Sister Ann Kilbane describes the history and operations of Saint Coleman's Catholic Church and School.


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Kilbane, Ann (interviewee)


Horn, Phil (interviewer)


Detroit Shoreway



Document Type

Oral History


63 minutes


Phil Horn [00:00:01] This is April 23, 2006, we're considering Saint Colman's Roman Catholic Church, as a part of our study of the Detroit Shoreway area. I am Phil Horn of CSU student who had a hobby of visiting historical places, churches, cathedrals in England while in the U.S. Air Force 68 to 70 in cooperation with Cleveland State University, a rare privilege to have with us Sister Ann Kilbane, whose parish life coordinator of Saint Colman Church. She is here to tell us something about Saint Colman's church history and its place in the community here. Let's see. First question. What influence on Saint Colman church does past Irish history have?

Ann Kilbane [00:01:01] Well, saying Colman Church was founded to serve the immigrants who came here in great numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century. They came, as you know, because of poverty in their own country. They followed their older brothers and sisters and grandparents and aunts and uncles here to Cleveland. Most of the people on the west side of Cleveland are from the west of Ireland, in Achill. And so we trace our roots back to Achill.

Phil Horn [00:01:32] I notice there are quite a few items that were made in Ireland white marble and so on what influence does that have on the Irish history here?

Ann Kilbane [00:01:49] Well, our second our second pastor, Father O'Leary, was the one who built the church. And if you recall that, and this was the experience of all immigrants, that when they first came over, there was a lot of prejudice. They experienced a lot of prejudice from the people who had come before them. And that was very true of the Irish as well, that there were a lot of stereotypes about the Irish as lazy, good for nothing. And Father O'Leary wanted to show that the Irish were just as talented and gifted as the Italians were, especially in during the carving of the marble. So Father O'Leary went to Italy and purchased marble and had some of it sent to Dublin. And in Dublin, Irish craftsmen carved the communion rail. Very beautiful communion rail that incorporates symbols of the Eucharist, as well as stories of history from history and prehistory of topics relating to the Eucharist. For example, there was there is one of St. Patrick giving communion to the High King's daughters. There is another of Abraham sacrificing his son, Isaac, and others like that from the Old and the New Testaments. Also carved in Dublin was the baptismal font, which we recently moved from an area outside the main part of the church into the church itself. And truly, those are very beautiful. But he also left some of the marble in Italy and the altars were carved there, as well as the statues of the saints that are scattered throughout the church.

Phil Horn [00:03:35] I see two of the prominent at the main altar are Saint Colman and St. Patrick.

Ann Kilbane [00:03:41] Of course, sure and St. Patrick is the saint that is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, early fifth century. And as you know, as a child, he had been kidnaped from his home somewhere on the continent and brought to Ireland as a slave. At some point in his early adulthood, he escaped, went back home, became a priest, and was assigned as a missionary to the Irish. Saint Colman lived several hundred years after St. Patrick, but was also a very prominent Irish saint. And in fact, there are ninety some Saint Colmans in the Irish history are saying Colman is Saint Colman of Cloyne, which is an Irish spot near Cork in Ireland in the southern part of Ireland. Saint Colman is pictured with holding a building in his hand, and that represents the fact that he was known as a builder. He founded many monasteries and churches in Ireland. And Father O'Leary came from Cork Cork, where Saint Colman worked so hard.

Phil Horn [00:04:52] St. Patrick is holding.

Ann Kilbane [00:04:54] St. Patrick is holding his bishop staff. Yes, because he was the bishop. A bishop. Yes. And you'll see represent representations of him all over. He's a very prominent Catholic, Irish saint.

Phil Horn [00:05:11] There have been changes in the church membership since the Irish. Today, could you tell us something about the church membership and how its changed since the founding?

