I could be in Krakow, Poland, admiring the magnificent Saint Mary’s Cathedral, where Pope John Paul preached, or in Prague, Lviv, Budapest or Rome, Italy. But I am in old downtown Toledo, Ohio, marveling at St. Patrick’s Historic Catholic Church, one of the oldest in the city. I’ve passed it many times, taking my daughter to and from work. Today I stopped in to take a closer look.
It’s a Gothic cathedral, in the European tradition, smaller but as grand as any I've seen around the world. It has a magnificent 240 foot spire, a complex cylander-shaped beamed ceiling supported by marble columns, a stunning nave, detailed carvings and an elegant entryway, and at least 10 stained glass windows. The church goes back to the early 1860s and the founding of the city. Fire destroyed the original site in the early 1860s; construction on the present church began in 1892.
Today St. Patrick’s is surrounded by public housing, warehouses, industrial sites and trashy lots. It’s seen fire and rain, dwindling numbers of parishioners, urban blight and neighborhood deterioration. It has survived every tragedy to emerge stronger than ever.
After a 1980 fire, the grand copper-domed steeple was rebuilt, soaring into the heavens, summoning the guardian angels who have protected it through the ages. The church has a new terrazzo tile floor inlaid here and there with Irish shamrocks, testimony to its Irish Catholic roots in mid-nineteenth century Toledo. It has a new organ and, as important, strong organizational support, a preservation committee, well-attended weekly services and a myriad of activities. A firefighters’ memorial adds an important element to the church's interior, and reflects St. Patrick's ongoing commitment to the city's workers.
Irish immigrants “built the city from the bottom up,” one history says. They came to the Midwest hoping to farm, but ended up working as laborers. The Irish built the Miami and Erie Canals, then the railroads. They may have been “more interested in saloons than in churches,” as a church historian puts it, but the Irish newcomers, here as elsewhere, built their community around the church. It was their centerpiece, their refuge and salvation. Irish women, who worked as maids or in domestic services, made sure of it.
St. Patrick’s glistens in the summer sun against a blue sky and floating clouds. It looks peaceful and elegant, an oasis in an ever-changing urban landscape. Through good times and bad, St. Patrick’s has remained a steadfast sentinel to persistence and to Toledo’s Irish heritage and early history.