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Monessen church hits century mark

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 7:31 p.m.
The Iconastas of the new St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church in Monessen. The church celebrates its 100th anniversary this weekend.
The Iconastas of the new St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church in Monessen. The church celebrates its 100th anniversary this weekend.

A century ago, Monessen was a busy mill town, 11 years removed from its founding, when a group of Syrian immigrants founded a church where they could worship with their fellow countrymen.

“The Mon Valley was a melting pot for Syrian immigrants ... who came to find a new life. They (Syrians) had a big following here,” said George Essey of Monessen, a member of St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church's centennial celebration committee.

St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church on Patton Avenue, Monessen, will continue its centennial celebration on Sunday with a special service and a dinner. Orthos, a pre-service, will be held at 9 a.m., followed at 10 a.m. by a hierarchical Divine Liturgy concelebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Joseph of Charleston, W.Va., and Auxiliary Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan. Essey is a Monessen native who was a member St. Michael as a youngster, and a cousin of George Essey.

A special catered dinner for parishioners and families is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at the St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church Hellenic Center at St. Spyridon Lane, Monessen. Essey is expecting a good turnout for the centennial celebration. The parish has about 75 members who come to the church from Mon Valley communities, as well as South Park and Bentleyville, said the Rev. Fred Pfeil, who has been the priest at St. Michael since 2004. In terms of the demographics, about half of the parishioners are of Mid-Eastern descent and the other half are converts, Pfeil said.

The church opted not to have a special Middle Eastern meal, the kind of traditional dishes that were prepared by parishioners and served in October, said Joan Rakosky, another member of the church centennial celebration committee.

“We wanted to free up everyone who usually bakes — women and men — so they would not have to cook,” at the centennial celebration, Rakosky said.

In addition to the food, parishioners will be able to enjoy a special exhibit of church photos and commemorative booklets, Rakosky said.

“There will be many artifacts from the church and the Syrian community that will be on display at the reunion,” Rakosky said.

Most of the immigrants who formed the Syrian community in the Monessen area were from Homs, a city in western Syria that was the target of intense bombing this summer during the ongoing Syrian civil war. The Syrian immigrants to Monessen opted to open businesses and become door-to-door peddlers of goods, rather than toil in the manufacturing plants, said George Essey, whose parents immigrated to the United States in the 1920s.

While the Syrian immigrants formed a congregation in Monessen in 1913, it was not until two years later when the congregation had its first church building. St. Michael Syrian-Greek Orthodox Church on Ninth Street was dedicated in January 1915, according to a story in The Daily Independent, a predecessor to The Valley Independent in Monessen.

The Syrian Orthodox Church has undergone some transformations over the years, changing its name to Syrian Orthodox Antiochian Church in 1935 and then to the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in the 1970s, according to Essey.

The congregation remained in that structure for almost 80 years, before buying the former St. Anthony Croatian Catholic Church on Patton Avenue in January 1992. Worship at the new church began in March 1992.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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