This story is part of a new series of columns written by The Land’s editor. Send feedback to Lee Chilcote at [email protected].
To critics, the Opportunity Corridor on Cleveland’s east side is at best ironically named, at worst a cruel joke. They say the $331 million, three-mile roadway, built at a cost of more than $100 million per mile, is a waste of Ohio taxpayer dollars. Its real purpose: to help suburbanites speed more quickly through poor and minority neighborhoods on their way to the University Circle.
Yet to St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church at East 90th and Buckeye Road, it’s a shot at redemption.
The beautiful stone church, which is a national landmark and the first Hungarian Catholic church to be built outside of Hungary, recently spent $40,000 fixing its tower bells, which haven’t worked for more than 15 years. They’re also opening its doors this Sunday, March 6 at 4 p.m. for a special musical performance by Quire Cleveland. It’s all part of a series of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the building and 130th anniversary of the congregation, said Mark Yonke, a fourth-generation parishioner at the church.
“They’ll swing and ring like they did originally,” Yonke told me during a recent tour. He’s a golf pro and car salesman who helps promote the church in his spare time.
“We’re trying to make some noise for the Opportunity Corridor. … There’s naysayers on the west side who still think they’re going to get killed if they drive over here. I’m hoping it’ll help those people.”
Blaine Griffin, Ward 6 council member and Cleveland City Council president, says he’s hearing this more and more.
“For years, people complained, ‘Why was the state spending that much money on a three-mile roadway?’” Griffin said.“They said it was just a bypass for the Cleveland Clinic. Now that it’s here all I hear is excitement. It’s like a vein that’s been opened feeding life into a body that’s long been dormant.”
Griffin points to the expansion of Orlando Baking Company, the planned new police headquarters, the Meijer grocery store and apartments on East 105th, and the recently-opened Mikros Apartments on Larchmere as evidence of the impact the corridor has had so far. While critics see large swaths of vacant land along the road as sure signs of a boondoggle, Griffin says the corridor is bringing jobs and development that will help the roadway live up to its name.
Time will tell if he’s right or wrong. The touted “opportunity” for the surrounding Buckeye, Kinsman, Woodland Hills and Slavic Village neighborhoods—long nicknamed “the forgotten triangle”—has been slower to materialize than many would have hoped. Nonetheless, Yonke and others are taking a half-full view.
Although the St. Elizabeth congregation has beautifully preserved its building, the congregation has dwindled from thousands of parishioners to around 400. At one time, the Kinsman, Buckeye and Woodland neighborhoods around the church perhaps held the fourth largest number of Hungarians outside of Budapest. Those days are long gone, as most Hungarians fled for the suburbs in the 80s as part of a generational white flight fueled by a racist fear of black and brown residents. Now, after several decades of looking inward, the church is trying to build stronger relationships with the surrounding neighborhood.
“We’re trying to reach out,” said Yonke, touting a series of events taking place this year to celebrate the church’s 100th anniversary, including a special mass that was held on Feb. 20th blessing the refurbished bells and a fall festival on Sept. 25th that will feature Hungarian folk music, dancing, and food. “Not a lot’s been done (in terms of outreach). We hope the road will help bring people from the neighborhood here.”
Yonke hopes the roadway will bring back suburban parishioners who have left and attract new visitors. “If you like Hungarian food, if you want to experience Hungarian folk dancing, if you want to experience a national landmark, then you’re welcome,” he said.
Kathleen Crowther, executive director of the Cleveland Restoration Society (CRS), said it’s important that St. Elizabeth has stayed and invested in the church. “They could have left,” she said. “They could have closed and gone somewhere else. They stayed. Now we have an opportunity to go there. This is the way for us to learn about each other.”
My recent visit to the church made me a true believer that more Clevelanders should experience this civic treasure. Yonke toured me through rooms filled with paintings of old popes, photos from the past 100 years, wool Hungarian baseball league uniforms, and even a rare bone relic of St. Elizabeth herself. The breathtakingly beautiful sanctuary, which seats 1,100 and was handsomely restored a few years ago, would not be out of place in Rome.
“Everything’s frozen in time,” Yonke said, citing the fact that the previous priest did a good job of keeping up the building, but he didn’t do much to promote the church beyond the congregation — something Yonke is trying to change.
Yonke, who at 54 is one of the youngest members of the congregation, also knows that the neighborhood must thrive in order for his church to survive. Like many churches, his parishioners are dying off and they’re not being replaced by the younger generation. Back in the day, there were five masses given in Hungarian on a typical Sunday. Today there’s only one mass per week in English and Hungarian, given by a part-time priest who also serves another congregation in the city.
“For a paprikash dinner or something like that, we’ll get 400,” Yonke told me of the church’s attendance. “On a nasty Sunday if it was snowing to beat the band, there might be 30 people. On a good Sunday, it might be 70. On Easter and Christmas, you get more. It’s tough. Nobody lives here so they have to come down.”
Griffin said St. Elizabeth is doing the right thing by reaching out to the community. “They’re very eager to be involved,” he said.
Kathleen Crowther said St. Elizabeth should be applauded for investing in the church. Many older church buildings slip into decline after their congregations leave. “From a property stewardship standpoint, they’ve done a magnificent job,” she said. “They’re no different from any other community in Cleveland except they wrote the checks.”
Neighborhood engagement is key to their future, she added. “For them to think about the Opportunity Corridor, and engagement in that location right there, that is absolutely the way to go,” she said. “Sharing the gifts of their cultural heritage with people who are not necessarily of that cultural heritage, that’s a large goal to keep a facility like St. Elizabeth relevant in our community.”
Although the jury may be out on whether or not the Opportunity Corridor is worth the bloated price tag, it’s certainly prompted some soul-searching from organizations like St. Elizabeth of Hungary. “This is the forgotten part of Buckeye Road, the lower part,” said Yonke. “Everyone comes in here and says, ‘Whoah, this is awesome,’ but how do you get people to come, and not just on Sunday?”
Quire Cleveland performs Bohemian Treasure: Demantius’ “St. John Passion” this Sunday, March 6 at 4:00 PM at St. Elizabeth at 9016 Buckeye Rd. Admission is free. Seating is open, and no tickets or reservations are required. A freewill offering will be taken (suggested donation $25 per person). Please note: this venue is not wheelchair accessible. Masks are required for all attendees, regardless of vaccination status. Directions, parking, and handicap accessibility information for St. Elizabeth.
Lee Chilcote is executive director of The Land.
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