The Originals Part II
By Francis McGarry
In the years directly preceding the American Revolution, travelers remarked that Americans were either overwhelmingly Protestant or unchurched. Catholics numbered about 30,000, almost exclusively in the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Maryland denied Catholics the right to vote and hold public office for most of the 18th century.
Other colonies, like Roger William’s Rhode Island, banned Catholics all together. I get disoriented when attempting to kept track of all of the non-Catholics: Calvinist, Quaker, Sandemanians, Shakers, Moravian, Mennonites, Anabaptist, Ephratas, “Dunkers”, and that is just a few. Each had attempted to establish a fiefdom of spiritual monopoly in the colonies. That was the 18th century. The 19th was a story of Catholic, Baptist and Methodist.
Cleveland in the 19th century had religious variety, including the Irish. Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians arrived from the north of Ireland. Many were supporters of home rule and became American patriots. They established churches and meeting houses throughout the city. As more Irish arrived, Cleveland became a Catholic city.
William Gleason recalls the early years in his 1896 Plain Dealer article:
“Since then days of St. Patrick down to the present time the Catholic religion has been the prevailing faith of the Irish people. In the early days, missionaries ministered to the spiritual wants of the few Catholics here, temporary altars for the divine sacrifice of the mass being provided in the private houses of the people of that faith. Father Dillon officiated in 1836 and died here in the fall of that year. Father O’Dwyer came here from Montreal in the same year and remained in the vicinity about two years. Father Peter McLoughlin was sent here from Cincinnati in 1838. As the Catholics grew in numbers, they set about building a church. Father McLoughlin, aided by the people of the surrounding country, went to work with a will, and soon St. Mary’s on the flats was erected. Old St. Mary’s church was quite a roomy and handsome edifice for the time it was built, and the Catholics of the city and vicinity were delighted to be able to kneel before its beautiful altars at the several masses, vespers and benedictions offered up to the Most High on Sundays and holy days. At this time the larger part of the Irish resided in dwellings upon the flats and its surrounding hillsides. As their numbers and earning capacity grew, they purchased land and erected houses thereon in the different parts of the city, and hence larger and more conveniently located church buildings were required. To supply this necessity Father McLoughlin and Messrs. John Smith, Michael Feely and Philip Olwill purchased land “way out” on the corner of Superior and Erie Streets, and St. John’s cathedral was soon erected. This was afterwards followed by the building of St. Patrick’s church on the West Side (Ohio City) for the convenience of the people in that vicinity. The numerous other Catholic churches of the city were provided as the growth of the population required.”
The Irish Pillars
In Gleason’s recounting of the Irish in Cleveland, he discussed their faith and also their work ethic, two of the pillars that have built the Irish community:
“There was a fair proportion of professional men among the early settlers but owing to the practical destruction of Ireland’s manufacturing industries by English law for the past half century the large majority of them were tillers of the soil and laborers. The latter found ready employment during the summer months in building railroads, laying out streets and along the docks. The products of the surrounding country were shipped here by boats on the canal and unloaded into the elevators and sailing vessels by hand. In the winter the laborer sawed wood in the city, and with an ax upon his stalwart shoulder marched off into the surrounding forests and felled the hickory, the beech, the oak and the elm trees and cut them into suitable lengths for the market. Some of them purchased farms, others tilled the ground on shares, and every one of them found employment at fair wages for the times. They were all happy and contented in this country of freedom and liberty, and some of them laid the foundation of a fortune for themselves and their families. This was before the days of manufacturing here.”
Irish Prosperity Followed
The early Irish had found jobs and the ability to practice their faith. Their growth as a community increased concurrently with the growth of Cleveland. When soft coal was discovered in Northeast Ohio, wood was supplanted as the main fuel source. This was not without a fight. Coal did not burn as clean as wood and some local folks were against the “dirty, smoke producing stuff.”
However, enterprise won this battle. In the same column, “Soft coal came to stay; manufacturing establishments were built upon the outskirts of the city; rolling mills were established; the young men were given an opportunity to acquire trades and become expert mechanics; the avenues of employment were largely widened, and Cleveland began to rapidly grow in numbers and prosperity.”
This prosperity was shared with the Irish of the city. The sons and daughters of Irish immigrants found that within one generation occupational choices and advancement was a Cleveland reality for them.
In the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, we have the tendency to forget there was a Cleveland without the Cathedral and a Cleveland without an industrial footprint. It was the same Irish folks who helped build the Catholic community and the City of Cleveland that also ensured a parade on the Feast of Saint Patrick. On this March 17th, let us all say a prayer and raise a glass to those who built who we are today.
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is an assistant principal and history teacher. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side and is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.