St. Rocco Catholic Church

Cleveland's "Do-It-Yourself" Italian Parish

It's not unusual to read a story about nineteenth or twentieth century working class immigrants who scrimped, saved, and did without to raise funds to build some of Cleveland's grandest and most enduring sacred landmarks. What is unusual, however, is to learn about a parish where such immigrants did not just scrimp and save, but also actually built the sacred landmark themselves. That is the story of St. Rocco Catholic Church, referred to in a 1964 Plain Dealer article as Cleveland's "Do-It-Yourself" parish.

St. Rocco, which recently celebrated its centennial anniversary, was given this label because of the numerous self-build projects undertaken over the years by the parish, including construction of the current church in the years 1949 to 1952. Almost from the start, self-building became a feature of the parish. In 1914, a group of immigrants from the village of Noicattaro in the Apulia region of southern Italy, living in and around Fulton Road and Trent Avenue, met in the grocery store of fellow immigrant John Zaccaro and undertook to establish the first Italian parish on the west side. Believing that building a church would lead to diocesan recognition, they self-built a small brick structure in 1917-1918 on a single lot of land on Trent Avenue, just a stone's throw away from today's Fulton Road campus. The church was named St. Rocco, after the patron saint of the sick, who was especially venerated in southern Italy. Despite their effort, the parish was not officially recognized until 1922, when Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs appointed Father Alphonse Di Maria, the assistant pastor at St. Anthony Italian Church in downtown Cleveland, as the first pastor.

In 1924, the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy (Mercedarian Order) was given charge of the parish and Father Sante Gattuso, a priest from Sicily, appointed second pastor, replacing Father Di Maria, who had resigned for health reasons. Father Gattuso would serve as pastor for the next 42 years. By the time of his appointment, immigrants from Faeto in the Apulia region, Guilianova in the central region, Laganadi in the Calabria region, Floridia in Sicily, and from other villages in southern and central Italy had become members of the fledgling parish. Immigrants from Trento and other towns in northern Italy began joining the parish later in the decade. Father Gattuso almost immediately embarked upon an ambitious building plan for the fast-growing parish. He purchased land on the east side of Fulton Road, south of Clark Avenue, and hired a contractor who in 1926 built a new and larger church with attached school building on the new Fulton Road campus.

In the decade of the 1930s, as the Great Depression crippled the American economy, St. Rocco parish began self-building again. In 1933, the parish self-built an addition to the school and then in 1935 one to the parish house. In 1940, Father Gattuso planned for the parish to build a new and larger church, but World War II intervened. During the war years, the men of the parish--many of them working in the building trades--saved bricks and other materials from building sites, literally creating a brick yard on the church campus. In 1949, construction of the new church finally began. Scores of parishioners volunteered their time, the men excavating, erecting the superstructure, and doing the masonry work, while women brought home-cooked meals to the site. Even retired parishioners contributed. Michael Girardi, Gaetano Farrugia, and Gennaro Di Pasquale, all elderly immigrants from southern Italy, were singled out for special recognition and became known as the Three Musketeers. In 1952, when the church was completed, Father Gattuso estimated that the labor donated by the parish had saved the church hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the years that followed, additional self-build projects were undertaken by the parish, especially in the decade of the 1950s. In 1955, interior decorations were made to the church. The following year, the old church was converted into a gym for school children. In 1957, a memorial to the members of the parish who had served in World War II was built and, later in the same year, the grade school was remodeled. In 1959, parishioners constructed a one-story addition onto the school. The parish continued to undertake self-build projects throughout the remaining decades of the twentieth century, helping to defray the cost of maintaining an inner city church. Perhaps its history of self-building is one reason why today in the second decade of the twenty-first century St. Rocco Church is still a fixture as well as one of the most important community assets in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood.

Images

St. Rocco Roman Catholic Church

St. Rocco Roman Catholic Church

The first ethnic Italian Roman Catholic Church on the west side of Cleveland, the parish was founded in 1914 by immigrants from the small village of Noicattaro in southern Italy. A first church was built in 1917-1918 on Trent Avenue; a second in 1926 on the east side of Fulton Road, south of Clark Avenue; and the third and current church (shown in the photo above) immediately to the west of the second church in 1949-1952. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

The First Parish Council

The First Parish Council

In 1926, Father Sante Gattuso established a group of men in the parish as his Consiglieri, later known as the parish council. The men shown in the photos and the villages or regions they came from are: (standing left to right) - Frank Sfoglia from Giulianova; Frank Di Donna from Noicattaro; Dominic Gianvito from Faeto; (sitting left to right) - Rocco Nunnari from the Calabria region; Dominic Di Mauro from Floridia; Father Gattuso from San Cataldo; Michael Girardi from Faeto; and Stephen Ripepi from Laganadi. | Source: St. Rocco Parish View File Details Page

