After more than 65 years of age, many of us look forward to retirement. But today, after the same amount of time, the St. Leo the Great Parish community continually seeks to reinvent itself to keep up with the times. However, its basic focus remains the same: to gather together as fellow Christians to worship God and to live out the Gospel message. This was our focus in 1948, and it’s our focus today. And despite all the physical and leadership changes that have occurred, the Catholic Community of St. Leo the Great—the people—are the cement that bonds the parish together.
But how did we get from the 1948 starting line to where we are today? Doubtless, it’s an interesting story that always bears repeating.
“It is a pleasure to tell you that we will have a temporary place of worship, beginning next Sunday, October 17th. We were able to secure the use of the Ben Franklin School Auditorium for our Sunday Masses, until our new church will be erected.”
With this message in 1948, the founding members of St. Leo the Great Parish learned of their new parish, being established to serve a quickly growing area of Cleveland and neighboring Parma and Brooklyn Heights.
The new parish drew its original 500 families from Our Lady of Good Counsel (now part of Mary Queen of Peace) and St. Francis DeSales parishes, in Cleveland and Parma, respectively. Father Sylvester Lux was appointed as the first pastor of this new parish.
“We were like one big family,” recalled the late Al Witt in an interview more than 25 years ago. “I don't imagine any of us had ever started a parish. But we were more than happy to do what we could do. Without exception, no one turned down any request.”
In those early days, Al recalled at the time, “there was an announcement from the pulpit that there was a new parish and that the diocese had already bought the land—from Alvin to Portman on the east side of Broadview, close to Schaaf Road. That land was empty—all weeds.”
The late Bill Salettel, a founding parishioner, said he remembered two possible sites for the new parish—one was where Broadview Gardens Apartments are located, and the other across the street. The apartment land was swampy, so Fr. Lux selected the land across the street. “The woman who owned the land wanted $50,000, but the bishop thought that was too much. Fr. Lux asked the bishop if he could get it for $25,000, would the diocese buy it, and the bishop agreed.”
Fr. Lux approached the owner through a third party and the land was sold. The rest is history. “He knew there was going to be a main highway going through, so he held on to the land,” Bill added.
At the same time he was working to establish and build a parish community, Fr. Lux saw to it that such groups as the St. Leo Holy Name and Altar and Rosary societies were also formed to help build a spirit of prayer and community. Records of the early years of these groups indicate total dedication to building not only structures but a community that would last.
Parishioners of the new parish worshipped on Sundays first at Benjamin Franklin School, 1905 Spring Road. But as Fr. Lux observed in his homily at the parish’s 25th anniversary celebration, “In . . . 1949, realizing that the parishioners did not like to attend Mass in a public school, we built a temporary building on the front of the property, erecting it in three evenings.”
“We had every trade possible pitching in,” Al Witt recalled. Whether it took three days, a week, or perhaps longer depends on who remembers. The first church held 350 worshippers, and six Masses were celebrated each Sunday beginning August 21, 1949.
With its exposed light bulbs and hard kneelers, with music provided by Bud Burke playing a small portable reed organ (which rested for years in the current Rectory basement), the days of that early building were numbered, and St. Leo’s set about to raise the funds for a larger, permanent structure.
Al Witt chaired the fund-raising drive for the first church and stated often that others were better equipped to handle this responsibility. “All I had was enthusiasm,” he said. “I was painting the upstairs of my house, and Fr. Lux called and said they were having a meeting and that they wanted me at the Rectory. So I dropped what I was doing and came over. I couldn’t see it their way, but they insisted.”
Bill Salettel recalled those early days as times of struggle and victory: How Fr. Lux bought Dr. Powell’s home on Broadview Road as the first parish Rectory. “He lived there, and he had carpenters build an attachment to the house and they had Masses there during the week. Before that, they had Masses in Bill Heminger’s basement.”
Soon after the first church was built, the parish began planning for its first building drive. “It wasn't too bad,” Bill recalled, adding that most parishioners were willing to do their part to raise the $400,000 needed to build the combination church and school.
Then, as now, the generosity of St. Leo parishioners helped the young parish obtain the funds to build a combination church and school. And then, as now, the story of the parish community is one of close interaction between the laity and the priests and others who serve.
Perhaps the following words, written by Fr. Lux in the pledge campaign brochure, speak the most prophetically about the future of this parish and what parishioners were investing in: “This parish and this neighborhood regardless of what is now or will ever be, will endure when we are gone. As long as men shall live here, it will maintain a home for our Blessed Lord before whose altar the lamp of faith will burn unceasingly.”
In January 1950, construction began on a combination church and school costing $400,000. The school opened in September 1950, and the first Mass was celebrated in the church December 24, 1950. Bishop Hoban dedicated the church June 3, 1951.
