St. Mary's Ukrainian Church in Ford City eyes big day

| Monday, July 2, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

As the town prepares for its annual Heritage Days Festival, parishioners of one local church celebrate the customs and rituals that have helped preserve their faith and Eastern European traditions.

The parish of St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church has maintained a strong presence in the community for more than a century. The original church, which was named after St. Nicholas, was a wooden structure built in 1904 on property purchased from the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. It was built to support the needs of Ukrainian immigrants who brought their Byzantine customs and traditions with them to start a new life in Ford City.

According to information provided by the Rev. John Gribik, the construction of the existing church began in 1911 because the parish had outgrown the original building. Although the majority of parishioners were blue-collar workers employed at PPG, they found a way to raise money to build their new church. The pews were obtained from the courthouse through the Kittanning Seating Company and the new church, at 514 Ninth St., was blessed by Bishop Soter Ortynsky of Philadelphia on Sep. 17, 1913.

George Madzy, church council president, said his parents came from the town of Galatzia in the Carpathian Mountains.

"They came to Charleroi because of a promise of a job at McBeth-Evans Glass Co.," said Madzy. "They moved to Ford City when I was 3 and got a job in PPG."

Madzy said the interior has gone through some changes since he was a boy. A big canopy was behind the alter, he said, before the iconostas was installed.

Gribik said the iconostas is a screen displaying a number of icons, in an order fixed by ancient rules of the church. It screens the altar from the congregation and represents the separation between Heaven and Earth. He pointed up to the domed ceiling of the church and said the round shape was a reminder of God encompassing his people.

"The art speaks," said Gribik. "You have to read beyond the words."

Parishioner Mary Ann Zubik-Kunkle said her grandfather came from Ukraine.

"My entire family followed in the traditions and customs he brought," said Zubik-Kunkle.

She remembered when the liturgy was a combination of Slavonik and English. She moved away from Ford City for a period of time but was comforted, upon her return, to find the traditions were still as strong as ever.

Those traditions include the art of Pysanky Easter egg design and the baking of prosphora, a special bread made around Christmas. Parishioners receive the bread at church to share with their families at supper on Christmas Eve.

But it's the cheese and potato-filled comfort food that most residents of Ford City associate with the parish.

There are countless ways of spelling the Eastern European dumpling, but to members of St. Mary's, it's spelled pirohi.

"That's our brand," Madzy said with a laugh.

The parish has been making pirohi to sell as a fundraising effort since 1981.

Although some of the Byzantine customs and traditions may seem unfamiliar to Roman Catholics, St. Mary's is an Eastern Catholic church in full communion with the pope in Rome, said Gribik.

Gribik will be celebrating the Polka Mass at the John B. Ford Memorial Park (Ford City Park) on Sunday, July 8 at 12:30 p.m. A tour of St. Mary's Church is planned for later that day from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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