On May 27, St. Francis de Sales Parish in the Portage Lakes will celebrate its 70th Anniversary. One of the larger Catholic churches in southern Summit County, the parish also is home to school that was established in 1949. In addition St Francis, is one of the leading parishes in the Cleveland Diocese for vocations to the priesthood.
This began when Father Francis Diederich was appointed by Bishop Edward Hoban as the first Pastor of the new church in the Portage Lakes area. This appointment followed a number of assignments, including 14 years at St. Paul's in Akron. The parish initially encompassed 42 square miles with its general boundaries being Warner Road and Robinson Avenue to the north and Akron-Massillon Road to the east.
Initially, there were no physical facilities to celebrate Mass so the first services were held in the Coventry High School Auditorium on June 13, 1948 with two services. Servers for the Masses were Albert Drexler and Jerry McNeil, and Michael and Edward McDonnell. Helping as ushers were Stephen Drescher, Howard Riley, Howard Connelly, Tom Maus, George Wepler and Ralph Maglione.
Father Diederich had begun his search for the future site of the parish while staying at St Paul's and making daily visits to the area. Eventually, the site on Manchester Road was selected. It encompassed eight acres, a house and several outbuildings. It was purchased for $17,500 from Mr. and Mrs. John Horvath. The house was converted into a rectory for $17,000 by Reischman and Associates.
On July 18, 1948, a Parish Council was elected. This council then organized the Holy Name Society in August to help deal with the various problems facing the new parish. With these organizations in place, work began on raising money and planning for the school and church. Eventually, this resulted in the first building which served both as a church and school. This original building still stands today but has been added to over the years. The original church was on the top floor. Today, the area that was church are classrooms and the alter area is the library.
In the early days of the church, a variety of fundraisers were put on to help raise money for the parish. One of the more popular ones was a carnival that was held behind the church/school building. There was a large hole where the current parking lot slops down toward the baseball field. This area was used to set up rides and other attractions for the weekend long event. There was even a prize of a boat donated by a local marine dealer that was raffled off. This went on for several years until it was eventually replaced by other events. The large hole was eventually filled in and paved over to provide the parking lot.
A new building was eventually added to the existing structure behind the school for use as a temporary church. This new addition served in this capacity until a new church was built at the site of the old school bus garages on the southern portion of the parking lot. This was completed in September, 1970. The temporary church was renovated and became the gymnasium. An addition wing was also added to the school for elementary students.
Other structures were also added and deleted over the years. The original school was staffed by nuns from the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Rocky River and a convent was build on the area were the circular lawn area is located. For many years, students at St. Francis received an education from these dedicated women but starting in the late 1950s, lay teachers were also added to the staff as fewer nuns were available for posting as teachers. Eventually, they disappeared from the staff and only the principal was left as a Sister, until that position was also filled by a lay administrator. The convent was converted to other religious and secular uses until its demolition several years ago. A new rectory was constructed next to the new church and old facility was demolished. A meeting hall was added to the school near the site of the old rectory and a new addition for gatherings was recently added at the rear entrance to the school.
During the the early days of the school, St. Francis provided bus service for its students. A bus garage was constructed on what is the site of the church and the parish had a fleet of buses to provide transportation. When it became a state policy to transport parochial students, the need for its own fleet of buses was deemed unnecessary and the facility was closed and the buses disposed of.
Father Diederich's time as pastor was drawing to a close as he approached his 70 birthday, and in 1974 he retired after 26 years as pastor. He would live out his retirement at St. Francis, passing away in 1981 as Pastor Emeritus. To replace him, the bishop selected Father James Schleicher, who would guide St. Francis for the next 34 years until he retired in 2008. He, too, would stay on at St. Francis in retirement as Pastor Emeritus until his death on Feb. 23, 2010. The parish has been under the direction of Father David Bline since 2009
As St. Francis prepares to celebrate its 70 Anniversary, a number of events have been planned to commemorate the day. One thing that was done to connect with the past was to ask former priests and parishoners who had become priests to come back and celebrate mass. While a few priests have pasted away, the majority are still alive and many were able to return and say Mass and reminisce on their time at St. Francis. Many of them have gone on to head their own parishes using the training they had acquired at St. Francis to tend to their new flocks. Former priests who returned to say Mass included Father James Semonin, Father John Hengle, Father Sean Donnelly, Father Robert Stine, Father Anthony Suso and Father Louis Thomas. Priests who had joined the priesthood with vocations from St. Francis who returned to say Mass included Father William Brown, Father Mark Ott, Father Thomas Stock, Father David Misbrener, Father Kevin McCaff and Father Mathew Jordan.
As part of the celebration a new bell tower was added in front of the church. A movie on St. Paul for parishioners was held at Regal Cinema with a dinner at Menche's afterwards. A 5K run, pancake breakfast, chili cook-off, Euchre tournament and ice cream social are planned for the parish to participate in, along with the annual picnic. Billboards and signs around the Portage Lakes have spread the word about the upcoming celebration and encourage people to return to the church and take part in the celebration. A special logo was developed for the celebration.
Father Bline reflected on the parish and and its rich history.
"This coming May 27 marks the 70th Anniversary of St. Francis de Sales started by Father Francis Diederich, who was then followed by Father James Schleicher until 2008 when I took over as pastor," he said. "Currently, we have over 1,850 families registered We are having a year of celebrations scheduled including the return of former priests who were assigned or grew up at the parish.. Our new bell tower was just completed to hold the bell from the former St. George church in Clinton. We are blessed to be called to love out the mission of Jesus Christ, to bring His Kingdom not only within our church walls, but especially throughout our corner of the world. We praise God for His merciful love and may we be faithful in sharing it."
Photo credit: Jim Mesko
048: Caption: The current view of the school. When originally built the top floor was where the church was. This caused problems when funerals were held as the heavy caskets had to be carried up and down several flights of stairs. Eventually a new church was added behind the original building and used until a seprate standing church was completed in 1970. At that point the second church became the current gymnasium.