In the Beginning…Our First 90 Years
A HISTORY OF FOREST HILL CHURCH, PRESBYTERIAN 1903-1993
E. T. Austen was an early member of our congregation, but refused the title “founding father.” In the warm, personal account below, he accords that honor to an early pastor of Beckwith Presbyterian Church – The Reverend A. J. Alexander – who shepherded a fledgling group of about 40 worshipers on the Heights into a committed congregation.
By March 7, 1916, the group had grown to almost 150 members and had been in its new church building at 3020 Mayfield for about seven years. The time had come to be independent from Beckwith Presbyterian, its sponsoring church. The congregation planned a Jubilee Service to celebrate that event.
Many pioneers of the congregation offered remarks that day, but only Austen’s remain. His fond description of our congregation’s origins was delivered as part of the 1916 meeting of Church Incorporation.
Early History of Cleveland Heights Presbyterian Church by. E. T. Austen, 1916
A VISION: Most anyone can follow if someone will lead. But to foresee and plan is given to only a chosen few. It is the man with vision that is able to accomplish something. In the fall of 1903, Rev. A.J. Alexander thought he saw on the Heights a splendid opportunity to start a new church work. Conditions in this locality were different then than now. Houses were few, probably not one tenth as many as now. Streetcars – well, one every half hour. Sidewalks were few and far between, mud everywhere, street lights none, families were few. There was one church, not a very live one though; church-going was not the popular thing on Sundays. If you must go to church, there were plenty of churches downtown. So you will appreciate that viewed from the eyes of today , it was not such an inviting field. Still, the vision was there.
Sundays were for gardening, cutting grass, and having your relations and friends drop in for a call, and incidentally stay all day; in other words, we did not move to the country with the thought in mind of going to church.
Still with all these disadvantages, Dr. Alexander decided he would start a church gathering, and from it, a church could be built. He called to his assistance Clarence H. Lewis, L.B. Roessing and [E.T. Austen]. I should not like to express the opinion of the other two, but can well remember that as the writer’s experience was very limited, he could not see the prospect of starting a church.
After two or three small meetings of a few of the families of the neighborhood, it was decided to raise $200.00 to meet the expenses of the first year. This was done by subscription and the amount was easily procured. The next problem to work out was a place of worship. Vacant houses were the only places available, and a house was rented on what is now known as Radnor Road. This was called the Church House. To reduce expenses, the upper floors were rented to a bridal couple. Economy was the watch word.
The services were now all arranged, only we had no music, and we were all aware of the fact that a Church without music was no Church at all. Just how it all happened, I do not remember. But I do know that Robert Cleveland was on the job with Rev. Alexander the first night and every night, rain or shine. Looking back now to those Sunday nights, the fact stands out in vivid memory of the sacrifices these two men made to make the Church take root. A piano was rented, the Mother Church gave us a pulpit and songbooks, and on the evening of Nov. 11th, 1903, the first service was held. Forty or fifty people attended service every Sunday night.
We soon had a good choir: Mrs. Townsley, Miss Mathilda Helwig, Mrs. Chas. Lewis, Mrs. Wright, Belle Helwig, Clarence Lewis, and L.B. Roessing. Mrs. Clarence [Lewis] furnished the music.
Janitors were Mr. Lewis and myself. Our duties were to see that the furnace was started and the church swept out and dusted. After [Sunday] dinner, we could be seen wending our way down Hampshire Rd. each with a half bushel basket of kindling wood and soft coal, dust rags and brooms.
After occupying the church house for about two years, it was thought best to move to the old schoolhouse, as it was then called, on Superior Road near Euclid Heights Blvd. In this building, school was held only in the upper room, so that the lower portion was at our disposal. It was not very inviting, but a little money spent on paint and decorating soon changed its dreary look, and for years, or until the present church was built, it was used for Church and Sunday School services. Those evening services seemed peculiarly fitted to their natural setting, both during the spring and early summer months, when the air seemed so full of the great outdoors, and the beautiful autumn and cold winter nights each have their recollections and have left, I feel sure, a hallowed memory in the hearts of all who gathered there. Rev. Alexander was our pastor and friend until April 1907. He planted the seed and watered it, and has lived to see it become a full-fledged church.
The following is taken from Beckwith Church Bulletin of Sunday February 5th, 1905:
The following friends from the Heights will be received at this service into our fellowship and will be constituted the Mayfield Heights Branch of the Church. The receiving and setting apart of these friends to firm a branch congregation makes this service significant, for it marks the addition of another to our group of Cleveland Churches. It is the belief of the Presbyterian Union and of those who are familiar with the field that this congregation has a most promising outlook.” [A list followed of 60 persons becoming members.]
Mr. Williamson was our next pastor and friend, and to him goes out heartfelt thanks. Rev. L.H. Royce, Rev. C.L. Zorbaugh, Rev. E.C. Young and others also had their hands to the plow, and Rev. W.J. Hutchins of Oberlin also had charge for a part of 1908. Do you wonder that the older members look back to those days as the happiest days of their church life?
Now the Church history without the Ladies Association would be lacking a most vital essential. In my opinion, the women have half of the responsibility of the church resting on their shoulders, and a large half of it too.
Preaching and holding Sunday School in the old schoolhouse wasn’t such a hard task, but conceive, if you can, a Church Bazaar and a dinner in the schoolroom. Dinner cooked in a room that, I honestly believe was not eight feet square. Serving dinner for a hundred guests in a room about half as large as the room we are now in; you can see there was not much spare room. Mrs. Sawyer and Mrs. Dickenson served as Presidents in those days, and if we could only have them [tell] their experiences, no doubt they could a tale unfold.
