Churches of the Coal Region

St Gabe's Outside

St. Gabriel’s Church, Hazleton, PA / Photo by Jamie Longazel

by Patrick O’Neill 

In the past several years, many of the Catholic churches in my hometowns have merged or closed completely. The reasons were practical and pragmatic — declining populations, lack of funds, decrease in attendance — but it still doesn’t really take the heartache out of the situation.

These are places which were “holy” to many people. Some have been in existence for 100 years or more. They are the places where families have worshiped for generations — children were baptized in these buildings, couples were married there, and loved ones buried from them. Communions, Confirmations, Christmas and Easter celebrations: all the landmarks of Catholic life usually centered around these places.

Some of the churches were small and somewhat plain. Others were architectural jewels. But whether a small wooden building or a great neo-Gothic structure, they were all equally loved and cherished by their congregations.

Some have fared better than others. As one congregation moved out, another one moved in, so they are still used as places of worship. Others have not fared as well. They are warehouses, factory outlets, or they just sit empty, their altars and stained glass windows removed. All that made them beautiful and special is gone.

My father’s old family church is a gym – not even being used as one at the present. My mother’s former parish is now a parking lot for a new church that sits right next to it. At least in these two cases, the parishes themselves have survived even if the original buildings have not.

One sweet little church was in such bad shape it was simply left to crumble. Unlike some “ruins,” which can take on the patina of elegance, this ruin is still raw, sitting there like a gaping wound. I can only imagine the feelings of its former members as they pass by each day.

Strangely, my sense has been that many of the older people are more philosophical about it. It’s as if they’ve grown old with the buildings and are facing their own mortality along with the churches.

I feel bad for the younger people (under 20) who will never remember the beauty of these churches in their heyday.

I remember visiting these churches when I was very young (they were actually open all the time!). Whether artistically exquisite or even a little on the “kitschy” side, they did teach me something about art and beauty and something of “the other” in the realm of the aesthetic.

In small coal region towns, these churches were often the only thing that let me know there was a world of transient beauty that went beyond football and bars!

Perhaps it’s the reason I ended up being an art historian (specializing in religious at, no less!). These old churches were an inspiration to me that there was an otherworldly beauty in what could be a bleak place at times.

I will always be grateful to these places, whether they go by different names and congregations, or serve other purposes, or simply exist only in my memories of them.

Thank you to all of you, for introducing me to beauty and art and a sense of something “transcendent.” You will always live in my heart and in my soul.

 


Patrick O’Neill was born in Shenandoah, but raised in Coal Township. He still lives in his family home, which was built by his grandparents in 1910. He has a Ph.D. in European History, an M.A. in Art History, and an M.Ed. in French. After 38 years of teaching, he’ll be retiring from Penn State – Hazleton at the end of this semester, with plans to teach French part-time at a local community college. He started writing articles about the Anthracite Coal Region because it’s where he grew up there and he has always loved the area. 

Also by Patrick O’Neill: 
Humble Lessons Against Segregation
A Letter to a House
Houses of the Coal Region
Anthracite Heroes: Anne
Shenandoah’s ‘Hyphenated Catholics’

6 comments

  1. Mary Lynn Krippe · ·

    Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, in Hazleton, was my church growing up. It was listed on the Historic Register as the only Tyrolean church in America. I went to the school, for eight years. The building had four classrooms, two grades in each room. My class of 12 students went from first grade to eighth grade together then had to split up into one of two Junior Highs in the area. Memories of processions, and festivals and friendships in this parish. Many a baptism and many a funeral, including my mother’s and father’s in this church. It is not a parish anymore, I’m not sure what’s in there now. Yes, the small town churches were a huge part of life, and their loss leaves a huge hole in the community and in the hearts of those who loved them. 😦

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  2. Karen D Thompson · ·

    Thank you for recognizing the transcendent among the often ugliness of coal banks and small patch towns. I grew up Protestant and loved the RC churches because they had such a sense of mystery, which our churches did not have. For me the legacy of that time is my daily reading of Fr. Richard Rohr.

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  3. Thank you…. beautiful looking and reading…enjoyed

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  4. John Jancewicz · ·

    The churches killed themselves off.

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  5. Patrick O'Neill · ·

    re: the comment about the churches “killing themselves off”- yes, I agree in SOME places that was the case. However, in MOST cases in the coal regions, it was the declining population and the lack of resources to keep them going. Shenandoah, my home town, at one time had a population of over 30,000, believe it or not. Its population now is about 5,000 or less. You just can’t support seven Catholic churches in a town of 5,000 (where a lot of the people live on fixed incomes!) when there was once 6X that number. Also , the need for “ethnic” churches diminished as immigrant populations were assimilated. I think THAT more than anything “killed off” a lot of these parishes. Just my personal opinion. Thanks for your comments,.Appreciate it! PON

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  6. Egon de Uriarte · ·

    My grand father was baptized at St.(??) Hecksherville. I visited many times and strolled through the cemetery and found long lost relatives. St. Keiran’s, that’s it I have seen internet community dedicated to the church. I feel the heartache that you mentioned. U guess faith outlives the physical building. Anyway I will follow your future writing

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