 1881.
By the turn of the century, St. Stephen's was home to the largest number of German Catholics in Cleveland. To meet the educational needs of the growing parish and surrounding German community, a new brick school house was opened in 1897 and construction of a high school was completed in 1916. Enrollment in schools continued to increase through the mid century, and a ten-room addition to the original school was completed in 1952.
St. Stephen's, like many other urban Catholic churches in Cleveland, found itself facing a shrinking congregation and declining enrollment in its schools throughout the second half of the 20th century. Due to a combination of the pressures for Germans to assimilate following the World Wars and the general exodus of more prosperous residents from the area, much of the German and Catholic population disappeared from the surrounding neighborhood. The high school was consolidated with Lourdes Academy in 1970 to form Lourdes-St.Stephen's High School for girls, which merged with St. Peter's High School the following year to become Erieview Catholic High School for girls. The elementary school was consolidated with St. Michael's and St. Boniface to form Metro Catholic Parish School in 1988. While maintaining a variety of organizations and societies associated with German heritage, St. Stephen's expanded its ministry to be inclusive of new Catholic settlers in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood; in 1970, the church became the headquarters for a Hispanic ministry. Masses are still held in German the first Sunday of every month.