Approaching this spot in Sharon Township from any direction, its spire can be seen for miles as it rises majestically across the flat plains.
For over 180 years, the church for the parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Shelby Settlement, also known as Bethlehem or “The Settlement,” has been a landmark of faith and family.
The parish is the third oldest in the Catholic history of northern Ohio, dating from its founding in 1833 (some works, including a 19th century history of Richland County, place its founding ten years earlier). The settlement was placed in an “island” of fertile and productive land in the middle of swamps when some twenty or so German families arrived. Roads were not passable in the area until after the Civil War.
The parish was first served by a log church, and in 1837, a school was added – now the oldest continuously operating Catholic school in the Diocese of Toledo. A brick church arrived in 1852.
The cornerstone for the present church was laid in 1892, and the building was dedicated in 1895. Its architect was the profile Akron architect William Peter Ginther (1858-1933). Ginther designed over 500 Roman Catholic churches, schools, and accessory buildings across the country, particularly in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, California, Virginia, and New York. Many of these showed heavy influences of classic styles from Europe; he had earlier made a tour of the continent including the cities of Rome, Milan, Paris, Venice, Florence, London, Berlin, and Vienna; and one of those buildings, Holy Family in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has now been elevated to the status of cathedral.
It is said that Ginther began his career after drawing a comic valentine for a girl which was subsequently seen by Frank Weary, Akron’s leading architect. Weary offered Ginther a job in his office.
Ginter was also the architect for St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Mansfield.
The building is not the only historic part of the church; the unique tracker organ was built in 1879 and still provides worship music.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Church is a soaring Gothic Revival structure built of either Leesville or Berea stone (there are historic sources for both) which measures 130 by 48 feet. The interior has rows of clearstory windows on each side. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
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