St. Ignatius of Loyola: A lasting Cleveland legacy from the 16th Century

Many notable people have left a lasting mark on Cleveland’s history and culture. Is it possible that one of those people was a 16th Century Spanish Jesuit?

<span class="content-image-text">Ignatius of Loyola</span>Ignatius of LoyolaThe answer is yes, and his name is Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

Born in a castle in October 1491 in the Basque region of Spain, his family were members of the lesser nobility, and his early life was anything but saintly.

Ignatius joined the army at the age of 17 and quickly earned a reputation as an expert dancer, fencer, pursuer of women, and someone possessed of a hot temper that led to several duels.

His life changed forever in May 1521. At the Battle of Pamplona, a ricocheting cannonball gravely injured his right leg. This led to extensive surgeries and a permanent limp.

As Ignatius recovered, he asked his sister-in-law to bring him books to read. The only one available was about the life of Jesus Christ and the Saints.

Study of this book led to a religious conversion.

After years of study and preparation Ignatius was ordained a Catholic priest. In 1539, working with Francis Xavier and Peter Faber he founded the Society of Jesus, becoming the new order’s first Superior General.

The Jesuits immediately set about creating an excellent reputation for establishing schools known for their rigorous standards in the education of young men, a reputation that now extends the world over.

<span class="content-image-text">The college became John Carroll University in 1923 and moved to University Heights</span>The college became John Carroll University in 1923 and moved to University Heights

On July 31, 1556, Ignatius died in Rome, likely of the malaria prevalent in the region at the time.

In 1622 he was canonized, becoming St. Ignatius, and the patron saint of Catholic soldiers.

Two-and-a-half centuries later, his name inspired St. Ignatius College, to be established in Ohio city.

Bishop Richard Gilmour invited a group of Catholic priests from Buffalo to move west to establish the new school in Cleveland. The first faculty members were German priests who left the country to escape the repressive Kulturkampf instituted by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a situation that had led to considerable repression for Roman Catholics in Germany.

The new St. Ignatius College opened in 1886 with 76 students engaged in a seven-year course of study leading to a bachelor’s degree.

The main classroom building, located at 1911 W. 30th Street, is most closely identified with St. Ignatius. It was designed by a German Jesuit architect named Brother Frederick Wipfer and constructed in 1891. Legend has it that because Wipfer’s background was European, he used the metric system to plot the building’s dimensions.

An odd fact is that the building once had a five-story blank brick wall on the side of its tower. The plan was to build another wing that would have placed the tower in the center of the building instead of on one end. Years later, a modern three-story wing was built to complete the building. This explains the building’s asymmetric design.

The five-story brick structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974—making it one of the first buildings in Cleveland to earn this distinction—and remains a symbol of the school to this day.

<span class="content-image-text">St. Ignatius Catholic High School in 1976</span>St. Ignatius Catholic High School in 1976The high school and the college became separate entities in 1902. The college became John Carroll University in 1923 and moved to University Heights in 1935 to a campus designed by Phillip Lindsley Small. The high school became St. Ignatius High School.

St. Ignatius has thrived as an independent institution for more than a century. In addition to outstanding academics, the school can boast one of the finest high school football programs in the country.

The rigorous standards advocated by St. Ignatius of Loyola hundreds of years ago remain in force and a roster of notable Clevelanders whose education began there would stretch for miles.

Having several St. Ignatius graduates in his family, this writer can affirm that no matter what honors they achieved in later life, a diploma from St. Ignatius High School remained one of their proudest accomplishments.

Living up to its outstanding reputation in its Third Century of operations, St. Ignatius continues in its mission to produce Men for Others, an affirmation of its goal to be an unselfish force for good in its community.

About the Author: Tom Matowitz

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.