Cleveland Irish: The Cleveland Milieu
By Francis McGarry
Each March 17th, before I head into Mass, I text my friend Sergio to wish him a Happy St. Patrick’s Day. He is one of the better bocce players in the area and 1st generation Italian American. Sergio helps manage Club Molisani, and we discuss ideas on occasion. On the beginning night of the Feast of the Assumption, he texts to wish me a Happy Feast.
Up Mayfield Road to the east, St. Constantine & Helen have their Greek Fest the weekend after the Feast, but no one texts me for that. Baklava and Hellenic Dancers are some of the highlights of the Greek Fest. Their parish also has a legit Lenten fish fry with baklava on the menu.
Head northwest from Murray Hill and you will find the Association of African American Cultural Garden, one of the newest Cultural Gardens to participate in One World Day. The east side has much to offer to the cultural milieu of Cleveland.
It is always refreshing to enjoy the many cultures of our city. Those who remain insular have the tendency to be ethnocentric and limited. Instead, we can embrace the collective fraternity of humanity, or at least of the multiple cultural expressions of humanity in Cleveland. It is joyous to respect and participate in those cultural expressions. As Paul VI discussed in Populorum Progressio, at the origin of injustice there is a lack of fraternity.
The attempt to understand, or at least to appreciate and respect, other cultures leads to communitas. Anthropologist Victor Turner denoted that people share feelings of togetherness and belonging in connection with rituals. In this column, we allow for the inclusion of festivals and cultural exchanges as rituals.
To be historically accurate, it was not uncommon at the Feast a few years back, when the Irish kids came down the Hill, for there to be some “cultural exchanges” with the Italian kids. Anyone with roots in Collinwood was not surprised. Today, not so much, although some of the old timers still decline to go the Feast.
My Aunt Irene would go to the Feast. She always wore something Irish just to let everybody know. She noticed, or more so made a comment, how diverse the Feast was compared to when she was growing up. She notices a lot, and shares her observations freely.
In her opinion, “We don’t have parishes anymore.” As I understand her, there is no more St. Joe Collinwood or St. Margaret Mary’s, her parishes. She grew up in St. Joe Collinwood, Collinwood’s first Catholic Church in 1877.
She lived right across the street in a four-unit apartment that was recently demolished. I have to admit I don’t know the feeling of losing part, at least the physical part, of your history.
Aunt Irene was not against the formation of St. Mary’s for the Slovenians and Holy Redeemer for the Italians. Priests in those parishes were able to hear confessions for parishioners who only spoke their native tongue. Holy Redeemer has had a procession and dinner for the Feast of the Assumption as well. There is an amazing photo of the congregation in the church, similar to the photo at St. Philomena.
My Grandma Grace developed more of an appreciation for the multiple cultural expressions found in Cleveland. She always liked Mirabile’s on Ivanhoe, just up from Five Points. I still make it to Messina’s just down the hill, recalling that Grace would go there for pizza after her typewriting class at Collinwood High School.
Catholic School Numbers
In Grace’s time, there were more parishes, and they were neighborhood parishes. In 1950, those parishes supported over 10,000 schools. In Aunt Irene’s time there were nearly 13,000 Catholic schools.
According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), there were 5,981 Catholic schools, 4,812 elementary and 1,169 secondary schools in the country, with a total enrollment of 1,626,291 in 2021. That is a decline of 439,581 students, or 21.3%, since 2011. In the past year 17 new schools were opened and 209 were consolidated or closed.
Locally, University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) will partner with St. Anthony’s of Padua School in Akron and St. Augustine’s in Barberton with an “emphasis on Catholic school culture, strong teaching and learning and operational vitality.”
Conversely, the State of Ohio has seen a decline of roughly 22,000 Catholic school students since 2011. Cleveland accounts for almost 10,000 of those students and Cincinnati accounts for nearly 4,500 of those students.
As numbers of Catholic schools change, so do the numbers within those Catholic schools. In 2020-2021, 39.3% of Catholic school students were African-American, Asian American, Latino American Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or multiethnic. If it were not for those students, even more Catholic schools would have been closed or consolidated.
Even though the total population of Catholic school students has declined, the benefits of Catholic school have not declined according to ACE and NCEA. Catholic schools boast a 99.1% graduation rate and 85% of those graduates attend a 4 year college or university. NCEA does not have data on those attending community college or trade school.
Almost 40% of Catholic schools have a waiting list. Latino and African American students who attend Catholic schools are more likely to graduate from high school and college compared to their public school peers. In general, the effects of socioeconomic status on educational achievement are significantly mitigated in Catholic schools. (ACE)
Therein lies the rub. Closures despite achievement. ACE includes “operational vitality” in their goals for a reason. A part of that is funding for students as well as for staff and administration, the structure that provides that education.
Many of us have had the benefits of a Catholic education that provided our families a quality learning environment and high standards for academic achievement. As a result of that education, we are hopefully able to invest in the next generation of Catholic schools; a new generation with new challenges and new opportunities.
As Aunt Irene would ask, “Are you Irish Catholic or Irish and Catholic?” She does not hesitate to tell the story of how the Irish started Catholic schools in America. That history does not prevent her from embracing the contemporary fraternity of Cleveland, as well as all the present participants in Catholic education. Don’t get me wrong. She always wears something Irish to Mass, just to let everybody know.
*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 the founder of Bluestone Hibernian Charities. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side. He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.