After the Church was successfully started, the need of a Sunday School was felt so strongly that in April 1905, a start was made with C.H. Lewis as superintendent. The records show that there was an attendance of forty-six on the opening day. Largest attendance during the year was forty-nine; average attendance, forty-one; total enrollment, fifty-two; teachers, seven; officers, four. Mr. Wright was Assistant, Miss Clara Roessing, Secretary, Miss Lorena Peter, Treasurer. In September 1909, I find the enrollment was nearly 100. Today [in 1916], 207.
Children’s Day was the day of all days in the Sunday School. I believe we thought more of it than Christmas. Coming in June when the flowers were plentiful and easy to get, we tried each year to improve on the decorations of the year before. The lower room had a very high ceiling and by stretching ropes across the upper part of the room, a ceiling or roof of flowers was made. Dogwood was used one year, but crabapple boughs and blossoms were the prettiest. The side walls were covered with the same decorations and in every window were peonies and roses. Canary birds in cages were concealed in among the branches and when at about four o’clock everything was ready for the service, the sight was one long to be remembered.
The Women’s Association put on a play called the “Emancipated Woman,” written and staged by Mrs. Ballard, with a cast of the members of the Association. Conceive if you can a stage about four feet wide raised about six inches above the floor, and a dressing room that formerly a coal room, hung with cheesecloth to cover the dirty walls. The play was a success and it took courage to face such obstacles and still keep going. The men, not to be outdone, had something they called the Hibernian Orchestra; and in the language of today, it was 95% nerve and 5% talent. Probably some here remember the sweet strains of “Annie Laurie” and “School Days.”
As the numbers of the congregation grew more and more each year, the need of a church building was felt and steps were taken to start same. A lot was purchased of Emil Preyer, on the corner of Mayfield and Preyer Roads, at a price of $5000.00 and plans and specifications for a chapel were procured, the architects being Messrs. Badgley and Nichlas. Cost of the building was to be about $15,000.00. (The 1908 cornerstone history reads “Cost of the building is to be about $12,500.00. ) The building committee consisted of the following men: Mr. W.R. Bartlett, Chairman; Mr. W.G. Spence, Mr. W.L. Droege, Mr. H.G. Dickenson, Mr. Wm. Townsley, Jr., and Mr. E.T. Austen, Ex-Officio.
Beckwith Church, now the Euclid Avenue Presbyterian Church, came forward magnificently at this time in a financial way and contributed handsomely toward the carrying forward of the enterprise, so that in April 1908 ground was broken on a lot 100 [feet] on Mayfield and 200 feet on Preyer Road, for the new church building. A chapel was erected across the rear of the lot costing about $15,000.00 without the organ, which cost $1875.00 (half of which was paid by Andrew Carnegie and the balance except $282.00 that was paid by J.D. Rockefeller, was provided by the members of the church and their friends). The installation of the organ was largely due to the untiring efforts of our good friend Mr. Thomas Dawson, who at that time was not a member of our church, but was connected with the East End Baptist Church of Cleveland. Mr. W.B. Colson, organist at the Old Stone Church, gave a recital and assisted in the dedication of the organ. Mrs. Clay Herrick became the first organist in 1909 and continued to 1930.
At the time Rev. McGaffin came in October 1908, the building was so far completed that the basement could be used and services were held in that room until the dedication day; Jan. 24th, 1909, at which service Rev. Jas. 0. Williamson, D.D., Moderator of the Presbytery, presided. By this time, the Rev A. J. Alexander, D.D. had returned from his visit abroad and preached the dedicatory sermon. Addresses were made by Rev. Andrew Meldrum, D.D. of the Old Stone Church, Cleveland, and Rev. Alexander McGaffin. At this service, an opportunity was given to those present to assist in raising funds toward the payment of the balance still unprovided for.
Right at this time, it might be of interest to some to hear regarding the financing of our church. In the early days while Dr. Alexander was our pastor, the Presbytery allowed us $500.00 per year for expenses. Instead of using this money, it became a nest-egg for a new church. The Mother Church gave us $7000.00, and we had one other large donation of $2000.00 and our own people raised a large sum so that when we dedicated the building, there was only a debt of $5000.00. Again the Woman’s Association assumed more than their share of the burden and for the last year, besides paying the interest on the loan, they have paid $500.00 on the debt itself, leaving a balance of $4500.00 still due.
On the first Sunday in September 1909, the Rev. Joseph J. Weber of Buffalo, N.Y., to whom a call had been extended in June of this year, accepted the call and took up the pastorate. Mr. Weber was a graduate of Hamilton College and Union Theological Seminary and came recommended by Pres. Francis Brown of the latter institution. Rev. Weher’s health failed which necessitated his resignation.
THE WORLD WAR I & THE DEPRESSION: Difficult Years and Hard Times
The narrative continues with remarks from the 1950 Cornerstone History. chronicling our congregation’s progress from its official incorporation as Cleveland Heights Presbyterian Church to its move to a new building and our current name.
Rev. Claflin was pastor for six years and resigned December 14, 1916 because of ill health. The church then had supply pastors until Dr. W.F. Dickens-Lewis came from Findlay, Ohio, in September, 1917, to begin his seventeen-year pastorate. The church purchased a manse at 2877 Hampshire Road for Dr. and Mrs. Dickens-Lewis. It was the same house where Rev. and Mrs. Claflin had resided.
Dr. Dickens-Lewis served as chaplain overseas in World War I. The extension to the church toward Mayfield was built in 1921. He established the first Board of Deacons May 14, 1924. He completed his pastorate in 1934 and later went to St. Cloud, Minnesota for another long pastorate which he completed in 1950.
On October 17, 1935, Rev. Clem E. Bininger was installed as our new pastor. On June 1, 1937, a new manse was purchased at 1836 Wilton Road for Rev. and Mrs. Bininger. Rev. Bininger established the class of young married people known as “The Couples Class.” On January 3, 1943, he was called to the First Presbyterian Church of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania….