Ann Kilbane [00:05:22] Mm hmm. Well, since the founding in the early 50 or 75 years of the parish's existence, membership was primarily Irish. Not completely, but mostly. Then, that began to change with the changing of the culture in our city and in all the cities in the United States. People after the Second World War, many of the returning veterans went to college. College they probably would not have gone to. But for the benefits that they earned fighting, they got their college degrees, they became doctors and lawyers, became much more prosperous and moved out of the city into the suburbs. In our case, continually west, that left space for poor people to come in. And so our neighborhood now is much more ethnically diverse and also has fewer Catholics in it than it had at its beginning. And so we have this big, beautiful church that is rarely filled, but is still a big, beautiful church. So that's that's a significant change for us here at Saint Colman's. Our school closed in 1970 and our children went to neighboring schools. Now some of those neighboring schools have closed and consolidated. So generally, I think our churches are experiencing its decline because of the changing population. However, within the past number of years, a number of folks have started coming back. The highways that brought them away from the church has is bringing them back on a Sunday morning and they helped support the church, which is a great blessing for us. They supplement what our own parishioners who live in the neighborhood can do.

Phil Horn [00:07:17] I know that this church has not recieved any money from the Diocese. Do you want to comment on that?

Ann Kilbane [00:07:27] Well, it it's important that to the Diocese is that churches maintain their own viability. Actually, the Diocese has given us some support and the support. Most recent support was that they underwrote a loan that we took out for to replace our church roof. So and that was a big help. And they have they offered at the time to pay the interest on that loan. So our responsibility is to pay the principal and they help us by paying the interest, which is just grand, but that that responsibility is still ours to keep it going day by day by day, and without the help of our parishioners, we just couldn't do that. So we we try to use all the facilities here on the on the parish grounds to their utmost and hope that will help us continue.

Phil Horn [00:08:30] Well, let's see. The members don't all live here then I take it from what what you said. What can you tell us about that?

Ann Kilbane [00:08:39] Sure, just under half of our parishioners live in the geographic boundaries of our parish, which go from 54th street to about 98th and from the lake to Clark. The others lived south in Brooklyn and Old Brooklyn. They live out on the far west side along Rocky River Drive, St. Patrick's, and Our Lady of Angels. And they live in the western suburbs: Rocky River, Bay Village, Fairview Park. And most of them have had some connection here with Saint Colman's, if not themselves and their parents or their grandparents. So it's a matter of their coming home. So they feel that connection. They're not strangers.

Phil Horn [00:09:25] Would you say that some of this connection is also the Irish collection?

Ann Kilbane [00:09:31] Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Yes, I think so. Saint Colman's, St. Patrick's, and St. Malachi's are the three Irish churches that are left here in the Diocese. And so, yes, I think I think that's a big part of it. People come here and they see names that that are familiar, that are in their own families. And once a year on the West Side, Irish American Club starts the St. Patrick's Day celebration with a mass here. And that brings a lot of people. And then some of them come back.

Phil Horn [00:10:05] It was reported in The Plain Dealer that it was full. Is your?

Ann Kilbane [00:10:08] It absolutely. Every year it's filled, all the seats are filled, people lined the aisles, and even then, there's not always room. So they come on downstairs to the hall or they wait outside until mass is over. Yeah, it's, uh. It's kind. I assume it's kind of like the way it was at that when we had a membership of 5000 plus families here.

Phil Horn [00:10:33] How long ago was that? The 5000?

Ann Kilbane [00:10:36] It's probably the '50s. I would say by the late '50s, it started to change.

Phil Horn [00:10:44] Well, let's see. We have today a senior citizen a senior center. Why did the church build the senior center to replace the elementary school? From my pictures, I get it was also the rectory.

Ann Kilbane [00:11:01] Well, that's right. There was this. Our first school building. Our first permanent school building was in the space where Colman Court is now. As you said, a senior citizen residence that came down in the late '70s and we had a great grassy space there to take its place. We had hoped there are a lot of older people living in our neighborhood, people who raised their families and still live in the houses where they raised their families. Houses that are became much more of a challenge for them to take care of than it had been 30 or 40 years ago for them. And so we were hoping that if we could provide this senior housing for them, they could stay in the neighborhood that they had spent so many years in and that they still loved and free up the houses where they currently live for larger families to come in and use. And so that was our rationale behind approaching our Catholic Charities and asking about the feasibility of putting a building in there. And as it happened, only one parishioner actually moved in. Although many of the people who have moved in since have joined the parish, but originally it was just one of our parishioners.

