The history of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church dates back to 1844, when the lot at the corner of Fifth Street and Jackson Avenue was donated to the Catholic community of Defiance by Horatio G. Phillips.
The first church, a small log structure was built on the site in 1844, and named after St. John the Evangelist. In 1856, the cornerstone for a second church at the site was laid for a brick structure that was twice the size of the first church. As the congregation grew (the parish was split into the German-speaking St. John Parish and the English-speaking St. Mary Parish in 1873), the need for a bigger church arose in the 1890s.
On May 26, 1895, the cornerstone for the current church building was put in place, and on Sept. 13, 1896 the building was solemnly dedicated by Bishop Horstman. The church architecture reflected the style of many Baroque churches of southern Germany at the time. The cost of the current church building, which is 125 years old this year, was $24,000, with $16,000 of that already raised.
“The beauty of this building reflects the beauty of the people here, and the people who came before them who sacrificed to have it built,” said Rev. Eric Mueller, current pastor of the church. “In the book of Peter, it talks about the living stones built on the foundation of Christ, and that’s what this building, and the people, symbolize.
“The people of the church need a physical place to worship, and here we have the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament,” continued Mueller. “Yes, we’ve been blessed with such a beautiful building, but that reflects the commitment of people, past and present, to Jesus. It’s a blessing to be able to celebrate the heritage of the people who were so generous with their faith all those years ago.”
At the time of the church dedication in 1896, the current statues of Mary, holding Jesus, and her husband, Joseph were also dedicated. Other special donations to the church included the tower clock, built by John Funck and donated by John Beez; the two side altars given by the Young Ladies’ Sodality; the Stations of the Cross, given by Rev. Golden; and the statue of The Sacred Heart by the Young Mens’ Society.
In addition, the large stained glass windows were donated by the St. Boniface Society and Catholic Knights of Ohio; a 1,700-pound bell was donated by the Dramatic Society; and a 1,300-pound bell was donated by the school children of St. John Catholic School. Both of those bells remain in the bell tower today.
Bonnie Nally, who serves as office manager of the parish, has been a member of the church since 1978. In looking at the history of the building, she found some interesting facts about how the church building was financed, and the cost of some of the materials in the late 1800s.
“There’s a book in the vault that explains that a campaign was launched ‘for the purpose of raising money for the building of St. John’s German Catholic Church,’” said Nally. “The members of the church were asked to pledge shares of 25 cents each per week, and were asked to take as many shares as they could afford to pay each week. That started in 1892, and by 1895 they had raised $16,000.”
Janice Elliott, who serves as parish and family life coordinator, has been a life-long member of the church. Many generations of her family (Weber), went to church at St. John’s, including her paternal grandparents who were born before the turn of the 20th century. Elliott also attended St. John Catholic School.
“The church has been the center of our lives, my family and I went to school here, and when we weren’t able to attend (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), we really missed it,” said Elliott. “Coming back to church (three weeks ago) was joyous, the church was still decorated for Easter ... it was a blessing to be back in our beautiful church.”
Dave Moninger, music and liturgy coordinator, has served the parish for 35 years. He agrees the church is beautiful, but credit goes to generations of people.
“It’s a beautiful house of worship, and so many people who visit during the week will comment on what a beautiful church it is,” said Moninger. “I’m always happy to turn on the lights, show them around, and sometimes play the organ or the piano for them. I enjoy talking to them about the renovations that were done in 2000. On a personal level, the building is a great testament to the faith of generations, those who built it, and those who have taken care of it.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the church underwent a capital campaign titled, “Reflection on Our Past, Foundation for Our Future,” to raise money to restore the 125-year-old stained glass windows, renovate the church basement (which was cleared out in 1954), and improve the front steps of the church and the church parking lot.
A goal of $1.7 million was set, with more than $2 million raised in gifts and commitments. In all, more than 60 volunteers worked on the effort, with almost 300 members making gifts and commitments. The campaign was assisted by Walsh & Associates, Church Capital Campaign Specialists, of Burnsville, Minn.
Renovations will be handled in phases, with work to restore the stained glass windows currently underway.
“We had a minimum goal of $1.5 million, with a goal of $1.7 million to pay for it without taking out loans,” said Mueller. “We are so very grateful for the response and generosity of the people, who want to be great stewards of this beautiful church. I had never been part of a capital campaign in my career, and it was so beautiful to see people step up to show their faith in Christ and his church.”