Soaring above a surfeit of drugstores, convenient marts and fast-food eateries a bell tower stands. The tower looms above the modern conveniences on Euclid Avenue, as testament to a different time. The tower once belonged to the parish of St. Agnes, and although the church has since been demolished, the tower remains on Euclid Avenue. The St. Agnes tower prevails as a reminder of an era when the church was the center of the community.
In 1893 a group of Catholic women approached the Bishop, Ignatius Frederick Horstmann, and explained the necessity for an English-speaking parish on the east side of Cleveland. Until these women took the initiative, the only English-speaking parishes on the east side were St. Edwards and Immaculate Conception. The others represented a roster of mostly central and eastern European ethnicities who masses were conducted in other languages. The Diocese of Cleveland conducted a survey that accounted for the number of Catholics that resided in the territory. The results indicated the need to restructure parish boundaries. The small, but zealous band of Catholic women received their desired parish.
The construction of St. Agnes in Cleveland marked the transformation of Catholicism from a predominantly immigrant religion to one of mainstream prominence. The establishment of St. Agnes symbolized that "the church of immigrants was no longer only 'a mission to the poor.'" In 1893, the Diocese of Cleveland started to purchase land on Euclid Avenue. The Diocese's dream to possibly build a cathedral, a place for the Bishop to reign from an edifice of stone and feather out his decrees among the company of the wealthiest in Cleveland, launched. The purchase of land plots on Euclid Avenue beckoned a new beginning for Catholicism in Cleveland. The construction of St. Agnes proved that Catholicism, built alongside the high-architectural structures on Euclid Avenue, could be incorporated into mainstream American society.
St. Agnes' cornerstone was set for the permanent stone church on March 19, 1914. At first, the parish was prosperous and thriving. The church collected enough funds in the offering to contribute to various charitable missions directed towards the immediate community and beyond. The new church continued to attract members leading up to World War I, but a massive demographic transformation was afoot on the east side. In the 1910s, thousands of African Americans were migrating to the Cedar-Central neighborhood immediately south of Euclid Avenue, and many of the mansions of the old “Millionaires’ Row” were falling to the wrecking balls as businesses and large apartment buildings rose along the avenue. The parish was left vastly unprepared for what these changes meant.
After World War I, the flight to the suburbs quickened, including by many original members of the parish. St. Agnes was the last of the grand church buildings constructed along a Millionaires’ Row whose cachet was fast receding. By the 1930s, St. Agnes' revenue had significantly tapered off and soon the coffers were depleted. The 1940s only brought further despondency. The first pastor of the parish, Monsignor Jennings, passed away on April 17, 1941. After two years his successor, Father Richard P. Gibbons, also died.
The high hopes once founded in St. Agnes started to wane. But then, finally, on January 23, 1949, a savior of sorts, Father Floyd L. Begin was assigned to St. Agnes. Fr. Begin attempted to resuscitate St. Agnes. He recognized the demographic change in the parish's territory. The parish needed a revival. He called on his devoted parishioners to embrace a most incredible change.
Over his next twelve years of service, Fr. Begin set out to restructure the parish. On his first order of business Fr. Begin headed into the community and encouraged African American community members to join him and the parish. In addition, Fr. Begin made controversial statements and delivered provocative sermons. His sermons and statements occasionally rattled the beliefs of remaining congregants, but Fr. Begin refused to back down. In one sermon he stated that "Adam and Eve were black." On another occasion he was overheard commenting, "God must have given the Negro something extra in virtue because of the way we whites have treated them." These statements shook the foundations of the church; however, Fr. Begin realized that only through a reassessment of an individual's core values could the parish be turned around. For the church to survive, Fr. Begin looked to the parishes southern territory, between Carnegie and Central, for there laid "a vast potential missionary [field] which we have neglected."
Fr. Begin encouraged many African Americans, from the surrounding community, to start coming to the church. His efforts came too late, however, and by 1958 the parish permanently operated in the red. In a letter to Bishop Edward Francis Hoban, Fr. Begin inquired if St. Agnes annual collection for the Pentecost be instead incorporated into the operating budget for St. Agnes. The church continued to decline, regardless of Fr. Begin's dedication to revival. The committed parishioners struggled to keep the church afloat, especially after losing Bishop Begin to a new assignment. Ultimately, in 1975, ten years after Fr. Begin's departure, St. Agnes was demolished.
St. Agnes never quite achieved the preeminence its founders desired, but throughout the twentieth century, the church adapted to and advocated social diversity. The parish's social evolution maintained its relevance in the community. St. Agnes never achieved the distinction of a cathedral, but following the demolition of the church a faithful band of parishioners worshiped "together in the basement chapel of the rectory." The Diocese of Cleveland had envisioned a different future for St. Agnes. Perhaps the Diocese's hopes were not dreamed of in vain, for good Catholicism is not measured in grandeur, but in the devotion of a few reverent servants.