The history of St. Mary of the Assumption is intertwined with the history of Painesville and Willoughby Catholic communities. Lake County was considered mission territory within the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.
Travel back in time to 1840 when the first Catholic families in Mentor walked to Painesville to attend Mass in someone’s home. Before 1850 it was normal for a priest to visit the area four times a year. In 1850 the Diocese of Cleveland appointed a resident pastor to Painesville and the first Catholic Church in the area was a converted carpenter shop. Mentor Catholic families walked to Painesville to attend Mass until 1857.
From 1857 until 1864 Mass was celebrated in Mentor in the home of William Casey of North Center Street. Ten families made up the original Catholic community in Mentor. In 1864, Mentor became a mission church under the care of St. Paul’s Church in Euclid, Ohio. Reverend Anthony T. Martin traveled on an open, hand operated section car provided by the men who worked for the railroad system. Father Martin visited the Mentor on a monthly basis to minister to the families.
Under the direction of Father Martin, plans for the construction of the first St. Mary Church in Mentor were developed in 1868. The plans were to build a structure on South Center Street made of native oak and ash trees and measuring 20’ x 40’. Construction began in the early fall of 1868 and was completed in December the same year. The seating capacity accommodated 96 people. The total cost was approximately $1,200.
The parish was comprised of twelve families. The financial burden was significant to these people who had limited material means but possessed a strong commitment to the future of St. Mary of the Assumption parish.
In 1875, Father Martin’s monthly visits were discontinued due to poor transportation from Euclid to Mentor. It was at this time that the pastor of the Painesville parish was appointed to St. Mary’s. Then in 1898, the Mentor Catholic community was transferred to the care of the Willoughby parish.
Around 1910, Mentor became a summer retreat for Cleveland’s rich and famous. Wealthy businessmen constructed large homes with all the amenities of the era for their families. They brought their wives, children, and servants out of the city for the summer to enjoy the countryside.
Electricity was added to St. Mary’s church in 1911 and by 1914, there were sixteen families in the parish. However, during the summertime, the little wooden church overflowed with the summer crowds. People would stand outside the church and look in through the windows during mass.
In 1922, Father William P. Thorpe, an assistant priest in Willoughby, was given complete care of the Mentor Catholic community. Father Thorpe purchased 2 1/4 acres of land for $20,000 on the northeast corner of Hart Street and Mentor Avenue in 1923. St. Mary’s former rectory and administrative offices were located in the house that was on the property purchased by Father Thorpe. In 1973, the same house was moved across Mentor Avenue and placed next to the school and continued to be the rectory for the parish until May 2007. A barn, which was also located on the property purchased by Father Thorpe, was torn down and the well-preserved lumber was saved to build a new church in 1933.
Finally in 1927, Cleveland Archbishop Joseph Schrembs designated the Mentor territory a parish and appointed Father William Thorpe as the first resident pastor of Mentor. At this time, St. Mary’s parish consisted of 50 families. Mentor was growing and transportation improved with the interurban cars that traveled on tracks from Cleveland to Ashtabula along Route 20. The automobile shortened travel time when the weather cooperated. In 1930, the combined population of Mentor Village and Mentor Township was 3,542 people.
In 1933, in spite of the hardships of the Depression, Father Thorpe began construction of a desperately needed larger Catholic church in Mentor. He obtained a loan of $25,000 from the Ladies Catholic Benevolent Association and ground was broken in September 1934. To minimize the costs of construction, Father Thorpe dispensed the general contractor and assumed the entire responsibility himself. He received invaluable assistance from parishioners who were architects and subcontractors. Reclaimed lumber and brick were used in building the new church. The final dimensions of the church were 80′ x 35′ and included a side and rear addition. The structure included seating for 300 people. The total cost of the newly constructed church was $19,440. This building is presently occupied by PNC Bank across the street from the current St. Mary of the Assumption church.
In 1937, Father Thorpe was transferred and Father Daniel O’Shea succeeded him. Father O’Shea retired in 1940 due to failing health and was replaced by Father Michael Moriarty. Father John Farrell was appointed pastor in June 1942. Father Farrell was transferred in 1950 and Monsignor George Whitehead was named pastor. However, under Father Farrell’s direction, a mortgage of $25,000 was retired and twenty-one acres of land were purchased. The farmhouse on this purchased land was remodeled and furnished as a convent for four Ursuline nuns who were sent to teach in the parish school. In the fall of 1952, St. Mary of the Assumption School opened its doors. The school began with eight classrooms and 113 children.
In the 1950′s the church basement was used for many spaghetti dinners and fish frys. St. Mary of the Assumption parish conducted massive clothes drives to benefit the needy in post-World War II Europe. The church basement was used to collect and sort the mountains of clothes that were shipped overseas.
Monsignor Whitehead died in 1953 and Monsignor Thomas Murphy became pastor until 1956. At this time, the population of Mentor and St. Mary of the Assumption parish was growing. Monsignor Murphy had increased the number of Sunday Masses, but the parish church built in 1934 and accommodating 300 people become inadequate. Due to the increase of new families, the school was unable to accommodate more children at this time. In 1956, Father Joseph Dreher was appointed pastor and under his direction, festivals and bazaars were organized to raise funds to add eight classrooms and an auditorium-gymnasium to the school. The auditorium had a seating capacity of 650 people and also besides a gymnasium, served as a cafeteria and meeting hall for various parish groups. On Sundays and Holy Days it was also used as a church. By 1957, the Catholic population of our parish had increased to 1,350 families. It wasn’t long before Sunday Masses were again standing room only. Crowds lined the aisles and halls for each Mass even though there were eight Masses celebrated every Sunday. Again, a new church seemed to be the only answer.