Early Era Procession

Early Era Procession

As in Italy, processions were from the start important events at St. Rocco. For many years, four processions were held annually. Today, processions are held only on Good Friday and on St. Rocco Feast Day. On April 17, 1933, Father Sante Gattuso (center of photo, wearing dark stole) led this Good Friday procession out of the parish church. | Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections View File Details Page

First Graduating Class

First Graduating Class

St. Rocco grade school was started in the fall of 1927 with kindergarten, and first and second grade classes. The school, taught from the start by Sisters of the Most Holy Trinity, is now in its 88th year of operation. In the above photo, Fr. Sante Gattuso, who served as pastor from 1924 to 1956, sits among the first eighth grade graduating class of 1934. | Source: St. Rocco Parish View File Details Page

The Second St. Rocco Church

The Second St. Rocco Church

In 1926, Father Gattuso, pastor of St. Rocco parish, began his ambitious building program by contracting for the construction of the above church with an attached grade school. The above photo of the church and school was taken in 1935. Today, the old church serves as the parish hall. | Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection View File Details Page

Self-Building the New Church

Self-Building the New Church

In 1949, the men of St. Rocco parish began constructing the church which stands today on the Fulton Road campus. The above photo taken in August of that year shows parishioners beginning to build the walls of the church. The man in the lower left is Michael Girardi, one of the Three Musketeers. In the background is Fulton Road at its intersection with Newark Avenue. | Source: Linda A. Santosuosso View File Details Page

Blessing the Cornerstone

Blessing the Cornerstone

Parishioners fill Fulton Road on September 3, 1950, as Cleveland Auxiliary Bishop Floyd L. Begin blesses the cornerstone of the new St. Rocco Church. | Source: St. Rocco Parish View File Details Page

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers

In the above photograph which appeared in the Plain Dealer on February 24, 1952, St. Rocco's Three Musketeers are shown sitting in the new St. Rocco Church and perhaps recounting their experience in helping to build that church. From left to right are: Gaetano Farrugia, 71 years old from Agrigento, Sicily; Gennaro Di Pasquale, 76 years old from Ventaroli, Campania region; and Michael Girardi, 78 years old from Faeto, Apulia region. | Source: Patricia J. Kinnear View File Details Page

Greased Pole Climb

Greased Pole Climb

Each year since 1915 St. Rocco Church has held a festival on the feast day of St. Rocco to raise funds for the parish. One of the most popular festival events over the years has been the greased pole climb. Shown in the above photo from the 1960 fall festival is Gino Marini on the shoulders of Jerry De Benedict, reaching for the flag at the top of the pole. | Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection View File Details Page

Fall Festival 2014

Fall Festival 2014

Father Michael Contardi (right), pastor of St. Rocco Church since 1972, helps pull the statue of St. Rocco down Newark Avenue in the 2014 procession celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the parish. Assisting him is Cleveland attorney and active St. Rocco parishioner Michael Climaco, whose maternal grandfather Vito Michael Mazzeo, an immigrant from Noicattaro, was one of the stone masons who built the first St. Rocco church on Trent Avenue in 1917-1918. | Source: Michael Climaco View File Details Page

Centennial Celebration

Centennial Celebration

August 28 through September 1, 2014, St. Rocco Church held its fall festival and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the parish. Shown in the above photo of the Fulton Road area near its intersection with Newark Avenue are (left) the landmark Northern Ohio Blanket Mill building, (center) St. Rocco Church, and (right) St. Rocco parish house. | Source: Jim Dubelko View File Details Page

St. Rocco Church Today

St. Rocco Church Today

A view of the interior of St. Rocco taken in August 2014. The church, self-built by the parish in 1949-1952, was designed by architect Michael G. Boccia, whose father Raymond was the general contractor for the previous church built in 1926. The new church was built without interior support pillars in order to provide a clear view for all attending mass or other services. | Source: Jim Dubelko View File Details Page

Audio

A Godsend

Patricia J. Kinnear talks about what helping to build the new St. Rocco Catholic Church from 1949-1952 meant to her Italian immigrant grandfather, Michael Girardi, one of the three elderly men known in the neighborhood as the Three Musketeers. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Jim Dubelko, “St. Rocco Catholic Church,” Cleveland Historical, accessed March 27, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/687.
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