Not long ago, the elders of St. Michael Archangel Roman Catholic Church removed a copper cross from atop the structure’s massive 232-foot steeple. Expecting little more than the need for a thorough cleaning, they were surprised to find that the cross was riddled with more than a dozen bullet holes! Stark symbol of a declining neighborhood? Sad reminder of a troubled inner-city community? Not exactly. After a short investigation, it was revealed that a former priest vehemently disliked pigeons and often sought to dispatch them with a shotgun.
The church’s genesis is less notorious but nonetheless noteworthy: The St. Michael congregation was founded in 1881 as a mission of St. Mary’s On-The-Flats, the first Catholic church in Cleveland. That same year, a frame school was built on St. Michael’s current site (Scranton Rd. and Clark Ave.). By 1883, a small church had been added. The cornerstone of the present church was set in position in 1889 by future Cleveland Mayor Thomas L. Johnson, who would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890. Entombed in the cornerstone were, among other things, copies of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press; photos of Mssr. Johnson, President Harrison, Pope Leo XIII, and the church’s founding pastor Joseph Koudelka; and a collection of American, German and (in an interesting case of foreshadowing) Spanish coins. The old building burned on June 29, 1891, while construction of the new church was underway.
Designed by Adolph Druiding of Chicago and completed in 1892 for a cost of $148,000, the new St. Michael Archangel is a fine example of High Victorian Gothic architecture. Highlights of the building’s exterior include rock-faced stone walls, two towers of unequal height (in which are housed four tons of bells), three archways and a front-facing rose window. As a tribute to St. Michael, two large archangels crown the central portal. The originally buff (but now black) sandstone was mined in Berea, Ohio. For many years, this was the largest, costliest, and most artistically significant church in the Cleveland Diocese. Not until 1922 was there a taller building in the city (the Keith Building), and St. Michael Archangel remains Cleveland’s tallest church.
The church’s interior is particularly breathtaking—perhaps even overwhelming in its quantity of religious iconography. The vestibule, nave and side aisles are groin vaulted with myriad ribs. The nave columns (colonettes) are thin and clustered, with naturalistic foliated (flower-like) capitals at their tops. The church is furnished with more than 50 colorful statues, many of which were imported from Germany. The altar is modeled after the altar of the Church of St. Francis in Borgo, Italy.
Congregation size at St. Michael Archangel reached its peak in the late 1950s although, by this time, only 25 percent of parishioners were of German descent. Hispanic congregants soon dominated and the first Spanish mass was said in 1971. The congregation now is mostly Latin American, with masses spoken in English and Spanish.