Phil Horn [00:12:18] Is your observation that the age of the people in the general parish here have gotten a little bit older?

Ann Kilbane [00:12:26] Yes, that's true. And I think that's probably true of many of the churches of the parishes in the city of people. Yeah, I'd say that's true.

Phil Horn [00:12:42] Do you have any other comments on what you visualize the senior center will play here in the future? Because obviously that's a change there.

Ann Kilbane [00:12:58] Yes, yes. Yes, it does. Well, what I'm hoping to see is that we'll be able to provide or the neighborhood will be able to provide more services for them. This particular area of 65th and Madison and Lorain is sadly lacking in amenities like restaurants or doctors or any of those services that would be used by seniors. And I would hope that maybe the presence here of Colman Court would attract some of that back into the neighborhood.

Phil Horn [00:13:31] That would be a drawing card for that.

Ann Kilbane [00:13:32] Kind of a built-in audience over there.

Phil Horn [00:13:38] What activities are going on in the church buildings that benefit the church, the members, and/or the community?

Ann Kilbane [00:13:48] Let me start with the community, the broader group we have on our staff, a full-time outreach minister, who does just that, who serves the needs of the neighborhood, not just the parishioners, but anybody who lives in our neighborhood. And when I say serves the needs, we are able sometimes to give people money for security deposits to pay for a bill to get utilities turned back on, to help folks get medicine that they urgently need and they are. And they don't have the necessary coverage. A family that was recently burned out of their home. We were able to step in and help them find a new place and then tap a lot of resources and a lot of connections to get furniture and clothing for them to replace what they lost. We're very much involved in the neighborhood with our through our outreach program. Currently, we're rehabbing a house on one of the streets nearby, a house that we purchased for a dollar and solely with volunteer labor are putting it back together again. They gutted the insides and put in all new heating system, electrical, plumbing. And we hope to provide that to a family at very reasonable rent. Actually, what would be called a subsidized rent. So that that's our hope for that. Housing. Affordable Housing is such a need in the whole city, but especially in the city neighborhoods. So those are the things we do for the outreach and of course, we're involved, too, with Colman Court. The residents there, if they have a need, are free to come. We have our fundraisers are geared to the neighborhood. We have a rummage sale every year. We have bake sales. We have little gift sales. The things that will, things that will help the people in the neighborhood if they want to shop a little inexpensive places a couple of times a year, Christmas time. And in fact, we're having one of the first weekend in May that we're calling a May sale, where we have little things that people can buy for Mother's Day, for graduations and such things. We have a Bible study that meets on Sunday mornings. We have religion classes for the children, for our own parishioners. The children belong to the parish.

Phil Horn [00:16:27] Is this over in the.

Ann Kilbane [00:16:28] Over in the school building, the corner school building, yes, we call that the new school, even though it was built in the '20s. It was built so much later than everything else on the property that that always was called a new school. On the second floor, is a Hispanic social service agency called El Barrio, and that's been there for about 15 years. And that provides job training and English as a second language. All kinds of enculturation services for newly arrived Hispanic immigrants. It's wonderfully successful. On the first floor, we have an organization called The Seeds of Literacy, which was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph and provides literacy, G.E.D. math, math improvement, reading skills for adults. And now both those organizations offer their services free for the neighborhood. And we're very blessed to have them in the old convent where the sisters lived up to about a year ago. The old convent, the convent was built for 22 sisters. And in that for a while, up until about the '40s or the '50s, it was filled. Now there are fewer sisters. And so we, three of us left last year. And now it's being used by a group of women who are in recovery from addiction again. They it's a place that has a lot of sleeping area and common rooms, which is just perfect for that kind of service.

Phil Horn [00:18:08] So its another item that you serve the community with?

Ann Kilbane [00:18:14] Mm hmm. And a good use for the buildings. Yeah.

Phil Horn [00:18:19] The church itself has committees that work on this or them?

Ann Kilbane [00:18:23] Oh, sure.

Phil Horn [00:18:23] Would you tell us a little bit?

