Early Croatian immigrants attended religious services at St. Vitus Church prior to creating churches that fit their own needs. St. Vitus Church seemed like a logical place to attend mass for early Croatians who did not yet fashion their own church because St. Vitus Church held mass in a similar language (Slovenian) and the Slovenes had a similar culture. There was a natural split away from St. Vitus Church, in part due to the increased population of Croatians in Cleveland leading to a collective desire for church services to be performed in Croatian. The last push towards establishing a new church came when the Slovenian priest at St. Vitus accused the Croatian parishioners of adhering to their Greek Orthodox practices rather than conforming to St. Vitus’ way of worship. Originally, Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic Croatians, as well as members of St. Joseph Society wanted to create one united Croatian church; however, there were disagreements on the name that could not be rectified due to the Greek Orthodox members wanting the church to be called the “Croatian Roman and Greek Catholic Church,” while the Roman Catholics wanted it to be called the “Croatian Roman Catholic Church.”
As a result of this disagreement, two important churches were established in Cleveland to fit the religious needs of Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Croatian immigrants. The first Croatian Catholic Church of Byzantine Rite in the United States was Cleveland’s St. Nicholas Church, which was established in 1901. Rev. Mile Golubić was sent from Zumberak to be the priest of St. Nicholas Church. Golubić would not stay the priest of this new Cleveland church for long. He asked to return to the old country due to a scuffle with the church board over his salary, separation from his family, the burden of fundraising on top of his religious duties, poor health, and the poor Cleveland air. The Diocese sent another priest, Rev. Marko Relić originally for a term of six years but he only stayed from 1903 to 1905. St. Nicholas Church did not have a priest for nearly ten years, so the church board sold the church and parsonage. During this time, some parishioners attended St. John the Baptist Church, which was a Rusyn Greek Catholic Church. Most former St. Nicholas Church parishioners attended mass at St. Paul’s Church. Vlado Hranilović was able to procure a new priest in 1913 for St. Nicholas Church. Coincidentally, he went to Croatia to visit family and was able to convince his brother Rev. Milan Hranilović to head the church and his brother was the priest until 1928. Rev. Relić returned as the church’s priest for a little while but left due to failing health. His successor was Ilija Severović.
After a rocky start to the church’s history, St. Nicholas Church became more stable in the 1930s under Severović. After World War II, Cleveland’s Croatian population increased and there was a greater need for a larger church to serve the growing community. In April 1975, St. Nicholas Church constructed a new church in the place of the old church to accommodate more parishioners and their families that grew since their migration to Cleveland thirty years prior. By the 1970s, St. Nicholas Church served 250 families. Although there were many parishioners that attended services at St. Nicholas, attendance dwindled over the years as the Croatian community started to move outside Cleveland. St. Nicholas Church is located at Superior and East 36th Street and was a fixture in the community until its closure in 2020 due to low parishioner attendance.
Another church in Cleveland that served Latin Rite Croatians was St. Paul Croatian Church. The Roman Catholic Croatians decided to buy a plot of land at East 40th south of St. Clair Avenue in 1901, and the forming church secured its first priest, Br. Milan Sutlić, after sending a letter to Zagreb. The cornerstone for what would be known as St. Paul’s Church was laid on August 2, 1903. On Easter Sunday in 1904, the first mass in the newly constructed church was held by Rev. Milan Sutlić. Like other priests sent over from the old country, Rev. Sutlić left Cleveland and returned to Zagreb’s Archdiocese after reportedly claiming “he would rather beg in the old country than be [a] parson in America.” Rev. Sutlić was replaced in 1904 by Rev. Niko Grsković and he was able to garner a lot of support not only by Roman Catholic Croatians, but also Greek Catholic Croatians and Slovenes to the detriment of St. Vitus Church. He left the church in 1917, due to his political work and support during World War I for Yugoslavia. Rev. Michael Domladovac left his parish in Youngtown, Ohio to head St. Paul’s Church where he was immediately challenged by the Spanish Flu outbreak. The flu killed fifty parishioners cutting the church’s income; however, the parishioners were able to support one another through this difficult time. Economic issues continued to plague the church when many Cleveland factory workers lost their jobs in the early 1920s, as well as when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.
After the Croatian population increased following World War II, St. Paul’s church was dedicated to helping new Croatian immigrants find a home and a job after the war. By the 1970s, St. Paul’s Church served 5,000 parishioners. With this ever-growing population, St. Paul’s Church continued to support its community by helping to fund Cuyahoga County Croatian activities and organizations into the 1990s. From 1995 to 2018 Rev. Marko Hladni was the pastor of St. Paul’s church and Rev. Zvonko Blaško took over as the church’s pastor after Hladni’s death. Despite these early setbacks, St. Paul’s Church continued to serve its parishioners through the 20th century and remains an important church in Cleveland and continues to serve the Croatian population.
Although the two Croatian churches were established due to religious differences, they both played pivotal roles in the religious and social fabric of the Croatian community. Through the years, the churches have not only offered religious services, but have also helped keep the Croatian community together after many Croatians settled in the broader Cleveland community.