[In] September 24, 1943, …Dr. C.M. Stewart of Clarion, Pa., became our new pastor. He resigned October 16, 1945, to accept the directorship of the Restoration Fund for Ohio….and Dr. Herbert Hinds, a retired minister, became our supply pastor.
The following Easter, Dr. Hinds received 25 new members which was quite a record for a church without a regular pastor. However, these new members may have had advance knowledge, for on April 5, 1946, Rev. Yoder P. Leith was installed as our new pastor. Rev. Leith had served as Chaplain in World War II after his first pastorate in Pittsburgh, Pa. The church membership has steadily increased.
October 1, 1946, a lot was purchased at the intersection of Lee and Monticello for our new church, the cornerstone of which was dedicated September 17, 1950, by Rev. Leith.
At this ceremony, the name of the church changed officially to The Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian.
So we had moved again, and renamed ourselves again. The above narrative makes those years sound dry and colorless. A great many events happened between the laying of the cornerstones first at Preyer Road and then at Monticello Boulevard that didn’t receive mention in the cornerstone histories.
At the second Annual Meeting, April 4, 1917, the minutes record 120 persons present and expenses for the past year of $4626.87. In that year, a committee of three persons was appointed to arrange for a house-to-house canvass to secure pledges of support for the Church for the coming year. By 1921, annual disbursements had nearly doubled to $8400.
During the period while Dr. Dickens-Lewis served in WWI, Mrs. Lewis provided tremendous leadership in both youth and Sunday School activities and Rev. Hinds served as Moderator and supply pastor.
After the war, church membership grew to well over 300 persons. Sunday School classes met in every conceivable corner, including the choir loft, kitchen and furnace room. As the Trustees contemplated ways to create more Sunday School space, they sought a new church location and even proposed to the Library Board that it purchase our building – but to no avail. So in 1921, they decided to build a “temporary” addition for the Sunday School, a 40′ x 80′ enclosure beside the sanctuary, with its floor at the level of the sanctuary basement. It cost $11,600. In the same year, they voted to increase the pastor’s salary to $3600.
This “temporary structure, erected during the Depression, looked like the afterthought it was, an ungraceful appendage affixed to the side of the sanctuary. The floor sagged and its maintenance was a frequent issue among the Trustees. But despite its ugly duckling profile, it proved invaluable as the site of many congregational meetings, parties and other gatherings. The Sunday evening youth fellowship of the 1920’s met there, drawing eager participants from the entire neighborhood, including many non-members. It was “the place to be” on Sunday night for the high school set.
Now we had room enough for Sunday School, also noise – plenty of it, with about 250 chairs scraping around on the bare floor. Teachers and pupils alike went home many a Sunday with headaches and frayed nerves. The Women’s Association finally took pity on us, and bought the carpeting. The cashier at Sterling and Welch’s Department Store nearly had a case of heart failure when they paid him $943.65 spot cash for it. They were accustomed to sending various statements and courteous “reminding letters” to churches with whom they did business. (HEIGHTS-TERIAN, 1939)
Subsequent to completion of the Sunday School building, the Trustees devoted several months to discussing partitions, curtains and other adjustments to make the large room more accommodating. Apparently the Women’s Association finally cured the situation with the carpeting.
This was by no means the first time the Women’s Association had come to the rescue financially. They had always supported the church Building Fund as part of their mission. As early as 1908, they increased their annual gift from $200 to $300. They completely furnished the new church kitchen including the stove. In 1918, the women offered to pay the interest on the new $12,000 mortgage (needed to improve the parsonage) and the Trustees accepted. The next year, they paid for a walk from the side of the church. And, as previously noted, they had paid the interest on the original mortgage plus a substantial part of the debt.
Many have said the Women’s Association was the strongest group in the early days of the church. Sadly, their tireless fundraising efforts and supportive strength could only diminish as more women joined the work force, a loss that will never be compensated.
In 1924, at the first meeting of the newly-created Board of Deacons, $20 was turned over to them for their work, which included ushering, taking the collection, assisting with communion preparation, distributing envelopes, participating in the Every Member Canvass, and calling at the pastor’s request.
As city amenities grew, streets and sidewalks were paved. In April 1925, City Council urgently needed five feet of church property on the west side of Preyer Road. In order to legally dedicate the road (to prepare for paving), the City proposed that those five feet simply be deeded to the city. That sounded like an outright donation, and the membership rejected this proposal. In December, the city was back with a new proposition. In exchange for the five feet, the city would halve the church’s paving and sidewalk assessment. Motion carried.
During the 20s, John D. Rockefeller divided up his private estate. Part of it became a park and everything east of Lee Road (now the Forest Hill neighborhood) was called the Rockefeller Allotment. The developer laid out the streets and all the hydrants went in. There were a few houses built on Glynn Road, some on Brewster, and three steel homes on Monticello. Homes sold for an average of $3500- $4000. But with The Depression, the whole Forest Hill development stopped and remained at a standstill until after World War II.
The race against hard times was a close one. The Trustees’ Minutes record a roller coaster ride from year to year – meetings to discuss everything from expansion and relocation to merger. Times were so difficult that during the September 1927 meeting of the Trustees, Dr. Lewis led a discussion about the wisdom of consolidating with Windermere Presbyterian Church of East Cleveland.
YOUTHFUL PASTOR BURNS MORTGAGE AND REKINDLES INTEREST: Membership and Activities Rebound
During the pastorate of Rev. Clem Bininger (1935-43), the congregation experienced a near rebirth. From an active membership of only 65 persons in the midst of The Depression, Rev. Bininger increased the congregation to 500. An energetic young preacher just out of seminary, Rev. Bininger wanted to draw young parents into membership. He was concerned about them dropping their children off for Sunday School, but not staying. So he established the Couples’ Class, a class for married adults that met in the sanctuary during Sunday School time. A couple could remain members until their combined ages reached the number 80.