In 1960, the combined population of Mentor Village and Mentor Township reached 21,650 people and in 1963, Mentor Village and Mentor Township consolidated to become the City of Mentor. During these times, Father Dreher’s organized a pledge drive and encouraged a tithe from the parishioners.
After eight years of planning, securing funds and building, the current St. Mary of the Assumption church was completed and dedicated in 1964. The cost of construction was $400,000. The newly constructed site included 23 rows of read oak pews which seat 1, 200 parishioners, John Winterich Company glass windows imported from Germany, and a 9’ cross above the main alter made of Japanese mahogany. The image of Christ on the cross is 6’ long and carved from linden wood. At this time, there were 1,800 families in the parish, 950 students in the day school and 750 public school children who attended religion classes at St. Mary’s.
Father Dreher served as pastor until 1966 and was succeeded by Father Albert Karper until 1967.
Monsignor Michael Ivanko succeeded Father Karper until August 1971. Father Nicholas Novosel was appointed pastor in the fall of 1971 and served through 1977. During Father Novosel leadership the two school buildings were connected with an enclosed hallway and the rectory built in 1915 was relocated to the south side of Mentor Avenue and placed next to the school building and the old church and property was sold to National City Bank.
In March of 1977, Father Wilfred Smith became the pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption. In the same year, the Diocese of Cleveland decreed a change in parish boundaries in Lake County. St. Mary’s original boundaries extended north to Lake Erie, south to St. Mary of Chardon, east to Heisley Road, and west to Immaculate Conception Parish in Willoughby. The new boundaries gave the northern parts of St. Mary’s parish to St. Bede the Venerable parish, western and northern parts were given to St. John Vianney, and the southern areas were given to Divine Word Catholic Church. The boundary changes the boundary decreased the number of families at St. Mary’s to 1,225.
In the 1980′s, the Kindergarten classroom was moved from the church basement to the Sunshine Room within the school and the classrooms were increased to meet the needs of student enrollments.
In 1988, St. Mary’s Adoration Chapel was established and parishioners committed to a specific hour to spend in prayer on a regular basis in the chapel. This spiritual practice, continuing today, blesses the individual and the entire parish.
The population of Mentor continued to grow in 1990 to 48,960 and the number of families in the parish climbed to 1,720. In 1992, Farrell Hall was added to the school and dedicated in honor of Father John Farrell who purchased the land where our present church and school are located.
On December 31, 1999, St. Mary’s Parishioners gathered outside the church doors and paraded into the church while ringing hand-held bells as the church bells rang at midnight in celebration of the first Mass of the new millennium. At the turn of the century, there were more than 2,100 families in the parish. It was also at this time that plans were announced to refurbish the school, again adding classrooms, reconstructing the old gymnasium into a new library and science center and constructing a new gymnasium now known as the Weaver Activity Center. In order to accomplish these plans, a Millennium Capital Campaign for financial pledges began. The theme of this fundraising endeavor was Building and Growing Together in Faith and Love.
After 25 years of service, Father Wilfred Smith retired in December of 2002 and was succeeded by Father Thomas Elsasser. The Weaver Activity Center was completed and dedicated by Bishop Martin Amos the same year.
The Vibrant Parish Life Phase I, began in 2005. All parishioners were asked to assess the current needs of the parish and envision steps for moving into the future. The need for a gathering area close to the church and a new Pastoral Care Center were the most common suggestions that emerged from the parishioner assessment. In 2006, Vibrant Parish Life Phase II began with a capital campaign titled Vision for the Future. Parishioners were requested to make financial pledges that would enable the parish to move forward to help accomplish the parish goals and vision of the future. Once again parishioners stepped forward, firm in their commitment and dedication to our parish family, and raised the funds for the construction of a new pastoral care offices and parish-gathering center began. Vision for the Future Phase III includes the revitalize our church building. It was estimated that $2.5 million is needed to complete all phases of the Vision for the Future program.
St. Mary of the Assumption parish often reaches out to others in need. In 2006, St. Mary volunteers cooked and served 6000 meals to the hungry and homeless of Cleveland. This was accomplished through the St. Patrick’s church and Franklin Circle hot meals program. In addition, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of our parish served approximately 127 individuals and families. They distributed 430 bags of food from the St. Mary’s food pantry. Our St. Vincent de Paul Society contributes funds each month to the St. Patrick’s hot meals program and Christ the King Parish Food Pantry in the inner city. Parishioners also volunteer at Christ the King Parish Tutoring Program in East Cleveland.
In 2007, Bishop Anthony Pilla dedicated the new Pastoral Care Center and Gathering Center. Today there are over 2,400 families in our parish, more than 450 students in Kindergarten through eighth grade enrolled in our day school and more than 200 students enrolled in the Parish School of Religion. Also in 2007, St. Mary of the Assumption parish family celebrated 150 years of service and presence in the City of Mentor and the Diocese of Cleveland.
We, the family of St. Mary of the Assumption, are the living loving followers of Jesus Christ. We read of Him in the Gospels and commit our lives to His teaching. This is no small task. We refresh ourselves through prayer and the sacraments. We bring a wondrous message of peace and love that our World thirsts for. This is our mission. We follow in the footsteps of all those who came before us in our parish. We honor their faith and dedication and their farsightedness. They planned for the future of St. Mary of the Assumption and anticipated our arrival and the needs of the parish. We can do no less for those who will follow us.
- Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Archives Department
- Mentor: A Retrospective by Janice Habinski and Ronald L. Prosek
- The First 200 Years, published by the Mentor Bicentennial Committee/Old Mentor Foundation
Compiled and written by Angela Kovitch. Edited by Nicole Bollinger.