The history of The Basilica of St. John The Baptist is woven into the history of Canton, Stark County. Established in 1823, it is the second-oldest parish in the Diocese of Youngstown.
John Shorb and his family settled in Canton in 1807 and were the first representatives from the Catholic Church in the city. Their dedication to the faith attracted other local Catholics, and by 1812, there were 15 families in the area—the foundation of St. John. Father Edward Fenwick came to the first Mass in the area, which was held outdoors, under an oak tree on the Shorb farm to accommodate the large crowd.
Shorb donated five acres of land in 1823 and received permission to build a church on the site from Bishop Fenwick of the diocese of Cincinnati, which then encompassed all of Ohio. This original church, a small brick structure, was dedicated in 1824 and sat where the basilica is located today. At the time, St. John’s became a center of missionary activity, and its pastors ministered to Catholics in more than 20 counties. Fifteen parishes were founded as missions of St. John’s.
The present Basilica of St. John the Baptist was built in 1870, in pure Gothic design. The architects secured for the project were Renwick and Kiely of Brooklyn, New York—the very same professionals who designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The parish was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, which marked its 150th anniversary..
Throughout its history, the basilica has undergone several renovations. It was refurbished in 1924 for the occasion of its centennial celebration. In the late 1970s, the parish purchased a historic E.M. Skinner pipe organ after one of the original organs fell into disrepair. In 1980, the interior of the church was renovated. The main floor of the sanctuary was broadened, and the old marble rails were removed and then incorporated into the base of pillars at the edge of the sanctuary. The white marble baptismal font was moved into the congregation seating area during this renovation as well. In 1997, the Gallery, which houses the organ and choir loft, was expanded, and in 2004, the parish dedicated its newly-rebuilt organ, constructed by Charles Kegg of Kegg Pipe Organ Builders. In 2008, the tower clock faces in the church’s bell tower were replaced and a new bell controller system was installed.
In June 2012, at the urging of Bishop George Murry, S.J., Bishop of Youngstown, the parish was elevated to a minor basilica by the Holy See. With that classification came several additions to the parish, all linked to a would-be visit by the Holy Father. The basilica’s ombrellino, an elaborate umbrella used to protect the Holy Father from inclement weather, was made from alternating papal colors of red and yellow silk. It is always displayed at the basilica halfway open, to signify that St. John’s is ready to welcome the Holy Father at any time. A coat of arms was also designed with the new designation. And the tintinnabulum, a bell mounted on a pole, was placed in the basilica to signify the church’s link with the pope. It is permanently displayed and consists of a small gold bell within a golden frame crowned with the papal tiara and Keys of Heaven. If thepope were to say Mass within the basilica, the tintinnabulum would be used to lead the very special procession down the shrine’s aisle.
The Basilica of St. John the Baptist celebrated its 200th anniversary this year. The parish planned a party to kick off the celebrations, and a Mass and celebratory banquet in November will mark the end of the anniversary year.
To learn more about upcoming anniversary celebrations, visit www.stjohncanton.com or call 330-454-8044.