THE FIRST YEARS
In the early 1920’s, outward migration from the City of Cleveland to the rapidly developing Cleveland Heights area was heavy, and the communities in the Heights were growing rapidly. In 1926, there were only two Catholic parishes in the area to care for the expanding population of Catholic families – St. Ann and St. Gregory. University Heights, incorporated in 1908 as “Idlewild Village,” was renamed in 1925 when the first fund-raising efforts were initiated to build a new campus on the East Side for the Jesuits’ Saint Ignatius College, located up to that time in the Ohio City neighborhood of the Near West Side. Archbishop Joseph Schrembs, assuming that the Jesuits would soon have a residence in the Heights, asked the leadership of the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus to mission a Jesuit priest to serve as pastor in his new University Heights parish, which was to be named “Church of the Gesu” after the Mother Church of the Society of Jesus in Rome. “Gesu,” means “Jesus” in Italian.
The founding pastor of the Church of the Gesu, Father Francis Rudden, SJ, celebrated the first parish Mass on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1926, in the University Heights Town Hall with fourteen parishioners in attendance. The newly-organized parish numbered fifty-three families. Gesu Elementary School opened on September 7, 1926, in a rented duplex located on Silsby Road. The school’s first faculty was comprised on four sisters of Notre Dame. On May 29, 1927, fourteen children received their First Holy Communion at a Mass in the University Heights Town Hall. Graduation Day for Gesu School’s first eighth-graders, four girls and three boys, took place on June 19, 1927.
Better accommodations for both the church and school came in November, 1927, when the Cleveland Heights Board of Education donated three portable buildings to Gesu. These were placed on what would become John Carroll University property facing Miramar Boulevard. Two of the buildings were used for classrooms, while the third was used as a chapel. The wooden cross that graces the interior wall of the present church above the stairway to McAuley Hall was the one that stood above the front door of that first tiny Gesu Church. Nearby, a frame bungalow was built to serve as a rectory. These made up the physical plant of Gesu Parish until 1940. Father Benedict Rodman, former president of John Carroll University, served as Gesu’s pastor during this period.
BUILDING A GREAT PARISH
The 1940’s were years of great growth for the Church of the Gesu. The worshiping congregation and the school’s student body increased rapidly. The first permanent classrooms for Gesu School were built in 1940. What is now the Bulldog Gym, attached to the school building, served as the parish church until the late 1950’s. A convent was built for the sisters of Notre Dame who taught at the school. Then, additional classrooms were built in 1944 and 1948. Father Seth Walker was named pastor and was charged with completing Gesu’s building program.
The 1950’s saw the construction of Gesu Rectory and of the present magnificent church, which was dedicated in April, 1958 by Archbishop Edward Hoban. With the church in its final phases of construction, Father Francis Dietz was named to succeed Father Walker and to complete the financing of this immense construction project. A committee of parishioners, led by Mr. Hugh O’Neill, assisted the pastor in this effort.
This truly beautiful church, built with a steel superstructure to forego the need for interior pillars, was designed by Architect John E. Miller. Symbols of the Jesuit Order’s heritage are highlighted on the main altar and elsewhere in the interior exterior of the church building. The cornerstone reads “1955.” Striking photos of the church were the feature of an issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Sunday magazine in 1958. Our parish today owes a great debt of gratitude to those who worked to build Gesu Church. It is truly a strikingly stunning and unique worship space.
MEETING THE CHALLENGES OF THE TIMES
Enrollment at Gesu School peaked at 954 in 1966-67. In 1976, the parish numbered 1800 families. In 1990, there were almost two thousand households, just about the same as today. Almost 700 children are enrolled today in Gesu School’s Pre-K, Kindergarten and Grades 1-8 programs. In an era when area Catholic grade schools face reduced enrollments, and some have merged and others closed, Gesu School made a commitment to the STREAM Program, re-training faculty members in the teaching of Science, Technology, Religious Education, Art and Mathematics. In place of the familiar “lecture-demonstration” method of instruction, STREAM integrates a much more “hands-on” approach to student learning.
A commitment to excellence, along with reduced class sizes, is a sign of Gesu School’s intention to remain a vital component of our parish’s continuing Christian formation of our young people. The McAuley and Dietz Scholarship Programs are another key component of that commitment. In addition, Gesu School has been recognized as a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence” by the United States Department of Education. As part of the STREAM program, the school’s science lab was updated in 2016, and later, additional laboratory facilities were added to the school.