The group developed a strong social component, with parties and outings in addition to its Sunday morning meetings. At the beginning, most of the members were hardly 30 years old, so the dreaded number 80 seemed a long way off. But, the fateful day came and the first couple to reach 80 was Eric and Mildred Calhoun. It is said she declared “I’m not leaving.” The group agreed unanimously that the “80 Rule” was a bad one, decided to ignore it, and continued with undiminished vigor
Rev. Bininger’s leadership attracted young adults through other new groups like the Christian Fellowship League and the Men’s Group. Unlike the Women’s Association which met during the day, CFL met in the evening to accommodate working women and young mothers. It developed a different social aspect from the Women’s Association, providing another new way to harness the talents of the women of the church. The Men’s Group was just that. It provided a vehicle for male fellowship that had been missing. The men held dinners and had speakers. The Women’s Association was hired to cater the meals. The spirit of these early groups lives on today in many forms. The Hilltoppers, The Group, the Bullsheviks, and the Pacesetters each cater to members in different decades of their lives. The 50+ Club, sponsored by the church, included both persons from the neighborhood as well as members.
Rev. Bininger’s pastorate was also the decade of the Birthday Dinners, a spring event held in the Sunday School building, the long narrow annex to the Preyer Road sanctuary which Rev. Bininger dubbed “the holy bowling alley.” At these festive family occasions, members sat at tables according to the month of their birth. Elaborate decorations included special theme centerpiece candles designed by Mary Earnest for Easter, Halloween, etc. The meal cost 75 cents, the profit going to a special mission fund of the Women’s Association.
Another festive meal was The Annual Pledge Dinner the night the pledges from the Every Member Canvass were turned in. Each member would drop his pledge card into the basket before he sat down. Later in the evening, Mike Sumwalt, who served as treasurer for many years, would stand up and individually inspect the cards. As he picked a pledge from the basket, he’d comment about its adequacy:”Well, it’s about time he increased his pledge — I know what kind of a job he has.” Sometimes you’d know who he was talking about, even though no names were ever mentioned. It could get quite amusing, because Mike would know if it was the proper amount for each pledge.
However, the most important dinner event during Rev. Bininger’s pastorate occurred on December 15, 1939 and celebrated the liquidation of the mortgage for Cleveland Heights Presbyterian Church. During his four-year pastorate, he had campaigned to reduce the church’s debt of $14,000, thus paving the way for enlarging the church. When the entire amount was finally raised, Peter Preyer, a 13-year-old descendant of the original family who owned the property, assisted Z. G. Taylor, president of the Trustees, in burning the mortgage. Speakers included Mayor Frank C. Cain of Cleveland Heights, a member of the congregation.
A NEW BUILDING AND A NEW NAME: A Time of “Digging” In
After WWII, construction picked up again. All through the 30s, the Forest Hills development had been idle. Sumac trees grew up on piles of dirt. (However, its unoccupied silent streets were an ideal place to learn to drive, and you could buy a top-of-the-line Ford for about $500.)
By 1945, the prospects for the congregation were on the upswing. Despite the untimely departure of Rev. Claire Stewart right in the middle of a new building campaign, plans for relocation went ahead. In October 1945, the Future Planning Committee (chaired by H.S. Kartscher) had made a $500 down payment on a triangular lot in The Rockefeller Allotment, the new neighborhood developing just north of the church. The congregation approved the purchase, agreeing to fulfill the sale price of $9000 by the next November. The purchase of this choice spot (which had been set aside by the developers for a “community church”) gave us a new place to expand without leaving our familiar neighborhood.
April 5, 1946 brought Rev. Yoder P. Leith to the pulpit, a dynamic young Army chaplain ready for a community church. He walked into a congregation in the midst of a building program, beginning a pastorate that would span 24 years and two more building programs.
The building campaign had raised the $150,000, an amount we’d been assured would construct a church on the new site. But post-war inflation caused a shift in our fortune; during the years it had taken to raise the funds, the cost of our proposed church had increased over 30% and the buyer for the Preyer Road church had reneged.
On October 28, 1945, the night the congregation approved purchase of the new lot, the minutes record announcement of a buyer for the old church. We can assume it was the Hebrew Christians, a small group who were meeting somewhere down on the Boulevard, under the leadership of a minister named Kramer. They were looking for a bigger place to worship, but still in the neighborhood so the members could walk to services. Here’s the way George Bodwell, a member of the Building Committee for the new church, remembers the story:
“I don’t know where the figure came from, but The Hebrew Christians had agreed to buy the building for $50,000. We didn’t have anything in writing at that point. And a short time after that, Kramer, their minister, died. They said they couldn’t go through with the deal. We were devastated because we had a plan to build a new building and a place to put it, but we needed that revenue.
“But the good Lord has His own ways. Sometime later, still without a buyer, we received a telephone call from someone who said they represented “The Gates of Hope.” We didn’t know who they were, hut they said they understood our church was for sale and would like to look at it. So, a small group including Mike Sumwalt, Yoder Leith and myself met with them. They brought in 12-15 men, walked through the church, sat down at the rear of the old sanctuary with us and asked “How much do you want for it?” We said, “Fifty thousand dollars.” And they said, “Fine.”
“We didn’t know if that deal was going to fall through like The Hebrew Christians had, but we began talking about arrangements…how we could divide up the services. They would come in Saturday, and we’d meet on Sunday; and times during the week they could have certain facilities and we could have others. Because, we’d both be using the building until the new one was completed.
“And when we said good-bye to them, we walked to the door. And there, parked out on Preyer Road, were all these Cadillac’s. Mike and I were kicking ourselves; why didn’t we look out there first! They were a group of Jewish refugees from Germany who had fled with all their money when Hitler began making noises. And they had a lot of money. We knew when they agreed to our price so quickly we hadn’t asked enough.”
