ST. GEORGE PARISH, CLEVELAND, 1895
From its beginning in 1871, Cleveland's Lithuanian community grew to approximately 1,000 members by the turn-of-the-century. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, this nucleus attracted large numbers of Lithuanian men, who emigrated to the United States to escape serving in the Russian Army. By 1915, the community had reached 10,000 members, many of whom had settled on the city's East Side, where men found jobs in the nearby steel mills. Lacking a Lithuanian nationality parish, the settlers celebrated Mass at St. Joseph Parish on Woodland Avenue.
During these early years, the community placed special significance on its Easter celebrations, at which Lithuanian priests from Chicago, Detroit, or Pittsburgh would hear confessions and celebrate Mass. In 1895, Bishop Ignatius F. Horstmann secured the services of Father Joseph Delininkaitis. Confident in the ability of Father Delininkaitis and the enthusiasm of the Lithuanian community, Bishop Horstmann established St. George Parish in September 1895.
Before the community completed work on a church, it moved its Eucharistic celebrations to St. Peter Parish on Superior Avenue. On September 8, 1898, Father Delininkaitis left St. George Parish. Under the supervision of his successor, Father Joseph Jankus, the parish purchased land at the corner of Oregon Street (now Rockwell Avenue) and East 21st Street, on which it converted an existing house into a rectory and erected a small frame church/school.
In 1903, the first St. George Church was dedicated. Following Father Jankus's departure in 1905, the community welcomed two short-term pastors—Father Matthew Plausinaitis and Monsignor Victor Paukstis. On January 29, 1907, the parish welcomed Father Joseph Halaburda.
Under the direction of Father Halaburda, St. George Parish continued to develop. In 1908, the parish secured the teaching services of the Sisters of Notre Dame and opened its school. During the next decade, the parish welcomed many Lithuanian-immigrant families, who recently had escaped the harsh conditions of the Pennsylvania coal country. Recognizing the new community soon would need a new church, Father Halaburda purchased property at the corner of East 67th Street and Superior Avenue. He, however, did not see the completion of the project, being transferred in February 1919. Under the direction of his successor, Father Vincent Vilkutaitis, the parish broke ground for the new church in 1920. Work on the building proceeded quickly, allowing the building to be dedicated in September, 1921. It was in this church, that the members of St. George Parish sought solace through the difficult years of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
With the beginning of the Cold War, St. George Parish welcomed a new generation of Lithuanian immigrants. On June 10, 1959, on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, Father Vilkutaitis retired and Archbishop Edward F. Hoban appointed Father Bernard Bartis the parish's new pastor. During Father Bartis's short pastorate, the community renovated the church. On September 14, 1961, the parish welcomed its next pastor, Father Balys Ivanauskas, who led the community through one of the most difficult periods of its history. In the wake of the Hough and Glenville Riots, many of Cleveland's urban parishes lost members and teetered on the brink of closure. St. George Parish was no exception. Due to declining enrollment and increasing costs, the parish was forced to close its school in June 1970. Discussions of the closure of the parish surfaced regularly during the next ten years. Many parishioners, however, fought to maintain the parish at least until Father Ivanauskas's planned retirement in 1980. Upon his retirement on December 23, 1980, the Diocese appointed Father Joseph Bacevice parish administrator and assigned him the task of evaluating the viability of the parish. During the next three years, St. George Parish embarked on an extensive self-study, which concluded that its primary mission was to the Lithuanian community in Cleveland and to the members of its neighborhood. In 1988, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla elevated Father Bacevice to pastor of the community, a position he currently holds. Today, the St. George community's 200 families is small by diocesan standards, with only a fraction of its members living in the neighborhood. While small, the parish recently has experienced renewed growth as some individuals rediscover their religious and ethnic roots, and others find new solace in a church which has been a part of its neighborhood for over 100 years.