The parish continues to draw membership and students from several eastern suburbs, including University Heights, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Pepper Pike, South Euclid, Lyndhurst and Beachwood. A succession of pastors brought continuity and variety to the parish over the years. Among them were Fathers Dietz, Boggins, Muenzer, Lab, McAuley, and White. Many lifelong parishioners have very vivid memories of these pastors, and especially of Father Francis Dietz.
BUILDING THE FUTURE IN FAITH
During the pastorate of Father John V. White, SJ, a new course was charted in Gesu’s history. Father White directed a major building project for Gesu Parish that was called “Building the Future in Faith.” This program expanded the parish facilities to serve the needs of parishioners into the twenty-first century. It was Gesu’s first major capital campaign in more than thirty years and included incorporating the convent into the school and relocating the residence of the Sisters of Notre Dame into what had been a family home on the corner of Meadowbrook and Glendon. The old convent became a new educational center, and a new Family Center Gym with additional classroom space was added to the school. In addition, the Marian Chapel, used for weekday Masses, as well as smaller funerals and weddings, was added to the church.
In 2000, Father James Von Tobel was named pastor and completed the building campaign begun by Father White. Once again, the families of Gesu Parish rallied to support the future of the parish, contributing their time, talent, and treasure to assure a legacy of spiritual and educational excellence for coming generations. The re-purposed convent was put to good use for “PSR” (The Parish School of Religion), a catechetical and formation program for young people who do not attend a Catholic school. In addition, the new facilities included computer rooms, an adult education center and meeting rooms. During this time, as well, Ursuline Sisters served in both the school and the parish staff. The Family Center Gym is used for School, CYO and Parish Programs and Receptions. The new facilities enabled the school to become handicapped accessible for the first time.
In 2006, with Father Von Tobel’s departure, Father Lorn Snow, SJ., who had served as associate pastor, became Gesu’s youngest pastor. With a firm commitment to the Jesuit mission of service, Father Snow worked to link the parish to programs that educate and house children in the Latin American country of Honduras. Over the years, hundreds of men, women and young people from Gesu have gone there on missions and have brought the people of Honduras closer to the heart of the parish. Under Gesu’s sponsorship, various building projects and medical brigades have assisted Honduran children and families. During his years as pastor, Father Snow established an Annual Gesu Service Day. Yearly, hundreds of parishioners reach out to the City of Cleveland in order to be “Men and Women for Others.” Additionally, during the Snow years, the Church was re-roofed, the stained-glass windows were reinforced and protected, and plans were drawn up for an immersion baptismal font, installed during Lent, 2016.
Father Snow’s term as pastor ended in mid-2015. By Fall, 2016, after an interim pastorship by Father James Von Tobel, who returned for a one-year period, Father Karl Kiser, SJ, was named pastor. Upon his arrival, he instituted “listening sessions” to learn what priorities Gesu parishioners had discerned for the parish. Father Kiser worked very hard to involve younger individuals and families in the parish, and examined many programs with the assistance of the parish staff. A special priority was promoting “collaborative learning” for our student body. Renovations in the science labs and the school library followed. Gesu School continues to be strong. We work in collaboration with both the John Carroll University Campus Ministry Program and the Jesuit Retreat Center in Parma, especially in regard to Ignatian programs and retreats.
Fr. Kiser was pastor at the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic in Spring, 2020. He instituted recorded online Masses for the time period when the Diocese of Cleveland mandated that all churches be closed for an almost two-month period. He had the parish staff stay in touch with parishioners via phone and e-mail during that time. Later, when we were able to return to public worship, he worked out protocols for both the church and the school, as well as the parish office. He worked with the administration of Gesu Catholic School to find ways to keep students safe both before and after they could return to in-person instruction. It was under Fr. Kiser that Gesu began to livestream weekend Masses and other important church events.
Late in 2020, Fr. Kiser was named the provincial superior of the Jesuits' Midwest USA Province. After a few months, "Cleveland-area native" Fr. Lukas Laniauskas was named pastor and arrived in time to address the eighth-graduates in June, 2021. He continued working with the school to implement protocols designed to keep students safe and healthy even as vaccines became available for the faculty, staff, and -- finally -- the public. In November, 2021, Bishop Malesic's first visit to Gesu was at Fr. Laniauskas's installation ceremony. "Father L," as the schoolkids call him, continued to make himself available to all who sought a pastor's advice and counsel. He continued to refine school and parish Covid protocols, and he worked hard to get to know neighboring priests and pastors of other denominations in the Heights.
Our parish works to be a “Catholic Community, in the Jesuit Tradition, committed to Eucharistic Living, Lifelong Learning, and Generous Serving, all for the greater glory of God.” This is our mission statement, and our commitment to the people of Gesu Parish.