Despite their hindsight about not bargaining long enough, the Building Committee moved forward with construction. The new lot had been dedicated in October, 1946 and we broke ground on May 7, 1950. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported:
Pre-kindergarten children will turn the first clods of earth tomorrow at ground- breaking ceremonies for the new Cleveland Heights Presbyterian Church at Lee Rd. and Monticello Blvd. Before the ceremony is over, everyone in the congregation will have a chance to dig into the ground with souvenir shovels provided by the minister, the Rev. Yoder P Leith.
The ceremony, believed without precedent in the Greater Cleveland area, will follow the service.
The revised building cost was projected as $200,000. The new Georgian Colonial church was to he completed within a year, according to G. Brooks Earnest, Chairman of the Building Committee. Other committee members were George B. Bodwell, Charles Goldswotd, James R. McKinney, Charles A. Sanford, Theron W Sayle (Head of Special Gifts Committee), Mrs. Louis X. Schmidt, and Mrs. E.W. Weaver.
It was 1950, and we had weathered the uncertainty of the Depression, remained independent while sister churches succumbed to merger, and had actually broken ground for a new building. As a congregation, we had grown through thick and thin together for 47 years. From where we sit today in 1993, it’s amazing to realize that more than half our 90 years occurred before moving into the Forest Hill location.
Construction proceeded through the summer of 1950, and on September 17, we were ready to set the cornerstone at the Lee and Monticello structure. Ever with a flair for the dramatic, Rev. Leith was in the middle of his sermon that morning when up the aisle strode a couple flamboyantly dressed in costumes from 1908. The couple (actually Ruth and Bud Barber) said they had come to take part in the cornerstones ceremonies for the new (1908) church building. In compensation for their 42-year tardiness, Rev. Leith handed them the contents of the old cornerstone (about which he had been preaching) and asked them to carry it at the head of a procession to the new site. As they motored slowly up Mayfield Road in a 1908 Cadillac, the congregation, young and old alike, fell in line behind them, an enormous wave of people marching to their new church home. The ceremony concluded with the laying of the new cornerstone and the official change of our congregation’s name to Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian.
It is heartening to note that at the time of that ceremony, the thread to the original congregation remained unbroken. In 1950, there were still four living charter members: Mr. Merritt E. Russell; Mrs. Clarence H. Lewis of Chicago, Illinois; Miss Adelia Young, and Mrs. Thomas Dawson. Mr. Russell lived to celebrate his 100th birthday and is remembered for his faithfulness as Sunday School Superintendent and his enthusiasm as its songleader. Mrs. Lewis sang in the early choir. And it was Mrs. Dawson’s husband who assisted in the funding and installation of the original pipe organ.
Almost a year to the day after the groundbreaking, we finished construction on the new church. During the morning service on May 20, 1951 the congregation held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the chancel and we “officially” opened for business. But in our eagerness, we’d actually been conducting services there construction notwithstanding since April 22. With the ribbon-cutting came a week of welcoming festivities for both the Forest Hill neighborhood and Cleveland Heights as a community-at-large. As the new “community” church, we sought to get acquainted quickly by holding Open House, complete with tours and refreshments.
GROWING PAINS RELIEVED WITH NEW WINGS: Membership Soars to New Highs
The original building has changed so much, it is difficult today to imagine its original design. The sanctuary seated only 312, including the balcony. The current transcept (the seating in the arms of the cross-shaped floor plan) was then offices (to the west) and a parlor called The Fireside Room (to the east). The pulpit was where today’s front pew sits, and the choir rehearsed in a separate room behind it. The choir loft sat above the rehearsal room, as did the organ console. Most worshippers walked to church, and everyone entered and left through the Monticello doors. This was where the pastor greeted them after the service, where they chatted with each other. With the advent of the Fellowship Hall and parking lot, few of today’s worshippers realize the peacefulness of this stately entry or the beauty of its landscaping.
When the post-war boom hit Forest Hills, many began to join Forest Hill Church. The neighborhood was quite exclusive then, with lots of restrictions. You couldn’t live there without some kind of pedigree. In other words, you couldn’t be black or Jewish or Italian. References were required before you could purchase land there. It is said that the Goldswords, a family within the church, used “Rev. Leith of the Presbyterian Church” as a reference so they wouldn’t be mistaken for Jews.
In July 1955, ground was broken for a new Christian Education wing along Monticello Boulevard. No one was more surprised than Dr. G. Brooks Ernest, chairman of the building committee from the original 1950 construction four years earlier. “You made our forecast turn out all wrong,” he declared. “We thought the building would suffice us for at least 10 years.” But membership had grown during that time from 550 to more than 1,300. And in the mid-50s, it was unthinkable not to be a church member.
Once again, Rev. Yoder Leith distributed ceremonial shovels, this time to the 600 youngsters in the crowded church school. Shovels in hand, they marched over to roped-off area in the empty lot where their classrooms would be erected, and at his signal, all dug together, dirt flying and parents cheering from the sidelines. Roger M. Clapp, Chairman, Building Committee, participated in the ceremony along with Eric V. Calhoun, Clerk of the Session; Harry C. Morrison, Vice-Chairman of the Board of Trustees; Miss Marideen Visseher, Director of Religious Education, and H. Miller provost.
The 1963 Cornerstone History records the event as follows:
By 1955, Church School classes had increased to the extent that the young people met in the minister’s office, in the secretary’s office, and in the kitchen. Temporary quarters for the Primary Department were secured in the Happy Day Nursery School next door. Then in 1956, the educational wing along Monticello Boulevard was completed and the classes were once more adequately housed and offices were provided for the Minister of Pastoral Care, the Rev. Edward Couch, who came in 1954; and for Miss Marideen Vissehen. Miss Visseher came to us as the Director of Christian Education in 1952 and was ordained into the Ministry of the Presbyterian Church while she was on the staff, the third woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church.