Ann Kilbane [00:18:24] Sure we have. Mm hmm. We have a couple of committees of a parish council which every church, every parish has its representative of about 12 to 15 members who help, who give advice. And when we ask for it, who reflect to us the feelings of the parishioners about various subjects, we depend a lot on the parish council. We have a finance council who help us prepare the budget and monitor the budget through the year. Recently, we set up a property committee to help give us some advice about the best way to use the various aspects of the property, the buildings, the unused space. We desperately need parking when the church was founded and built in the early part of the 20th century. People didn't drive anywhere. They walked or they took the bus and now everybody drives everywhere. And so we're very short of parking places. So so that was that's the responsibility of that committee.

Phil Horn [00:19:31] So, the committee is looking into improving the parking situation, which is kind of at a minimum although my observation is you have some here.

Ann Kilbane [00:19:41] We have some but it's see it's away from the hub of activity during the day. There's so much activity in the school building with El Barrio and Seeds of Literacy. And so folks want to park near where they are. So, yeah. So their responsibility is to help us make optimum use of the property.

Phil Horn [00:20:01] What community organizations is St.Colman's Church that's community organizations. Are you working with to improve the community?

Ann Kilbane [00:20:12] Well, we work very closely with Detroit Shoreway, whom you know, and there are many church related organizations as well that West Side Ecumenical Ministry runs several hunger centers throughout this throughout the West Side. We tend we do not. We try not to duplicate services that other groups provide. So we do not have a food pantry here because West Side, West Side ecumenical ministry provides a food pantry. We. There is a shelter West Side Catholic center that provides food and clothing for street people, for poor people. That is down on Lorain Avenue, about 30th Street. And so we try. We don't provide that. Occasionally people will give us clothes and then we give those away. But generally, we don't. We don't do that. So. So we try to try to fit in with the services, not to duplicate them, but to provide what we can provide. That's not being done anywhere else. And so I think Kelly, who is our outreach person, does that with helping to pay the bills, helping to. And the other way things we talked about earlier.

Phil Horn [00:21:24] Many churches gather some of the things you mentioned. Do you? And give them to those organizations?

Ann Kilbane [00:21:35] Oh, sure. People will often call us to tell us they have some furniture that they would like to donate. And so we direct them to either the Vincent de Paul Society or the West Side Catholic Center rather than keep it here ourselves. There's always a storage problem, you know. But those two are set up to to handle those, to receive them and then to distribute them. And so then we refer people to those places as well. If somebody comes and needs something, needs a piece of furniture. We send them there.

Phil Horn [00:22:04] Going back to the membership and so on, do you have ethnics attending as part of the church?

Ann Kilbane [00:22:16] We have a number of Hispanics, people mainly from Central America. It's very interesting how it seems that when people from Latin America come here. Well, I suppose the Irish did the same. They they tend to to be together. The Mexicans worship at the same church and the Puerto Ricans at a different church. And we have a number of Central Americans here. We have several families from Africa who were really relocated through Catholic Charities, one from Liberia, another from the Congo. We have a couple Romanian families. The one family that came about four or five years ago had such an interesting story. The mother's brother is a priest and he had studied in Detroit and one hundred. When we celebrated at our hundredth anniversary, we had many memorial coins done with picture of our towers. And somehow he had one of those. And one day when the family came, they were driving down 65th Street. They were living in Old Brooklyn at the time and they saw the two towers. And they remembered that from that. That coin that they had. So they stepped in and they registered here. And now they come to church here. And they have two sons who are one's in college. The others in high school. And they're doing just wonderfully well. They live in far West Side now in Westlake, but they still come back to church here.

Phil Horn [00:23:55] Do you have a number of people, other cultures or backgrounds other than Irish that have membership or that attend here?

Ann Kilbane [00:24:05] Oh, sure. We've always had a spillover of Germans and Italians, the Germans from St. Stephen's and the Italians from Mount Carmel. So, yes, there is that. Actually, we're not we're not so Irish anymore. We're we're just. A diverse group.

Phil Horn [00:24:27] You mentioned St. Stephen's here which is 54th that used to be the boundary when they established the parish. Would you tell us some kind of I guess some kind of information on the influence the activity that you have with that church being there?

Ann Kilbane [00:24:49] Sure.

Phil Horn [00:24:50] Both historical churches, of course.

