St. Sebastian drew praise from bishop
Speaking at the formal dedication of St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in North Belle Vernon, the Most Rev. Hugh L. Lamb, Bishop of the Diocese of Greensburg, said the history of the church “is a pattern of the history of the Catholic Church. Like the mother church, it began in poverty, grew in adversity and emerged gloriously.”
That was 56 years ago this week, on Sunday, Dec. 9, 1956.
The Charleroi Mail reported in its coverage of the event that Lamb “praised the work of the late Very Rev. Francis L. Martin, under whose guidance work on the $300,000 structure began two years ago.”
The new church was built at the corner of Broad Avenue and Fayette Street.
The bishop also lauded Martin's successor, the Rev. Henry F. Hanse, for accomplishing many things at his former parish in Freeport and for carrying forward the hopes of St. Sebastian.
“Under his guidance St. Sebastian will become the finest parish in the Greensburg Diocese,” Lamb said of Hanse. “The new church is a monument in stone and marble in this generation and the generations yet to come.”
Approximately 800 people filled the church to capacity for the dedication services. They comprised parishioners and guests and 30 visiting clergy, 20 nuns and six monsignors. Other priests from the area were unable to participate because of the weather.
Some changes in the rites were made necessary because of the heavy rain and snow that covered the area just before the services began. For dedication services, the bishop was to enter the church first with his procession and the parishioners were to follow. But Lamb relaxed this ruling and the parishioners were in their pews before the service began.
Lamb and his procession of priests, altar boys and an honor guard of Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus entered from the sacristy and proceeded to the back of the church. There, Lamb blessed the entrance before blessing the altars, the sanctuary, the main body of the church and the appointments.
The bishop delivered a brief sermon at a point in the solemn pontifical Mass in which he drew the comparison of St. Sebastian Church and the Roman Catholic Church in general.
“It was started in poverty, grew in adversity and emerged gloriously victorious,” he said.
The parish's excellent website, www.saintsebastianchurch.org, notes that its history “can be rapidly traced from an early failure, then Mass in an empty storeroom, to the beautiful church” that exists today.
“Efforts to organize a Catholic congregation in Belle Vernon were made as early as 1905, although at that time there were very few Catholic families in the community,” the St. Sebastian history recalls. “The first Mass in Belle Vernon was held in a small hall in the Edgar Corwin building on Main Street. The altar for the initial Mass was built by the late Jacob B. Hassen. This attempt proved unsuccessful. A few months later local Catholics again were attending Mass in Charleroi and Monessen, as had been their custom, making the trip to Charleroi on foot.”
Another attempt to organize a congregation in 1908 and 1909 proved successful. The Rev. Albert J. Wigley, then pastor of St. Leonard Church in Monessen, guided the effort and established a St. Sebastian Church as a mission. Mrs. (first name unknown) Drvao, the wife of the superintendent of the former local plant of the American Window Glass Company in Belle Vernon, “was very helpful” in setting up the new mission.
Mass was celebrated in an empty room on the second floor of the McClure Building at Second and Main streets. Later, the congregation moved to a larger building owned by Clarence Luce, but they returned to the McClure site when the Luce property owned decided to remodel.
Subsequent progress included construction of what became “the old” St. Sebastian Church at the corner of Speer and Baltimore streets around 1914-15. It was built by the Moats Lumber Company at a cost of $5,000 in the “fast-developing new section of the community known as North Belle Vernon,” the church history recalls. The parish remained a mission to St. Leonard Church and offered one Mass on Sunday, preceded by confessions and followed by catechism instructions for children.
“It was a glorious day for St. Sebastian early in 1924 when the Most Rev. Hugh C. Boyle, bishop of Pittsburgh, assigned the Rev. Dennis N. Murphy as the first resident pastor,” the website says. “He pioneered the development of the new parish during his 12 years in Belle Vernon.”
Following Murphy as pastor were the Rev. James J. O'Connell, the Rev. Dennis A. Boyle and the Rev. Eugene Harkins. Father Martin, “with instructions from Bishop Boyle and his coadjutor, the Most Rev. John Francis Dearden, came to Belle Vernon in 1949, replacing Father Harkins, who was assigned to an enlarging St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon. Unexpectedly in 1950, as plans were advancing to begin construction of a new St. Sebastian church and school, the Diocese of Pittsburgh was geographically divided and the new Diocese of Greensburg was formed. Belle Vernon came under the jurisdiction of the new diocese and “the many perplexing problems in setting up a new diocese brought a delay in the plans for St. Sebastian's expansion.”
Parishioners and Martin persevered and early in 1954 building plans were finally drawn up under the guidance of Lamb and his Diocesan Building Committee. The present site of the church, where the Belle Vernon station of the Pennsylvania State Police was housed, was purchased from Thomas Malpass Jr. Architect H. Ernest Clark was hired to design the new edifice. J. Justin Brown and Son of Mt. Lebanon was awarded the general contracting and ground was broken on July 4, 1954.
A front page photograph in the July 6, 1954, edition of The Monessen Daily Independent showed Harkins and Martin turning the symbolic first shovels of dirt. Also participating in the traditional groundbreaking were the Rev. Thomas McDonald, assistant at St. Sebastian, and members of the church building committee.
Preceding the groundbreaking, members of the Holy Name Society and member of the Belle Vernon Council, Knights of Columbus, marched in procession from the St. Sebastian Church on Speer Street to the Broad Avenue location. The procession was led by a color guard from Belle Vernon Post 659 of The American Legion under the direction of commander Albert Frank.
The cornerstone of the new church was blessed on Laetare Sunday – March 11, 1956. Officiating at the ceremonies was the Right Rev. Monsignor C.J. Vogel, Chancellor of the Diocese of Greensburg and personal delegate of Lamb. More than 1,000 priests, nuns, parishioners, guests and non-parishioners attended the event. Harkins served as deacon at the services and the Rev. Charles Ribick, pastor of St. Edward Church in Fayette City, was the sub-deacon. Monsignor Vogel sealed into a cornerstone on the Gospel side of the altar a copper receptacle containing a history of the church, names of the members and church groups, medals, papers and other artifacts.
The joyous mood of the congregation was short-lived when Martin died on April 10, 1956, following a siege of pneumonia.
“Although he did not live to see his plans become reality, he was there in spirit as Bishop Lamb permitted his funeral Mass to be the first offered in the new church,” the St. Sebastian website says.
St. Sebastian was without a pastor for two months following Martin's death. The Rev. Henry Murphy, appointed as a second assistant on Sept. 24, 1954, was named acting pastor by the bishop and was aided by the Rev. Thomas McDonald, first resident assistant. The Rev. Henry F. Hanse of St. Mary's Church in Freeport was named the sixth pastor in church history and began his duties on July 5, 1956. The Rev. David Fisher also arrived at that time as a new assistant replacing McDonald. Murphy was retained at St. Sebastian.
Hanse emphasized to the parishioners that he intended to carry out the plans for the new church and school that Martin had envisioned prior to his death. Sunday Mass was said for the first time in the new church on July 15, 1956. The school at St. Sebastian opened on Sept. 11, 1957, with 67 students and in 1960 a house was purchased on Broad Avenue to serve as the convent for nuns.
St. Sebastian has experienced constant growth over the years and the parish now numbers over 1,650 households and families. Students from the parish and neighboring churches are enrolled in the school.
The bricks and mortar of the spacious and beautiful complex at Broad Avenue and Fayette Street stand as a reminder of Lamb's poignant homily 56 years ago. The ministries, activities and programs offered to meet the needs of the parishioners and the community perpetuate the deep faith and commitment of so many over the years.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.