Questions about Catholic Priests in Ohio ca. 1871

Questions about Catholic Priests in Ohio ca. 1871

On July 15 I posted the following note on The Wade Project at WRHS facebook page:

Recreational counting of priests in Naples in the19th Century, was that a thing? Here’s Randall P. Wade on the topic in January 1871:

“On this trip it occurred to us to count the Priests who we met from our Hotel to the Museum. We did not begin until we had gone three or four blocks, but we counted one hundred and eleven of them, easily distinguished by their long black coat down to their heels and their wide brimmed black hat, slinking around like black cats, never more than two together in a place.”

A longtime colleague and material culture scholar, Bari Oyler, joined into the spirit of the post and offered up a few questions related to my original question.

Bari Oyler That opens up some compelling questions. Certainly there were already priests in northern Ohio. Were the Wades too busy in Cleveland to start counting them? Was the costuming different and therefore not so noticeable on Cleveland streets? Did transportation networks confine priests to areas of the city that the Wades did not frequent? Or were there just not enough priests in Cleveland yet to be noticeable? Or did Wade just not write about it? Well, that was a diverting exercise on a summer day. Thanks!

I in turn gave Bari’s questions to two of my WRHS Summer Public History Interns and gave them 48 hours to find some source material and compose an answer to the questions.

In order to answer the question of whether counting Catholic priests was common for the Wades, one must first know a little about the history of Catholicism in the Western Reserve. Catholics did not start arriving in Cleveland until the 1830s.  Although they were the fastest growing immigrant demographic, they did not have many places of worship.  Catholics were served by the Diocese of Cincinnati before the Diocese of Cleveland was established in 1847.  By the mid-nineteenth century, Cleveland had 50 established churches; only 8 were Catholic.  Because the majority of Catholics in Cleveland were newly arrived immigrants, churches were built in working class areas. Therefore, most Catholic churches would have been located in areas the Wades did not frequent, particularly because the neighborhood known as Millionaires’ Row was relatively insular. The two Catholic churches nearest to the Wades’ home, St. John Roman Catholic Cathedral and St. Peter Roman Catholic Church, were located on Superior Street, a part of the neighborhood the Wades were not likely to visit.  Most inhabitants of Millionaires’ Row associated exclusively with each other; they dined together, entertained one another, and called on each other. As a result, their travel to other regions of Cleveland beside the direct route to Public Square provided by Euclid Avenue was unlikely.  This would explain the Wade family’s interest in the priests at Naples.  In addition, the family spent a lot of time abroad, and when the Wades were in Cleveland, the men spent a lot of time working in offices downtown.  They would not have had the time or inclination to explore immigrant areas, much less count priests.

Although priests were frequently costumed somewhat similarly, the Wade family would not have interacted with or observed Catholic priests. In addition, evidence suggests that priests in Cleveland might have been even more noticeable than those in Italy. A photograph taken around 1870 in Illinois shows a priest wearing a large, dramatic hat and an extremely long robe. In contrast, priests in 1870s Italy were most likely wearing a style of clerical dress called abito corto, which is pictured on both a priest and a cardinal below. Abito corto blends the wide-brimmed hat and black coat (red for cardinals) that Randall describes with everyday dress–a waistcoat and trousers.

As a whole, the Wade family did not subscribe to organized religion, and were more spiritualist than anything.  There is very little mention of any kind of religion in the Wades’ personal diaries and correspondence. As is the case with most of the residents of Euclid Avenue, the Wades probably would have attended regular Sunday services in one of the many Protestant churches of the neighborhood. However, they believed more strongly in the healing powers and importance of nature–which may be why the figures of the Catholic priests stood out to them so much.


  • Armstrong, Foster, and Richard Klein. A Guide to Cleveland’s Sacred Landmarks. Kent, Ohio:         Kent State University Press, 1992.
  • Beeler, Donna. “USA – ILLINOIS – CIRCA 1870.” Shutterstock. Accessed July 16, 2015.
  • Cigliano, Jan. “The Euclid Avenue Elite Cleveland, Ohio, 1860-1910: Work, Life, and             Architecture.” Master’s thesis, Oberlin College, 1978.
  • Cigliano, Jan. Showplace of America: Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, 1850-1910. Kent, Ohio: Kent         State University Press, 1991.
  • Houck, George F., and Michael W. Carr. A History of Catholicity in Northern Ohio and the         Diocese of Cleveland from 1749 to December 31, 1900. Cleveland: Press of J.B.  Savage, 1903.
  • O’Malley, Mark. “Clerical Dress in the City of Rome in the 19th Century.” Free Republic.         September 9, 2010. Accessed July 17, 2015.
  • “Religion.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. July 22, 1997. Accessed July 16, 2015.
  • “St. Mary’s-on-the-Flats.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. May 13, 1998. Accessed July     16, 2015.
  • Saunders, William. “Why Priests Wear Black.” Catholic Education Resource Center. Accessed         July 16, 2015.
  • Wade Family. Wade Family Papers. 1862-1891.

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