Ann Kilbane [00:24:52] We are. Yes, we are both historical churches both built. Both churches are very beautiful and very different. St. Stephen's was founded as a German parish and in the history of the dioceses. My I learned this recently that geographic parishes where those parishes where the parishioners spoke English and other parishes were formed that had no boundaries, no territorial boundaries for the people who spoke a different language. So so really St. Patrick's on Bridge finished their westernmost boundary is 54th Street, and that's where we pick up. But St. Stephen's is right on 54th street. And of course, the people who would live around it, whether they were German or not, would tend to go to that church. And we still kind of spillover into one another. St. Stephen's closed their school after we closed cars, but Metro Catholic was formed by the Sisters of Notre Dame, who taught at St. Stephen's and St. Michael's and St. Boniface up on Denison. They form Metro Catholic and as a neighborhood school. And so the children in our neighborhood who want to go to Catholic school, go to Metro Catholic. So there's that connection with the children. And again, we supplement each other. If somebody comes to our door, to their door for help and they can't help them, then they might send him over here and vise versa.

Phil Horn [00:26:28] Which then leads to my next question, do your churches work together on various local issues and community needs?

Ann Kilbane [00:26:37] We do. Father Franz, the pastor at St. Stephen's is very, very active in the block clubs Detroit Shoreway and the block clubs and as are we. So. So we're both constantly working to try to better the neighborhood. There is an initiative in the Diocese now called Vibrant Parish Life or Bishop Pilla is encouraging the city church while all the churches, all the parishes to talk to one another about sharing staff and sharing programs, recognizing that they're not as many Catholics here as there were when these churches were built so many years ago. So. So we are talking with some of the neighborhood churches about sharing. We're in that stage now.

Phil Horn [00:27:30] Well, let's see. What role today is St. Colman's playing in the improvement of the Detroit Shoreway area?.

Ann Kilbane [00:27:39] Well, we're very active in the block club in which St. Colman's is located. In fact, they meet here every month. EcoVillage, which is sponsored somewhat by Detroit Shoreway, although it has a broader base than that. We're right in the middle of EcoVillage. I don't know if you you've come across that in your your travels. It's it's a movement where the folks who conceived this hope to make an area self-sufficient, a green area, so to speak, so that the townhouses that were built on 58th Street over there are green townhouses. They use as many features as they possibly can. That will help the environment. And they meet here. And we were part of that setting that up as well. We've provided space for the RTA meetings when we were planning. When the new rabbit station was being planned, they met here and we make our facilities available when they need a big space up at the center.

Phil Horn [00:28:58] Well, let's see. What nearby changes and you just mentioned the RTA Rapid Station on 61st Street will help St. Colman's in the area.

Ann Kilbane [00:29:12] Well, as you say, that that helps a lot and that helps that helps the programs that we provide. It makes it more accessible to people. The bridges are being replaced in the neighborhood. Just last summer, the West 65th Street bridge that connects Lorain Avenue to Detroit was open. That had been closed for a year or two. So that's a great change that's happened here. And then there's another bridge, it's closed now along Madison. That's doomed to be repaired, replaced and repaired.

Phil Horn [00:29:52] There are quite a few orange barrels around.

Ann Kilbane [00:29:52] Yes, there are.

Phil Horn [00:30:00] The people work in different places. Could you give us an outline or an idea of where the parishioners are working or what they do?

Ann Kilbane [00:30:14] Well, let me give you a little history on that. One of the reasons that this neighborhood grew so quickly and so densely was all the manufacturing that was around here just south of us. There were all kinds of breweries and the stockyards and north of us was American Greeting, Westinghouse, big plants like that. And so people could walk to work. And that helped the growth of the neighborhood. Well, as those closed and moved and relocated, jobs became more of a problem for people. And I don't think that there is any specific kind of work that our parishioners do. They they work where they can.

Phil Horn [00:30:59] They may travel a little bit for work?

Ann Kilbane [00:31:01] Yeah.

Phil Horn [00:31:08] There is a time when you had minstrel shows here. I understand. Are those going on or do you have any other events that they have replaced now that are bringing people here?

