I discovered St. John’s Episcopal Church, at 323 Wick Avenue as a student at Youngstown State University. The church sits diagonally across the street from Jones Hall and overlooks Smoky Hollow. Mostly, I admired the English-looking architecture from across the street. That changed when the girl I was dating (now my wife) learned of a Lenten series being held at the church on the works of C. S. Lewis, facilitated by Dr. James Houck, who we had both had for a course in English literature in the Romantic era. We really liked Dr. Houck and were fans of the works of C.S. Lewis, and the discussions would occur in the parlor of this majestic building–entirely appropriate to discuss the works of this Oxford (later Cambridge) professor.
In my later college years, I discovered the regular luncheons hosted by the church for college students, an effort of the campus ministry at Youngstown State. Eating under the Gothic arches of the Parish House dining hall, often accompanied by musical entertainment than the dining facilities on campus, with piped in music.
I was reminded of this grand structure, one of a number on Wick Avenue when I wrote recently about Paul J. Ricciuti, a parishioner of this congregation, who helps with matters of upkeep and architectural preservation of this more than century old building. I was gratified to learn that there is still an active congregation inhabiting this building, providing free community meals every Sunday through its Red Door Cafe, operating a food pantry, and hosting a Montessori school. It is most widely known in the community for its annual Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival, being held next on January 8, 2023, the Sunday after Epipany. The festival goes back to medieval times with sprites, a Boar’s Head company, carolers and King Wenceslas, woodsman with the Yule Log, shepherds and Three Wise Men. It celebrates the manifesting of the baby Jesus as the long-awaited king, worshiped by the three kings. It begins in darkness with a candle born by a sprite bringing light, symbolizing the light come into the world. I’ve never witnessed this but reading about it makes me wish I could–who knows!
This active congregation traces its history back to the 1850’s. The first Episcopal church in the Youngstown area (and the Western Reserve) was St. James Episcopal Church in Boardman, consecrated in 1829 by Ohio’s first Episcopal bishop, Philander Chase. In the 1850’s, an Episcopal parishioner, Mrs. Jesse Thornton started a Sunday school for children in her home on West Federal Street. The work grew, and moved to an old high school at the corner of Wood and Champion. Rev. A.T. McMurphy, from St. James, started holding services and on December 8, 1859. the St. John’s congregation was organized, electing officers (the vestry) to lead the church and construct a church building. Subsequently, they acquired the site of the old high school where the Sunday school met, laid the cornerstone on Easter of 1861, finished construction in 1862, and consecrated the building on October 21, 1863.
They met and grew here until a fire on December 21 of 1895 destroyed the building. That Christmas, they worshiped at Tabernacle United Presbyterian Church (the church I was baptized in growing up, when it was still located downtown). Plans had already been under way and a property acquired on Wick Avenue because the church had grown so much that it had created two mission chapels. They met at one, St. Mary’s, on Mahoning Avenue until their new building was complete.
The church hired William Halsey Wood as architect for the new building in 1896. Wood had been the architect for the first Carnegie Library and had just completed architectural work for Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh (a beautiful church building I have also visited). Unfortunately, he died as construction was beginning in 1897, with Mr. E. L. Ford, head of the building committee taking on oversight of the project. He worked out details left unspecified by Wood, and essentially became the architect of the project, which was sufficiently complete that services began in March of 1898 and the building was formally consecrated in 1900.
The rough stone interior of the building reflects the Arts and Crafts Movement that began in England in the 1870’s. This style is also evident in other Youngstown structures from some of the stone bridges in Mill Creek Park to Slippery Rock Pavilion, Ford Nature Center, the Arms Museum, and the chapel and office of Tod Homestead Cemetery. The stone interior is complimented by magnificent stained glass, including the front Te Deum window and the window in the north transept, The Resurrection Angel. In the 1950’s a series of clerestory stained glass windows were added, portraying steel mill labor.
Over the years, other additions and enhancements have been made including the St. John’s Parish House, which includes a dining hall and kitchen, the parlor where we had our C.S. Lewis group, and church offices. In 1954, new pews were installed in the church and the basement was excavated, creating six Sunday school classrooms and the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.
The year 2000, the hundredth anniversary of the building’s consecration, was celebrated with a $500,000 capital campaign for improvements in mechanicals, building repairs, and the antiphonal component for the Schlicker organ, installed in 1966. This campaign also endowed the community dinners held each Sunday. [The church’s website offers an extensive history of the architecture, from which I have drawn for this section.]
St. John’s Episcopal overlooks Smoky Hollow, once a working class neighborhood on one side and the university district on the other. It has ministered to the physical, aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual needs of a wide community, including many who are not parishioners. The COVID pandemic has led curtailed some programs, as it has for many organizations, but the church continues to be a vibrant and engaging presence on the Wick Avenue corridor. The Reverend Gayle Catinella summarizes what makes St. John’s such an inviting place:
“People come to St. John’s because it is beautiful. They stay because they feel welcome, and there are many meaningful ways to reach out in love to our broken world. We are making a difference in our community, and with your help we could do even more!”
This, to my mind, captures the character of St. John’s.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!