Rev. Mr. Couch accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church, Freeport, Long Island in 1957 and the Rev. William J. Murphey became the minister of Pastoral Care in June of 1957, remaining until August, 1959. The Rev. George E Mace, came to Forest Hill Church in February, 1960 as Minister of Pastoral Care. The Rev. Visscher became the head of the Christian Education Department of the Cleveland Area Church Federation in September, 1962 and the Rev. Ned Wolfe Edwards came in the capacity of Minister of Christian Education in May, 1963.
The Rev. Miss Visseher’s ordination took place in 1957, only a year after the first such ordination nationally. Though women had been ordained as Elders in other churches as early as 1930, it was not until 1967 that Virginia Bodwell and Ruth Jenks became the first women at Forest Hill Church asked to serve in this capacity. In the 25 years since then, the trend has reversed. Last year’s Elder class had two men and six women. Within the Presbytery, women Elders are in the majority.
Forest Hill adopted changes within the government of the church to simplify its operation. By Presbyterian law, neither the Clerk of Session nor any of the Trustees are required to be members of Session. Under Rev. Leith’s guidance, however, Session modified the standards to require the Clerk to be a member of Session, thus using the Clerk’s attendance at all meetings to advantage as a voting participant. And Rev. Leith also instituted the Unicameral System in which at least three Trustees must also be members of Session, thereby providing better communication between the body that sets the programs and the one that pays the bills.
We also streamlined our record-keeping. Until 1934, a handwritten roll of church members was maintained in a great book. It contained dates of baptism, confirmation, and status of membership for the entire congregation. A later roll used cards similar to the Board of Elections’ Voter Registration to record each family’s vital statistics. That system was discontinued in 1955, and another card system ensued which was gradually replaced by computerized records.
By 1961, membership had climbed to 2000, and there were nearly 150 children under age two in the church. The Crib Room required an extensive staff complete with a registered nurse. The construction of the Christian Education wing had eased the tight Sunday School facilities, but the sanctuary never seemed big enough. At the time it was built, church membership was barely 500 persons. By 1952, there were two services each Sunday morning; and by 1959, three. Easter and Christmas left hopeful worshipers lined up along the sidewalk on Monticello Boulevard. Folding chairs lined the center aisle of the sanctuary to provide as much seating as possible. But the sanctuary was designed for a mere 312 worshippers, and it seemed the walls would burst.
To accommodate the choir, which had agreed to sing all three services but not listen to three sermons, the order of worship changed slightly. By placing both anthems before the sermon, the choir could sing in the third service and then quietly leave before the preaching began.
Discussion of another building program began in the fall of 1961, with groundbreaking in April of 1963. Howard E. Hendershort, Jr., Chairman of the Building Committee, explained a multi-stage plan to the congregation. First, a new wing would be constructed along Lee Road to include a Fellowship Hall, designed to seat 425 for dinner, a youth hall and 16 additional classrooms. In a second stage, the sanctuary would be expanded to increase its seating capacity. Total cost was estimated as $550,000. This was the expansion that would finally use up the great brick pile that had sat in a corner of the church lot since 1950, providing matching brick for each addition.
The expansion involved taking the sanctuary apart at the seams. The front steps, pillars and portico were to be moved 15 feet toward the street. The rear wall was to be extended 40 feet into the parking lot. And a transcept was to be added in the center where offices and a parlor had been. To keep it in proportion with the enlarged building, the steeple would be redesigned to a taller, more graceful silhouette. Once the Fellowship Hall was completed, worship services were held there on folding chairs while the Sanctuary was pushed and painted into its new design. AlI was completed for a joyous dedication service on Easter 1964.
In May, the cornerstone box from 1950 was opened and its contents placed on display. June 7, 1964 was designated Commissioning Sunday, the day to reseal the old box and place it along with a new one in a niche in the portico. Tradition holds that cornerstones are opened at least every 100 years. Worshippers in 2064 who unseal the boxes will find newspapers and magazines from both 1908 and 1950, a New Testament, bulletins from both the 1908 and 1950 Cornerstone Laying services, a history of the church to 1950, signature cards of all those present, an architect’s sketch of thc church, and Lesson Quarterlies from 1908. The new box contains a bulletin and tape of the 1964 service, a 1964 Proof Set of coins, signatures of the members, the PLAIN DEALER of that date, magazines, pictures of the ministers and a history of the church to 1964.
During their joint pastorate, Rev. Leith and Rev. Edwards spanned the evolution of the neighborhood…from the restrictive elitism of Forest Hill’s exclusive “membership” pedigrees to the brewing racial unrest in Little Italy and other areas. In his own career, Rev. Edwards worked for racial justice in a way the founders of the Rockefeller Allotment could not have imagined. His leadership helped bring Federal legal action against a major Cleveland real estate firm found guilty of discriminatory practices.
NEW LEADERSHIP FOCUSES ON LOCAL MISSION: Church Votes to Stay and Serve
In 1970, Yoder Leith retired from a pastorate of 24 years and Ned Edwards resigned. Subsequently, Rev. Edwards was called as Senior Pastor. During the summer, as Presbytery deliberated over the congregation’s inconclusive vote regarding the call, the congregation asked Rev. Guy Volpitto to serve as its interim moderator until the selection of Senior Pastor was finalized. Rev. Volpitto then stayed on as Assistant Pastor, and received the title Pastor Emeritus in 1992. Many remember the healing wisdom with which he presided during the turbulent period of Rev. Edwards’ confirmation. Rev. Volpitto is credited with helping the congregation bridge its differences even after Rev. Edwards took the pulpit.
