By Nicole Hennessy
For more than 30 years, church historian Tim Barrett has studied the Catholic churches of Cleveland, trying to distinguish which of them are the finest in terms of art and architecture.
His criteria included the use of real marble; whether or not the original structure had been preserved; and whether the building reflected the architectural trends of its time.
One other criterion he considered was whether or not the space could be converted for alternative use. A lot of the grand cathedrals, he decided, could not, due to elaborate carvings or paintings of icons.
Five Catholic churches meet all the requirements he came up with that qualify them to be looked after and well-maintained or saved. These include St. Stephen Church in Ohio City, St. Michael Church in Tremont, St. Stanislaus Church in Slavic Village, St. Colman Church and St. Ignatius.
After putting this list together, he thought, “There is only one I can think of that is equal to these.” That church was St. James in Lakewood.
Sitting vacant for two years until the Vatican reversed the decision by the local diocese to close it permanently, the parish reopened in July 2012.
“When I heard that it was closing, of course, I was very much devastated,” Barrett recalled.
In a lecture he gave at the Lakewood Public Library April 3, he shared a bit about the history of St. James, which was conceived to be built in 1908 by the Rev. Michael D. Leahy.
Designed after a Sicilian cathedral called Monreal, Leahy actually traveled to Sicily to gather ideas for the construction of St. James.
Barrett points out side-by-side photographs of the two church’s altars and other details, commenting on how similar they are. He continues going through the building’s history, focusing on materials like the solid marble columns inside St. James, detailing the history of each piece of the church.
Stopping to marvel at photos of the exterior of the church, he also pointed out that not one inch of the building is plain.
“It really is a sculpture‚” he said.
During the years that the church was threatened by closure and eventual demolition, one of the things Barrett tried to promote was a sense of place.
“Cleveland has a sense of place,” he continued. “You come to Cleveland, and there’s something to see.”
During his 30-year span of conducting lectures and tours, he’s never had someone from out of town, state or country wonder, after one, why they took the time to go on a tour. Again, he attributes this to the sense of place or unique character embodied by the area.
“Unfortunately, we seem to be in pursuit of the homogeneous mundane,” Barrett stressed to the crowd gathered, his fast manner of speech quickening. “We keep continually trying to throw it away, it seems.”
He recalled that in the last year alone, two historic churches were demolished; and now, just over the Lakewood border, in Cleveland, the dilapidated and long-ignored Fifth Church of Christ Scientist faces demolition.
In terms of St. James’ rebirth, he sees this as a second chance, a chance to preserve the area’s heritage, encouraged by the unprecedented level of public involvement that spurred the reopening of the parish.
There’s still a long way to go for St. James: The roof is undergoing repairs and the debt that caused its closing in the first place still exists.
But for the foreseeable future, it will continue to add to Cleveland’s sense of place.
The last thing Barrett pointed out before ending his lecture was that when the decree to close the church was reversed, it was amazing – because, he said, “It’s never happened before.”
“It’s never happened before,” he repeated.