The History and Future of St. John’s, Ohio City
The history of St. John’s is deeply rooted in the history of the region and this neighborhood. When what later became Ohio City was called Brooklyn Township, a local tavern owner, recognizing the desire for residents to attend religious services without having to cross the Cuyahoga River, started Trinity of Brooklyn Township, holding religious services in private residences. In 1825, “East Side” members moved the original parish, named Trinity from Ohio City, to a site near Public Square. “West Side” members remained in Ohio City, naming the new parish St. John's.
Designed by famed architect Hezekiah Eldridge, and constructed between 1836 and 1838, the church is an early example of American gothic revival architecture. The design and construction of St. John’s reflects a time of growth in Ohio City. The city’s fortuitous location near the new canal resulted in a population and industry boom. The area’s newfound prosperity is reflected in the church’s early congregation, which included prominent politicians and industrialists.
In the immediate years following the construction of St. John’s, the parish became a center in the fight against slavery, most notably for its role in the Underground Railroad. While legend has it that tunnels in the basement of St. John’s led runaway slaves to Lake Erie to board boats to Canada, there is no evidence to prove this. However, we now know that the bell tower served as a lookout for boats on Lake Erie taking runaway slaves to freedom. This led to St. John’s being known to many as “Station Hope”.
Just as St. John’s reflected the prosperity of Cleveland and Ohio City during its economic boom, it has also reflected its struggles. Throughout the 20th century St. John’s congregation dwindled as the neighborhood changed. As a reaction, the parish joined the Inner-City Protestant Parish, an ecumenical effort aimed to pool the resources of many Cleveland churches struggling to find a place in a changing city. During this time, St. John’s played a strong role in the struggle against poverty and racial injustice. In the 1970’s Native American activist Russell Means opened the Cleveland American Indian Center, which was run out of the church’s basement. Also in the 1970’s, St. John’s welcomed the Metropolitan Community Church to its office and worship space, when the MCC could find no other place to meet.
As it has throughout its history, St. John’s aims to serve an ever-evolving neighborhood. To do this, we must carefully listen to the voices in the community. The goal is not perfection, but progress through the power of dialogue, outreach, and open-mindedness. The Diocese of Ohio hopes you will join us in this process as St. John’s continues for yet another century.