In 1971, Rev. Robert H. Barnes was installed as Associate Pastor, with the understanding that Rev. Volpitto would also remain. During his 1980 sabbatical, Rev. Edwards completed his reflections on the church’s history; excerpts of which follow:
“Between 1950 and 1962 the membership had mushroomed to 2,002 and the congregation had committed more than one million dollars to new construction. The staff had enlarged from one pastor, one secretary and a choir director to three full-time pastors, four secretaries, two custodians, and three persons on the music staff. Income had increased from $40,000 to $290,000 per year, and the operating budget from $21,910 to $181,434.
The changing world, however, caught up with Forest Hill Church in 1965, when its neighborhoods began to change, racial tensions became headlines, and religious attitudes took a new turn. Church membership had outgrown the small social and study groups which provided intimate fellowship within the church, and, in tune with national trends, church membership began to fall as rapidly as it had increased a decade earlier. By 1969, the membership had dropped to 1600, and the income to $190,000.
New directions in the church’s life and ministry, however, had begun in the late sixties with the study of the Confession of 1967. The Session concurred with the adoption of this statement of faith by the General Assembly and set it as the basis for the mission of the congregation. The Board of Church and Society, formerly a subcommittee of the Board of Christian Education, was formed as a standing committee of the Session, and the church began to look closely at ways of ministering to the racially changing neighborhoods and to the social crises brought about by racism, the war in Southeast Asia and the generation gap. Some members were not prepared for this focus of ministry and polarities began to surface in the congregation.
In the spring of 1970, the Pulpit Nominating Committee nominated the associate pastor of seven years, Ned Edwards, to be senior pastor. This gave particular focus to the polarities, and brought almost 800 people to the congregational meeting to vote on the nomination. After long debate, the vote split two to one in favor of the nomination, and the matter was turned over to the Presbytery for resolution. After six weeks of study, the Presbytery voted to install Ned Edwards as Pastor. The result was that even though some 35 families left the church, a great deal of energy had been created through the conflict, and the Session and its Boards went to work, utilizing this energy to build a meaningful program of congregational involvement and active mission.
First, the Session reaffirmed its theological commitment by drafting a Statement of Mission which included affirmation of traditional modes of ministry as well as commitment of ministry to the community in which the church building existed. Second, a number of new programs were instituted under the direction of the Session to bring together as many people from the congregation as possible in common tasks and fellowship. A church-wide “Fun Fair” was organized, involving 120 persons, and was conducted annually for eight years in the fall. A “Parish Program for Pastoral Care” was developed, involving 70 members in nine parishes to assist the pastor in responding to personal crises and emergencies, hospital calling and contact with shut-ins. “Parish Coffees” were also held on an invitational basis at the Pastor’s home. Lenten Dinners for the entire congregation were also instituted as family gatherings and programs for six Wednesday nights during Lent.
The Christian Education curriculum for children, youth and adults was reviewed and restructured. Three organizing principles were applied to the curriculum: 1) Knowledge of the Church and the Faith (theology, Bible, history and polity); 2) The nurture of personal growth in families and individuals; and 3) The reconciliation of social and political polarities within the congregation and community. Worship began to include all age groups (as families) and to use both traditional and contemporary modes of liturgy. Preaching was to focus on the three organizing principles of the curriculum of Christian Education. Two separate hours of Sunday morning worship were combined into one.
The Session also instituted a program of self-training in the form of annual two-day retreats to review the work of the past and set goals for the future. A program of evaluation of ministerial performance by the staff and the Session was also begun on a yearly basis. The Trustees focused on reducing the large mortgage on the church building in a way not to impair the mission program of the church, and also worked toward the refurbishing and improvement of the building and grounds. The Board of Stewardship began to develop an effective program of increased benevolent giving.
The Board of Church and Society began in 1971 to study the problems of the community with relation to integration and housing. A Housing Seminar conducted by the Board in that year for the church and community resulted in the plan to establish the Forest Hill Church Housing Corporation, a non-profit corporation to rehabilitate housing in Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland. One house was successfully completed through a benevolence gift of the Session and many volunteer hours from the congregation. In 1973 government assistance for such rehabilitation was discontinued and another grant from the Session initiated the “Challenge Fund,” a revolving fund raised by challenging other religious institutions and businesses for the purpose of backing low-interest loans to residents of Cleveland Heights who could not arrange conventional financing to improve their homes. By 1975, 16 institutions had met the challenge and 10 others had made substantial contributions. By the end of 1979, one-quarter million dollars had been raised for such loans, and loans totaling $180,000 had been made. In 1980 Forest Hill Church received the “Community Organization Award” for 23 years of leadership in fair housing, given by the Cuyahoga Plan.
Although by 1980, membership had diminished to the level of 1953 (approximately 1000), Forest Hill Church remained an extremely active congregation, with attendance at Sunday worship services at over 35% of the membership each Sunday. Many persons who left the congregation in 1970 returned. Being in a middle-class, transient suburb of Cleveland, it continued to struggle with the issues of changing neighborhoods, membership growth, and the economic pressure exerted by its large physical plant.
In 1982, Daniel R. Kershner was installed as Associate Pastor. In 1987, the calling of the Rev. Dennis Zimmerman as Associate Pastor, and the hiring of Mt Paul McGahie as Director of Sacred Music completed a program of staff rebuilding. In 1991, the congregation completed an ambitious building program that included the installation of a new pipe organ as well as acoustical and esthetic renovation of the sanctuary.
The year 1992 marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Forest Hill Church with the retirement of Dr. Ned Edwards after 29 years of service to the Church, the last 22 as Senior Pastor. Rev. Leith and Dr. Edwards, both as Senior Pastors, served a total of 46 years between them. As a congregation, we have had very few ministers. It’s especially rare to go nearly half a century with only two senior pastors.
