While Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish was officially established as a mission in March 1926, its roots go back to the group of Italian immigrants who settled on the “North West Side” of Cleveland at the turn of the century-one of the oldest concentrations and, at one time, one of the largest in the city.
The spiritual needs of these immigrants were tended by St. Anthony Church, which at the time was located on Central Avenue. Due to the lack of Italian priestly vocations, Bishop Ignatius F. Horstmann, Bishop of Cleveland from 1892 to 1908, was unable to assign a priest to these hard-working people.
When they headed to America, many of these immigrants promised to send financial assistance to : the relatives they left behind. While they hailed from different cities and towns in Italy, these new immigrants shared one common denominator-their devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Special collec tions were taken up and sent overseas each June in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose Feast Day is July 16. As part of this custom, the priest in Italy would return a thank you with felicitations to “the Americans.”
The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Mutual Help Society was established in 1910 to help local Italian families with their corpo ral needs, and to assist in sending money “back home.” This practice continued until 1914, when the missives from the priests in Italy were not received in the usual prompt manner. Mr. Francesco DiDonna, treasurer of the overseas project, was falsely accused of misappropriating the money. Though the letters from Italy finally arrived, the damage on this side of the waters had been done.
A New Tradition
On July 11, 1915, a group of men were cool ing themselves from the hot summer evening, when it was noted that Mr. DiDonna had not taken up the annual collection. Mr. DiDonna stated that he was through because of the accusations made the previous year. With the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel just days away, there was no time to send funds overseas. This group decided to take up collection for a Cleveland celebration instead. At least this would prevent future accusations, they thought, and everyone here could enjoy it.
Since it was too late to organize anything by July 16, and since most of the Italians in the Fulton Road-Trent Avenue neighborhood had immigrated from Noicattaro, Apulia, this group decided to organize a block party in honor of that town’s patron-St. Rocco. The larger group of Italians from the West 69th Street neighborhood-who came from Coreno, Aosonio; Petrula, Caserta; and San Cosma e Damiano, Latina-had different ideas. The first celebration in Cleveland of the Feast of St. Rocco went ahead as planned on the first Sunday of September 1915. However, tension had sprung up between the two neighborhoods.
During the second year of the Italian Festival/St. Rocco Feast, a Mass was said in honor of St. Rocco for the first time. Father Giovanni Rocchi, pastor of St. Anthony Church, offered the Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church on Fulton Road. As Labor Day became a national holiday in September 1917, Bishop John P. Farrelly, Bishop of Cleveland from 1909 to 1921, assigned Rev. Damian Leone to take care of the Italian community on the West Side. Father Leone resided at Blessed Sacrament Parish, where the new statue of St. Rocco purchased for $225 to replace the painting used during the two previous festivals-was kept in prominence. Following the Feast of 1917, the people approached Father Leone in hope of building a church. Here, the growing tensions between the two neighborhoods came to a head.
Both groups began to compete for providing space for the new church. After hearing the recommendations of Father Leone, the Bishop agreed that the new church should be built in the Clark Avenue Zone. Since Bishop Farrelly required that there must be sufficient room and financial backing to support a church and a school, money became all the more precious. The Detroit Avenue community, again feeling insulted, aban doned their Clark Avenue neighbors and would not donate a single dime. The Clark Avenue residents built their church in honor of St. Rocco on a donated, single-home lot, apparently misunderstanding the bishop’s requirements.
Father Leone, who was now in ill health because of the infighting between the neighborhoods, was placed on sick leave. Bishop Farrelly, angered by the conditions and the manner in which the good Father was treated, refused to assign another priest. When the people asked the bishop to bless the new St. Rocco Church, he stated, “What church! There is no Italian Catholic church in West Cleveland.” Both neighborhoods were once again without a priest from 1918 to 1922.
Though the Feast of St. Rocco continued, its church was not recognized by the Diocese of Cleveland and, therefore, was not a church at all. Many sorrowful events marked the next four years. Men posing as Catholic priests took advantage of the innocent faith of the people. Some even left during the night with parish finances. When Bishop Joseph Schrembs was transferred to Cleveland on June 16, 1921, some encouraged parishioners from St. Rocco Church approached the Bishop while he still was in the Diocese of Toledo. Once a meeting was granted, these prayerful souls requested that St. Rocco be taken into the Diocese of Cleveland upon his arrival. The Bishop, wanting to save these poor, lost souls, promised to do so as soon as possible. Installed as Bishop of Cleveland on September 8, 1921, Bishop Schrembs kept his promise. On December 8, 1921, Rev. Alphonse DeMaria, then assistant pastor of St. Anthony Church, was appointed the first pastor of the newly recognized St. Rocco Church.
Though this beginning was truly a blessing for all, Father DeMaria could do little to cure the ills between the two Italian communities.
In fact, the competition between the two became worse. In June of 1923, Father DeMaria, who was now ill, was transferred and placed on sick leave. It is believed that this also was due to the “rough” competition between the two Italian communities. Father John Davidson, then assistant pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church, was appointed administrator of St. Rocco. Bishop Schrembs hoped to resolve the difficulties with the gentle yet firm leadership needed. On January 22, 1924, the Bishop’s prayers were answered through the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, commonly called the Mercedarian Friars. The order had a long tradition of service, dating back to founding on August 10, 1218,by St. Peter Nolasco.
