To answer the need of the expanding Catholic population, Bishop Ignatius F. Horstmann, the bishop of Cleveland, appointed Reverend Thomas F. Mahon as pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish on June 26, 1898. In 1905, construction finished on the grand Romanesque church, located at 9205 Superior Avenue. The Sisters of St. Joseph had overseen the parish school since 1899, and a formal St. Thomas Aquinas school building opened on November 25, 1929. Irish and German immigrants and first generation Irish and German Americans comprised the congregation. Due to the large Irish influence, this church became known as the “Irish Cathedral.”
After a half century, St. Thomas Aquinas Church faced a new challenge. Whites started moving to the suburbs as African Americans moved into the neighborhood. This trend was also happening nationwide. After World War II, an economic boom occurred. White Catholics began to earn more money at the same time as almost 1.5 million African Americans left the South to find better job opportunities and wages in the industrial North. The recent economic prosperity, combined with the movement of African Americans into cities, caused numerous white Catholic families to eventually move to the suburbs. Those white Catholics who remained in the cities had to think about how their parishes would survive after this great exodus.
The American bishops released a statement in November 1958, arguing that like European immigrants, African Americans would thrive once segregation and prejudice were removed from society. However, many white parishioners did not welcome African Americans. They believed African Americans could be members of the Church, but they did not want them living in their neighborhoods. Since the Church could not discover a way to stop white Catholics from leaving the cities while also advocating for integration in the neighborhoods, many pastors and parishioners had to make these decisions for their own parishes. Without a unified front from church officials, priests could promote their desire for segregation.
By the 1950s, real estate agents helped to create fear among whites in the neighborhood of St. Thomas Aquinas. They went door to door telling the white families that their houses would lose value if they did not sell now due to the increase in African Americans in the neighborhood. However, African Americans did not want to live in white neighborhoods; they wanted to live in a neighborhood where they received respect. African Americans also had their own reservations regarding whites, but they overcame their hesitations faster than whites by focusing on character rather than race in regards to their neighbors.
In addition to declining attendance, the deterioration of the physical building of St. Thomas Aquinas Church became a large issue for the parish as well. By the 1970s, the church building was condemned structurally, but the parish did not end. In November 1975, the 70-year-old Cleveland landmark was demolished. Masses continued to be held on Sundays in the nearby St. Mary Seminary on Ansel Road. Rather than build a new church, the parish planned on turning the 30-seat chapel in the priests’ rectory into a 300-seat chapel. The new chapel was located at 1230 Ansel Road. Some African Americans believed the Diocese of Cleveland to be downsizing St. Thomas Aquinas Church due to the large percentage of the congregation being African American. Thus, they blamed the Diocese for not working as diligently to rebuild the church as they would have for a white congregation.
By the end of the 20th century, the relationship between African Americans and the Catholic Church in Cleveland showed signs of improvement. In 1981, a former bishop of Cleveland, Bishop James A. Hickey, claimed that the Diocese now represented African Americans in all of its religious orders, including having Bishop James Lyke, the first African American bishop in the Midwest, serving in Cleveland. Progress in this relationship extended to St. Thomas Aquinas Church as well. In 1984, John H. Blackburn became the first African American deacon to serve at St. Thomas Aquinas Church. The parish celebrated its 90th anniversary in 1988. However, it seemed that St. Thomas Aquinas Church would never return to the prosperous “Irish Cathedral.” Unfortunately, the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas Church came to an end with its final mass on October 31, 1993, but the merged school of St. Thomas Aquinas-St. Philip Neri stayed open at the original St. Thomas Aquinas School site.