In 1991 we welcomed Rev. Matthew Peterson as Interim Associate Pastor, and on April 1, 1992, Dr. Edgar R. Jones, III, joined us as Interim Senior Pastor. 1993 brought a continuation of the austerity demanded by considerable long-term debt and rising operating costs. As the congregation sought ways to further tighten its belt without injuring vital programs, it explored strategies for reducing staff and increasing income. The 1992 departure of the alternative school Taylor Academy as a weekday tenant was overcome by renting space to Raintree Academy, a daycare business. However the congregation resoundingly rejected a proposal to reduce the Associate Pastor responsibility to a half-time position. Because of its pivotal influence in the youth programs and Christian Education, members spoke with a single voice in their willing financial support of retaining this as a full-time staff position. Creative redesign of the music staff combined the choir director and organist positions at Paul McGahie’s departure in 1993, placing the church’s vast musical program under the able direction of then-organist Anne Wilson.
A CHURCH WITHOUT MUSIC IS NO CHURCH AT ALL
In his remarks of 1916, E.T. Austen intoned, “a Church without music is no Church at all.” The congregation heeded his wisdom, keeping music and its uplifting influence always at the heart of worship. At the 1909 dedication of the first church building, the service included no less than four hymns, with all the verses printed in the program. No doubt Mrs. Clay Herrick presided at the pipe organ that day, for she served as organist and chorister from 1909 until 1930. That first organ was powered by water, and one bitter cold night when the temperature dipped to 15 below zero, it was frozen beyond use for the scheduled wedding. The groom sent for his reception musicians (harp and violin) and the service proceeded, shivering guests notwithstanding. Mrs. Herrick earned $5.00 per Sunday in 1920; quartet members were paid $4.00 each. Non-members paid $5.25 per hour for practice time at the organ. By 1924, Mrs. Herrick’s salary had doubled to $10.00 per Sunday.
During The Depression, Sunday attendance hovered at 50 worshippers, and Session talked of closing the church. Dr. Dickens-Lewis had moved on, the congregation was without a minister, and it had no choir. Then, Ralph Boswell Jones appeared. Despite the Session’s skepticism, he voluntarily organized a choir. Inspiration was what the congregation needed, and he provided it.
By the time Rev. Bininger arrived in 1935, the pews and choir loft were full. Jones served as organist and choir director 1934-43. He developed a Chorus Choir that sang major works from Advent through Easter; the rest of the year was given over to soloists and the quartet.
In June 1940, the HEIGHTS-TERIAN carried a stinging criticism of the congregation for its lack of support for the choir and its programs. At that time, only two church members–Mr. Kartiher and Mr. Kneen–were regular members of the choir. And special music programs failed to draw members into their audiences. It was further stated “one of the important functions of a Church is to train its young people in the art of singing under a competent leader, and to cultivate in them a love and appreciation of the great anthems, cantatas and oratorios of the church, thereby giving them a part in its services.”
Paul Heideman joined us in 1943, playing and directing until his death in 1964. In 1956, J. Allen Picken took over the choir, and was followed in 1958 by Clair McElfresh. During those years, Heideman continued as organist. For part of his professional career, he had been organist at the Hippodrome Theatre on Euclid Avenue. Securing him for the church was quite a plum, for he was considered one of the best organists in the Cleveland area. Stories abound of his creativity at the bench, incorporating everything from advertising jingles to Happy Birthday into his Sunday morning music. He was screened from view at the bench by a curtain. This privacy allowed him to creep into the organ loft unnoticed during the sermon to adjust troublesome pipes.
Margaret Hale Volpitto followed Heideman at the organ in 1964, playing for Mr. McElfresh, John Shurdeff (1965-70), and B. Neil Davis (1972-85). At her retirement in 1982, Mr. McElfresh composed “Praise Ye the Lord Almighty” and dedicated it to her.
Timothy D. Broadway served as organist between 1982 and 1987, accompanying Mr. Davis and interim choir director Gilbert M. Brooks, then Dean of the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Paul D. McCahie began as Director of Music in 1987, taking over the Chancel Choir, Bell Choir and youth music. Organists during his tenure included Mr. Broadway, Mary Ann Switz (1987), Rowland Blackley (1988) and Anne Wilson (1989-present).
The handbells were purchased in 1969 by friends as a memorial to Mrs. Mildred Calhoun, who had organized the first youth choir of the church. Mrs. Calhoun welcomed all youngsters; if you could sing loudly, you qualified. During performance, it is said Mrs. Calhoun would gently pull her earlobe to signal “more volume.”
We are a near-centennial congregation with an honored past. Look how carefully we have preserved it during our 90 years.
The archives reveal a revised history from each of the three cornerstones we’ve set: 1908, 1950 and 1964. There’s another history written in 1916 at the time the church was incorporated. Other special events like groundbreakings, new pipe organs, and retirements have been times for retelling our history.
The preceding paragraphs contain most of these early writings. They reflect the pulse of their time more accurately and eloquently than any contemporary retelling could possibly do. And sometimes they contain mistakes – honest mistakes, typographical errors. For example, the price of the first church building varies between $12,000 and $15,000, depending on the storyteller. All these variations add flavor to our current understanding.
In this 1993 account, the combined voices of past and contemporary storytellers speak. When you share these memories within the church family and your own family, you, too, become a storyteller and renew the importance of the events that have shaped Forest Hill Church.
Let this history represent only the beginning of our full story as a church. We continue amending it as long as the church remains alive. It is a vital link between yesterday and tomorrow, a part of the human chain through which memories unite with a version for this church in its next decades, a vision that can only be accomplished through our efforts and love in Christ.
Thanks to all the members and pastors without whose efforts this important 90 years could not come alive for us today. Special acknowledgement goes to George and Virginia Bodwell, Sue Conant, Ray Gibson, Major and Ruth Jenks, Ted Jones, Marcella Kier, Virginia Leith, and Bill and Elaine Tapie for their tireless contribution of time and memories.
Joan E. McVeen