Jožef Turk arrived in Cleveland from Slovenia on October 25, 1881, and was soon followed by so many of his fellow countrymen that by the early 20th century Cleveland could be considered the third largest ‘Slovenian’ city in the world. These staunchly Catholic Eastern European immigrants began settling on the northeastern outskirts of the city, working, like Turk, in local industries such as the Otis Steel Company located on nearby Lakeside Avenue. As Turk’s wealth and influence expanded, he opened a saloon, a grocery and boardinghouses along St. Clair Avenue, but the growing Slovenian community also demanded a church of its own. In 1893 he arranged for a young priest named Vitus Hribar to be sent from Kamnik, Slovenia, to minister to this burgeoning community in their mother tongue. Hribar initially held services at the old St Peter’s Church located further west on East 17th and Superior while Turk raised $6,000 to acquire suitable land within the neighborhood. On October 4, 1894, taking less than a month to construct, a small wooden church was opened on the corner of Norwood and Glass (now Lausche) Avenues. It was named St. Vitus Church after the namesake of its founding priest, and was the first Slovenian Roman Catholic parish in Ohio.
In the ten years that followed, however, the congregation began growing less pleased with their priest. By June of 1904 several conflicts arose between Hribar and a segment of his parishioners that would splinter the community and lead to the formation of a breakaway church. Hribar maintained that the dispute stemmed from his refusal to allow beer sales at a lunchtime fundraiser to take place on church grounds—a charge vehemently denied by his opponents. Instead, the disgruntled faction complained that Hribar used the church treasury as his own personal account, further enriched himself by overcharging for such things as weddings and christenings, and refused to make badly needed renovations to the church. Anton Grdina, who was the most prominent member of the congregation, was removed as treasurer of the church after he confronted Hribar over these financial concerns. Together with Louis Lausche, whose son Frank would later become mayor of Cleveland and governor of Ohio, and a group of at least 300 parishioners, Grdina petitioned Bishop Ignatz Horstmann for the removal of Hribar. This conflict would continue to boil for the next four years.
Many incidents required police intervention and legal action during this period. Right from the start Hribar feared for his life and was eventually granted round-the-clock police protection from August 5, 1905. Later that month he stood before a church tribunal of twelve fellow priests, after being charged with the misadministration of church affairs. The day before the trial was set to begin, Hribar arrived at St. Vitus on Sunday August 23 to discover that the door of the church was nailed shut and he was unable to enter. A belligerent mob soon surrounded him and the police arrested 11 men, though Hribar ‘forgave’ them and refused to press charges. Hribar was admonished by the church council regarding his financial improprieties, but returned to his duties while tensions continued to percolate over the next year.
Bishop Horstmann finally recognized the situation was untenable, and on January 5, 1907 he called for a separate, though un-funded, church to be formed for the anti-Hribar coalition. Father Kasimir Zakrajšek had recently arrived in the United States from Ljubljana and was brought to Cleveland to head the new breakaway church—fittingly named Our Lady of Sorrows. It operated out of Ulmann’s Hall, which was attached to a saloon just down the street from St. Vitus on the corner of Stanard and East 55th. Zakrajšek was immediately popular with the new congregation, and they continued to push the Bishop to replace Hribar with him and reunite the church. These protests intensified, culminating with large marches involving thousands of people in the spring of 1907—first to Hortsmann’s residence, and then to Mayor Tom Johnson’s after the Bishop successfully eluded them. As they returned from one such march on June 6, they approached Hribar sitting on the porch of his house beside the church. Angry words were exchanged until a firecracker exploded near his chair. The protesters claimed that Hribar had fired upon them and a melee ensued, which was further fueled by hundreds of interested bystanders flooding from the nearby bars and dance halls. Dozens of arrests followed. Finally, on August 2, Hribar was transferred to a church in Barberton. Unfortunately, he was replaced, not by the beloved Zakrajšek, but by Father Bartholomew Ponikvar, which initially did little to quell the turmoil.
That winter Horstmann attempted to further defuse the situation, this time by removing the popular Zakrajšek, who would go on to become an influential Franciscan monk serving a diocese outside Chicago. He was replaced at Our Lady of Sorrows by Father Casimir Stefanic, but his appointment split that troublesome congregation in half again when 500 members, including Grdina and Lausche, refused to recognize him and demanded the return of Zakrajšek. One of Stefanic’s first actions was to move Our Lady of Sorrows out of Ulmann’s saloon and into a storefront that previously served as a Greek church on East 41st and St Clair. This new church was immediately vandalized on January 16, 1908, with Stefanic accusing the Zakrajšek faction, while they blamed St. Vitus parishioners.
The steady and capable influence of Ponikvar at St. Vitus, along with the realization that Zakrajšek was not coming back, eventually led to a reconciliation beginning later in 1908. By 1930 Ponikvar was leading the largest Slovenian congregation in the United States, and the small wooden church was bursting at the seams. He arranged for the construction of a new church to begin a block away on East 61st and Glass. The new Byzantine-style church made of yellow Falston brick was designed by William Jansen, a prodigious architect responsible for over two dozen Catholic churches in the area, for the cost of $350,000. When it was completed just two years later, it was, and still is, the largest Slovenian Roman Catholic church in America. Despite the shaky origins of St. Vitus Church, it has ever since served as the heart and soul of Cleveland’s vibrant Slovenian community—through good times and bad.