Shenandoah’s ‘Hyphenated Catholics’


by Patrick O’Neill

At one time, Shenandoah was the most ethnically diverse town in Pennsylvania. Most of the immigrants came from Europe, and within the Catholic community, almost every ethnic group had its own church. Originally, this made sense. It was a good way of preserving the customs, traditions, and, above all, the languages of the various groups.

However, eventually this became toxic. It led to what I’ve always referred to as “hyphenated Catholics”: Irish-Catholics, Polish-Catholics, Slovak-Catholics, and so on.

The Irish emerged as the Catholic group. They were usually the first to arrive a generation or so earlier and their church services were conducted in English. People referred to the Irish church by its specific name, The Annunciation. Others they called the “Polish church,” the “Slovak church,” etc. There was something more than a little condescending about this in that it made these parishes rather one-dimensional, reducing them to just the ethnic component.

On a personal note, when I was quite young, I asked my parents to take me to St. George’s, a beautiful neo-Gothic church just a few blocks from where we lived. In order to get there we had to pass by The Annunciation, which was my family’s church.

On the way we went, a friend of my mother’s saw us and asked where we were going. I told him to St. George’s. He gave me a blank look and said, “Where’s that?” (Now keep in mind this was a man who had lived in this small town his whole life.) I said, “St. George’s, the big stone church on the corner, just one block up.” He said, “Oh, the “Lithuanian church!” (He didn’t even know the actual name of the church). To which he added, “You can’t go there, you’re Irish. You have to go to the Irish church!” He actually thought that if I went to a different ethnic church, it wouldn’t “count.”

What had started out for practical and cultural reasons had divided even Roman Catholics among themselves, as if they were separate denominations.

Much of this was resolved by the diocese when they had to merge the parishes for financial as well as demographic considerations. However, many of the original churches responded with acrimony and anger… even lawsuits.

When I was young, Shenandoah was still a town where if an “Irish-Catholic” married a “Polish-Catholic,” people referred to it as a “mixed” marriage!

Thankfully, a lot of that is over now, or will be in a few years. I attended a church that was a merger of an Irish and Polish parish, and ten years later, no one really remembers who belonged to what parish originally, nor do most of them care. Yet while the town has made some progress, we still have a long way to go, as is evidenced by the racial and ethnic tensions that exist in the community today.

Photo Credit: By Shuvaev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Bob Stevens · ·

    Good article. Seems all of the Coal Region had this phenomenon. I attended one if the two “Italian” churches in Hazleton, MPB….we also had Slovak, Polish, Irish, Tyrolean, (don’t call them Italian), and Greek Catholic. As noted, via consolidation, as well as generational changes, these hyphenated references are essentially gone today.


  2. Another anecdote… I knew a Ukranian immigrant in Mahanoy City (she had only recently married to become a legal citizen). I asked her if the Ukranian churches around made her feel at home, and she told me “no. They are like the most conservative people back home.”


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