On July 29, 2012—nine months shy of its 110th birthday—St. Wendelin Catholic Church opened its doors. The Romanesque structure on Columbus Road had been closed since 2010, when Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon shuttered 50 area churches, citing low attendance, insufficient priests and budget problems. Parishioners of 11 of the affected churches appealed to the Vatican, which subsequently decreed that Lennon had not followed proper procedure when closing the churches. Roughly a dozen churches have subsequently been reopened. "This is a good day, wouldn't you agree?" crowed St. Wendelin’s Reverend Robert Kropac on July 29th. "Welcome home," added parishioner Jeff Koscak.
St. Wendelin Parish was established on May 3, 1903, by Bishop Ignatius F. Horstmann, with administration of parish by Father Joseph Koudelka, the pastor at St. Michael Parish. St. Wendelin was the first Slovak Roman Catholic parish on Cleveland's west side. Masses initially were said in private homes and a rented hall. On December 6, 1903, Father Koudelka celebrated St. Wendelin’s first mass in its own facility: a wood-framed church built for $14,000 on Columbus Road near West 25th Street (then called Pearl Road). On one side of the property was the Phoenix Brewery. On the other side, a saloon.
The following March, St. Wendelin welcomed its first pastor, Father J.P. Kunes, who was succeeded shortly thereafter by Father Thomas Wilk. In October, 1904, the Sisters of Notre Dame began classroom instruction. There were two schoolrooms in the convent building, staffed by two sisters who were paid $25 per month. In 1905, a new brick school building was built to accommodate the increasing enrollment. The cost of the new school was $7,570. The school grew rapidly. Before long, there were five sisters teaching the children of the parish. By 1928, the school was educating more than 1,000 students annually.
With a rapidly growing congregation and student population, the need for more land and larger facilities became dire. Parish leaders found a nearby tract of land at Columbus Road and Freeman Avenue. It was on this site that the current church and school, designed by architect William Jansen, were built in 1925. Through wise stewardship, all parish debts were paid off by 1943. The church and school structures were thoroughly renovated. The organ was modernized, the sanctuary was enlarged and new stained glass windows were installed. That same year, people could attend one of six masses weekly; 136 baptisms were performed and 33 couples were married.
By the 1960s, urban decay and new freeways were taking their toll on virtually every inner city community. The St. Wendelin parish was no exception. Membership slipped and school enrollment declined. Older neighborhoods like Tremont began to thin as parishioners moved to the suburbs. In 1976, the school operation was merged with Urban Community School, and Ursuline Sisters took over from the Sisters of Notre Dame.
Still, St. Wendelin held on. Buildings were renovated and new social activities frequently drew people from around the Cleveland area. In 2002, parish leaders declared a Year of Jubilee to mark the centennial. A 100-year-old statue of St. Wendelin was taken out of storage, repaired, and placed inside the church where a confessional once stood. The bell, which had been removed from the belfry, was reconditioned and now sits in the church building. Still, the Lennon ax descended in 2009, when 50 churches were closed over a 15-month period, including St. Wendelin in 2010.
Since St. Wendelin’s re-opening in 2012, both the neighborhood and the pews have enjoyed population increases. Accordingly, St. Wendelin announced a large property-beautification initiative in July 2015. Of particular note is a Parish Prayer Garden which will be built behind the rectory. The Garden will include a walking prayer labyrinth, benches, a bike rack, and new foliage. The Garden will be accessible to all parishioners and the greater Tremont community. Consistent with the mission of churches worldwide, things at St. Wendelin are looking up.