The school opened with an enrollment of 318 pupils taught by the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. By 1955 enrollment grew to more than 500, and the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago assumed administration of the school.
The community stayed together and worked together, planning bazaars, clambakes and fall festivals. Even before the first permanent church was built, the parish held clambakes on the church property. Most events in those days were to pay for such major capital improvements as the first church and school.
Early parishioners generally agree that Fr. Lux was an excellent administrator. “He did what he wanted. You could do whatever you wanted as long as he wanted it.”
As the community grew, Fr. Lux realized that the state would inevitably take the land at the southern end of the parish property—close to the land on which the original church stood. He also realized that the parish would soon outgrow the original church. In 1960, with the parish at 1,600 families (500 less than today) a building campaign began to fund first a convent, then a new church.
In 1969 the state of Ohio announced plans to appropriate part of the southern property of the parish for what would eventually become I-480. This property included the original church. Proceeds from the sale of this land went toward the building of the current church, rectory and parish offices, which opened in 1970. Structural steel from the original church was moved to the north side of the school and erected as an auditorium, which was named Lux Hall in honor of the parish’s founding pastor.
In 1972, Fr. Lux retired, and Fr. John Fiala, who formerly served as an associate pastor at St. Leo’s, was named as the parish’s second pastor. Fr. Fiala brought the Movement for a Better World renewal to the parish, and this laid the foundation for St. Leo’s Parish Council and other commissions, which encouraged lay leadership. Fr. Lux died in 1977.
The late Joe Blasko remembered it was Fr. Fiala who obtained cafeteria equipment for the school through a deal with the William Feather Company, located in Brooklyn. “He got the Holy Name guys together, and we worked until 2 in the morning to bring the equipment to the school, where I helped install it.”
In 1975 Bishop James Hickey chose Fr. Fiala to be the first diocesan secretary for parish life, and he was replaced at St. Leo by Fr. William Eylar. Fr. Eylar challenged the parish to further liturgical reform. Moreover his gentleness and compassion invited parishioners to an even greater care of the poor, the sick, the elderly and the youth.
It was also a time when St. Leo’s friendliness and hospitality blossomed, fostered mainly through Fr. Eylar’s compassion and friendship. His 12 years with the parish saw two separate renewal programs—Christ Renews His Parish and Renew.
Fr. Eylar instituted the annual Fall Festival, which continued for almost 30 years as the Fall Festival and St. Leo Festival. With the shortage of teaching sisters, it became necessary to move them from the parish convent into smaller quarters. A home was secured for the nuns teaching in the parish school, and the former convent was converted mainly through the work of parishioners into a community center and preschool.
In 1986 Fr. Eylar retired, and Fr. Edward Weist was appointed as St. Leo’s fourth pastor. Fr. Weist went about building on the foundation left by his predecessors, and in 1993, with guidance from the parish, renovated the church interior. Fr. Eylar died in 1998.
Fr. Weist and other staff members continued to foster the close-knit parish community. In 1997, with the 50th anniversary year approaching, Fr. Weist was transferred and Fr. Bob Bielek was named as fifth pastor of St. Leo’s.
Fr. Bielek, seeking to build on the legacy of the previous pastors, initiated a parish capital campaign to improve aging facilities, update them for safety reasons and get the best use out of parish facilities for the entire community. However, his work at St. Leo’s was cut short by health problems, which forced him to take early retirement in 2004. He died in 2007.
On June 30, 2004, Fr. Russell P. Lowe was appointed as St. Leo’s sixth pastor and made strides and progress in several areas. One of the most visible has been the current renovation of the church sanctuary. He also worked to get parish finances solvent.
Fr. Lowe instituted elections for Parish Council, changed weekday and weekend Mass schedules, increased income from the Certificate Program by 40 percent, patched the parking lot, and established the Marian shrine behind the Community Center. In addition, Fr. Lowe was able to purchase up-to-date equipment for all classrooms in the school.
With Vibrant Parish Life and the associated clustering process, a new chapter unfolded for St. Leo Parish, holding promise for us all, as a new generation of lay leadership planned for the future side-by-side with those who remember the past.
In late 2013, Fr. Lowe was reassigned as pastor of Our Lady of Angels in Cleveland’s West Park, and Fr. James Schmitz was appointed to succeed him. Fr. Schmitz has brought added spiritual growth to the parish community, particularly through the ARISE program of spiritual renewal. He has also enhanced parish communications, redesigning the parish website and initiating a St. Leo the Great app for iPhone and Android phone users.
From 1948 till the present day, the St. Leo Community has continuously evolved, but it remains as a community of individuals willing to learn from each other and listen to other points of view. Although disagreements may always exist, no one can disagree with our purpose: to praise and worship God and Jesus Christ and to follow the Gospel message.
Written by parishioner John Sabol