The Mercedarian Friars had been accepted into the diocese in 1921, and through them Bishop Schrembs heard of the good work of Rev. Sante Gattuso, then Father Superior of the order, and Rev. Martin Compagno, pastor of St. Anthony Church in Youngstown. Based on his knowledge of these two dedicated fri ars, the bishop sent the following telegram to Father Sante:
Reverend and Dear Father:
The Fathers of the Divine Mercy are hereby transferred from St. Anthony’s Church, Youngstown, to take charge of St. Rocco’s Church, Cleveland, Ohio.
This appointment becomes effective, January 29th 1924
Wishing you God’s richest blessing in your new work,
Very faithfully yours in Christ,
Joseph Schrembs Bishop of Cleveland
Father Sante and Father Martin had no idea how sudden the transfer was until the new pastor arri ed at St. Anthony Church in Youngstown on January 28. To say the least, this new pastor painted a most gloomy picture of St. Rocco Church and the West Side communities back in Cleveland.
Without fear and putting all his confidence in God, Father Sante addressed his new flock at St. Rocco Church, then located on Trent Avenue, on February 3, 1924. Father introduced his program to the parishioners who considered him to be, at best, a dreamer, Indifference, particularly on account of what had happened during the past four years, was predominant. From the difficulties that revolved around the former false-priests, St. Rocco Church was just over $8,000 in debt and had only $5.27 in the Guardian Savings Bank of Cleveland. Bishop Schrembs agreed to pay off the $8,000 debt if Father Sante would remain. (In December 1945, remembering his early days at the parish, Father Sante wrote: “It was a question of setting up some kind of discipline, order, of cutting abuses, and restoring the Faith. In going back over these past twenty-two years, I cannot find anything to do but to thank God for His con tinued and abundant assistance.”)
That same night in February 1924, Father Sante went to meet the Detroit Avenue community. Hearing of a meeting at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel virtual Help Society, Father decided to invite himself to the gathering. He noted that the cold, snowy weather was noth ing when compared to the freezing reception he received inside the meeting room. During the weeks that followed, Father Sante made occasional visitations and provided sacramental needs upon request, yet he always felt unwelcome wherever he went.
By July, Father Sante started going door to door to see if anything could be started.
First Communion classes began as a summer program. Father Sante recalled that the first class of eight children would have nothing to do with him because of their bad experiences with the former priest-imposters. With the help of some of their parents, acceptance came, how ever slowly.
Classes were first held at St. Helena Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church on West 65th Street. When some of the children complained to Father Sante that they had too far to walk, he looked for a place on West 69th Street to hold Catechism classes. Through the generosity of Mrs. Santa Fasano, her family opened the doors of their West 69th Street home to the children and Father Sante. The children received Holy Communion at St. Rocco Church on a rainy Sunday, September 24, 1924, the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy.
Assistant pastor Father Martin also said. Holy Mass at St. Peter Church in Lorain on Sundays. After preliminary talks, Bishop Schrembs appointed the Mercedarian Friars to the yet unnamed Holy Redeemer Church in what was then called “Big Italy” on the East Side of Cleveland. Leaving the choice up to his assistant, Father Sante announced that Father Martin would be the founding pastor of the newly established parish. Father Sante said the First Mass for Holy Redeemer Parish in a storefront on June 15, 1924. Father Martin was installed as pastor during that Holy Mass, and remained with the parish until his death on November 19, 1939.
A Temporary Home
Father Sante was slowly but surely winning the hearts of the people on the West Side. During the second week of July 1924, he was asked by some of these pious women to sing a Solemn Holy Mass in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16. Father was most grateful to God that this request had finally been made. Bishop Schrernbs, still pleasantly surprised at Father Sante’s success, immediately granted permission. This “first” was sung by Father Sante at St. Helena Romanian Byzantine Church. The pastor of St. Helena, Father Spatariu, was ever-willing to help. A Procession followed the Mass with a little statue of Our Lady purchased for the occa sion. Following the Procession, Father Sante received what he would remember as the greatest compliment of his life, when Mrs. Fasano stated, “Father, you have brought us back to Jesus. Thank you.”
Father Santo, wondering what to do with the little statue, turned once again to the Fasano family. After the celebrations, the family offered their empty storefront to house the new statue of Our Lady. Mrs. Fasano and many other ladies from the neighborhood turned the small, empty space into a beautiful little prayer chapel. With the statue of Our Blessed Mother as its centerpiece, the new mission had begun taking root. For two years, pious women gathered each morning and evening to offer Rosaries to Our Blessed Mother for the intentions of all in the neighborhood. One of these intentions was for a permanent church to be built within the neighborhood.
The Holy Mass, whenever requested, was said at this little chapel, including the second Mass in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16, 1925. An Altar of Sacrifice was made out of an old saloon table. Flowers and candles adorned the simple and poor chapel.
Meanwhile, the congregation continued to grow, family by family. Father Firmin Luna arrived from his native Peru to assist Father Sante on Christmas Day, 1925. Father Firmin later assisted Father Sante in his work with the Mission of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He remained until December 12, 1928, when he returned to his native Peru.
The first marriage ceremony performed for the people of the Detroit Avenue area was on February 16, 1926,between Mr. Carl Civirrilo and Miss Rosaria Forgia at St. Rocco Church. Mr. and Mrs. Nick Santarcangelo served as best man and bridesmaid. Baby Angelina Ciaronna (Mrs. Anthony DiBiasio), daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Donato Ciaronna, was born on November 4, 1925, and was the “first” baptism performed by Father Sante for the people from the Detroit Avenue area on February 28, 1926. Her Godparents were Mr. Michael Fusco and Miss Arminda Albano.