Ann Kilbane [00:31:23] Now, those were pretty prominent in the '40s, maybe the late '30s, '40s and '50s. And it was the social dramatic club who put on plays, as you said. And the Colman Club was another group that did that. The the pastor during the war years, Monsignor Martin, worked very hard to keep in touch with the men and women who were in service. And he he started a paper called the Jeep that he saw that he sent far and wide, letting people know how folks were, what they were doing, where they were serving. And that kept all those people connected to St. Colman's during the war years. And when they came back, they wanted to stay connected. And the associate pastors were a great blessing for the parish in those postwar years. They they built on that and they kept the young people together with the social dramatic club and with plays and social outings and things that has died away with the movement of people away.

Phil Horn [00:32:34] But the era for that was World War II.

Ann Kilbane [00:32:38] Yeah. The '40s and '50s. And most of those people now are are very old or have passed on. But their children, their children are active and they talk about the memories their parents had with those organizations.

Phil Horn [00:33:01] Do you have any unusual or interesting events that have occurred here at the church that would be interesting to us to hear about?

Ann Kilbane [00:33:11] Well, let me tell you about last year when we celebrated our 125th anniversary. We did a lot of things. We wanted to talk about our history, but we also wanted to talk about what St.Colman's is now. We we had a few. Should we shut the doors or? We had some. Sure. Thank you. Sure. OK. We had we had a couple of events where we had some speakers come in and talk about the early days of the parish. Judge Rep Ray Pianka, who's the housing court judge, was one of them. One of his avocations is the history of the neighborhood. And he has some great stories about the gangs that formed here and some of the old characters. Tim Barrett, a person who lives in the neighborhood, has made his hobby a study of the churches in the area. And he knows so much about these churches much more than I think anybody else. He walks around with all that knowledge in his head. So he came into the presentation as well. We wanted to let the neighborhood know about St. Colman's because people see this big, big, huge gray stone building. But they're never they don't come here and so it doesn't have any meaning for them. So we planned a block party. We closed off Lawn Avenue last summer and had a great party the week before. We had we distributed about 4,000 flyers to the neighborhood inviting them to the block party. And then it was after mass on a Sunday that we closed off the street. We got donations of hotdogs and had a popcorn machine and drinks and a DJ and just a great time set in. And what we wanted to do was to have the people in the neighborhood come so they could come get to know us. And I think that worked. We finished the celebration last November. With the Bishop came for a mass and again, a great party. So, we spent last year doing a lot of things commemorating our heritage.

Phil Horn [00:35:53] Are there any? Is there any other things you want to tell us about what went on a 125th, which is just a short time ago?

Ann Kilbane [00:36:02] Oh, yeah, it was. Well, some of the things that were meaningful for us that might not, you know, while they're meaningful for us. So let me tell you about them. We did a cookbook and included pictures. Lots of churches do cookbooks, but we included pictures of the parishioners with some kind of food theme, which turned out to be a pretty good thing because people bought the books for their pictures, not just for the recipes. We had a gala dinner at St. Christopher Church they gave us their hall and we had a wonderful dinner. Part of our history is the Conway family and the Conway's currently two of the Conway's now operate the Great Lakes Brewery. And they're very supportive of us because of their parents. And so they helped us celebrate too.

Phil Horn [00:37:01] The Conways had a truck in the St. Patrick's Day parade I noticed.

Ann Kilbane [00:37:08] Did they?

Phil Horn [00:37:09] Yes.

Ann Kilbane [00:37:09] Yeah. Their father, their grandfather was a policeman down in that neighborhood on 25th Street and the Angle. And they have a big mural of him on there over their parking lot. I don't know if you've ever seen it, but. Yeah. They're a credit to their family.

Phil Horn [00:37:33] Do you have any other events in your past that you'd like to tell us about?

Ann Kilbane [00:37:46] Well, I could tell you about the restoration of the church, which was in 1997?

Phil Horn [00:37:55] That would be interesting.

Ann Kilbane [00:37:56] Yeah, over the years, the church, of course, when over the years, this happens to all of us. It had gotten very dingy. There were water, you know, the plaster was falling and it was getting kind of awful looking. And in '97, we decided we were going to restore

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