Reminisce: Recalling St. John’s school

On a sunny Sunday late in the summer of 1901 a crowd, which by some accounts numbered 8,000 or more, gathered in the 700 block of South Main Street to witness the brick-and-mortar beginning of Lima’s second Catholic parish.

“The laying of the corner stone for St. John’s church on the south side for which the pastor, Rev. Father (Frederick) Rupert, and the members of his congregation have been preparing for several weeks proved to be the most imposing and elaborate that has been held on the south side in many years,” Lima’s Times-Democrat wrote Sept. 9, 1901, the day after the ceremony.

A parade featuring the Lima City Band and organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and Ancient Order of Hibernians marched from the site of St. John’s to West and McKibben streets and the parsonage of St. Rose Parish, which had been organized in 1856, to escort the day’s dignitaries to the ceremonies. Among them was Bishop I.F. Horstman, who had dispatched Father Frederick Rupert from Norwalk to Lima only three months earlier to organize the long-sought parish for the south side.

Speeches were made, prayers were offered for President William McKinley, grievously wounded by an assassin in Buffalo, New York, two days earlier, and items placed in a copper box and deposited in the cornerstone. McKinley died six days later and the cornerstone was overturned by, in the words of the Lima Daily News, “contemptible thieves,” who took off with the copper box, apparently believing it contained money. Although undoubtedly contemptible, the thieves were also ill-informed — the box contained letters and newspapers.

Construction of the combination parish church and school building, which cost about $14,000, also took off.

“The building was constructed in record time,” the News wrote in a November 1924 story, noting that dedication services were held on a bitterly cold mid-December day in 1901 “just one week after the blessing of the bell, marking the opening of the church and combination school to the congregation.” The bell, which would call the faithful to Mass and pupils to school, was named Frederick in honor of Father Rupert.

“The structure is three stories high with heavy walls of a first-class quality of brick and a spacious basement in which modern apparatus for steam heat will regulate the temperature throughout the entire building whenever artificial means of heating are necessary,” the Times-Democrat wrote Dec. 16, 1901. “The first floor is devoted to the sacred place of worship,” the newspaper noted, adding that “the congregation expects to use this build only temporarily for purposes other than school.”

The second floor, the Times-Democrat continued, contained “four large school rooms” equipped with “comfortable seats and desks and slate blackboards.” The third floor was devoted to a “spacious hall that will be used for meetings of the various societies of the church, church festivals and school exercises.”

As the congregation and classes grew, plans were revealed in the spring of 1911 for a separate church on land north of the 1901 building. “After considerable deliberation,” according to a program printed for the 1924 dedication of the church, “it was agreed the basement only of the new church be built immediately, the superstructure when the parish was better able to bear the burden of debt.”

For a dozen years, the congregation worshipped in the basement, waiting for the remainder of the church to be built above them. Construction began in July 1922, and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 1924.

“Pride in the beauty and elaborateness of the structure which stands as an edifice of beauty in south Lima in the midst of the manufacturing district to the south and the business home of the city to the north is openly displayed by members of the congregation who have saved and sacrificed for years to make their dream a reality which stands as an outstanding credit to the city,” The Lima News wrote a few days before the dedication.

The parish school, meanwhile, had begun operations during the winter of 1901-1902. On Dec. 27, 1901, four nuns arrived from the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati to take charge of the parish school. The sisters initially lived in a house at 120 E. Vine St. before moving into a house just north of the school and eventually to one south of the school.

“School opened on January 2, 1902, with 164 pupils,” the News wrote. “Shortly afterwards the enrollment increased to 190 students.”

When the school closed for the summer in June 1902, the Times-Democrat wrote, “The first year of the school has been entirely satisfactory. Next year the high school will be established.”

Lima St. John’s High School, whose sports teams were nicknamed the Titans but were generally referred to as the Johnnies, graduated classes that grew to around 20 or more. In June 1903, as the first high school class graduated, the News announced that Father Rupert “has secured a valuable gold medal, which he will award publicly to the one attaining the highest grade in musical studies. Those attaining the highest proficiency in other studies in the various departments will receive beautiful and valuable literary works,” the newspaper wrote.

In June 1956, the final 22 students graduating from St. John’s High School received their diplomas. That autumn, St. John’s High School was merged with St. Rose High School to form Lima Central Catholic High School. The city’s third Catholic high school, St. Gerard’s, joined the following year.

Although the high school students were gone, the old school on South Main Street, now approaching 57 years old, was showing its age and bursting at the seams. On April 20, 1958, ground was broken for a new St. John’s Elementary School, to be located behind the convent with an entrance on South Union Street.

The new school, which cost about $300,000 and contained 14 classrooms, was dedicated April 26, 1959, about a year after the groundbreaking.

“All equipment is of the latest construction and design,” the Lima Citizen wrote. “Air in each room is changed every five minutes and a gas-fired steam boiler provides heating. The two-story building, 200 feet long and 60 feet wide, is completely fireproof.”

Enrollment that year, at the height of the baby boom, was about 400 “but the school can accommodate 650 pupils – the anticipated enrollment in the next three or four years,” the newspaper wrote. The school was staffed by six Dominican sisters and three lay teachers.

Meanwhile, the church basement, which over the years had been used as a gymnasium, for extra classroom space and for storage, was transformed by parish volunteers “into a very inviting hall to accommodate the various societies’ activities,” the Citizen reported in December 1958. The basement was also used as a cafeteria for the elementary school.

In early March 1959, former students of St. John’s visited the old school, stripped of blackboards and many other furnishings, for a last look at a piece of their childhood. Beginning on March 9, wrecking crews began pulling down the old building.

By 1970, with enrollment dwindling and costs rising, the St. John’s parish council agreed to rent classrooms to St. Charles Elementary School, which was facing a space crunch. In March 1973, with the St. John’s enrollment in grades one through six down to about 140 pupils and the two higher grades shifting to St. Charles that fall, it was decided to close the school.


This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].