Connellsville's Catholic churches blend faith, goodwill with ethnicity
Editor's note: It's a Connellsville Christmas will be held on Saturday and Sunday. As part of the celebration, some local churches will open their doors for tours. Throughout this week, the Daily Courier is spotlighting some of the churches included in the tours.
From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, Southwestern Pennsylvania was a beehive of blue collar industry. The region's coal mines and coke yards fueled Pittsburgh's steel mills which in turn made the precious metal that helped turn America into the world power that it is today.
The local mines and mills lured thousands of workers — especially European immigrants seeking a better life than they had in “The Old Country.” They settled around each other – Irish, Germans, Slovaks, Italians, Poles, Hungarians and others — sharing their native languages and keeping alive the customs and traditions of their countries.
Attending church was a major focus of such immigrants. Many were Roman Catholic. When they formed churches, it was usually by nationality. So it was in Fayette County, including the Connellsville area.
Immaculate Conception city's first RC church
The Irish and Germans came to Pennsylvania in America's first major wave of immigrants. As early as the 1830s, the Catholic bishop of Philadelphia appointed the Rev. Michael Gallagher to serve Southwestern Pennsylvania. Four decades later — around 1870 — the number of Irish Catholics and Catholics of other backgrounds had become so significant that Immaculate Conception Church became Connellsville's first Roman Catholic parish.
IC's first church was a house on Orchard Alley, opening in 1873. It was dubbed “The Irish church on the hill.” When the congregation grew, the parish built its second church in 1887 on the corner of Apple and Prospect streets. The brick structure burned in 1892. Its bricks were salvaged and used, along with new bricks, in the construction of the towering Gothic church that now stands on West Crawford Avenue, high above downtown Connellsville. This “Irish church on the hill” has remained at its location since 1896.
St. John's: Slovak
In 1891, newly arrived families from the Spis / Saris regions of Slovakia petitioned to establish a church in town. The Rev, Ray Widner was named pastor of the new church, which was named St. John the Evangelist.
The congregation purchased a small building on Seventh Street. Originally, it had served as a Protestant house of worship, dating back to 1870. By the mid-1890s, St. John's congregation was bursting at the seams; it was time for a new building.
A larger brick structure was dedicated in 1899 at its present location on the corner of West Crawford Avenue and Route 119. Like IC Church, St. John's parishioners saw to it that the church was decorated with enormous (and now priceless) stained glass windows that depict scenes from the Bible's New Testament.
St. John's original church was sold to a group of Hungarians, who reopened it as St. Emory's Church. When St. Emory's congregation built a larger church atop Arch Street, they sold the Seventh Street property to Polish residents, who established Holy Trinity Church there in 1904.
St. Emory's lost an estimated 100 parishioners when Darr Mine of Smithton exploded in 1907. More than 300 coal miners perished in the disaster. The Arch Street church closed in 1970 due to declining membership. It was sold and reopened as Faith Bible Church, which occupies the structure today.
Holy Trinity Church's congregation maintained its proud Polish heritage until it was closed in 2008, due to changes in the Greensburg Diocese. Currently the building is vacant, but its ethnic spirit carries on. The three remaining Catholic churches, IC, St. John and St. Rita, are now referred to as the Partner Parishes of Connellsville, with Connellsville native the Rev. Bob Lubic as pastor. The building's stained glass windows now adorn the chapel at Geibel High School.
St. Rita's: Italian
St. Rita's church roots can be traced back to an earlier church named Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was located off South Pittsburgh street near Carnegie Free Library.
Founded in 1902, its pastor was the Rev. C. E. Feniello, who was killed in December 1903 in the wreck of B&O's Duquesne Limited. He was returning to Connellsville from Pittsburgh, where he had traveled to purchase holiday treats for the parish's children, when a train headed in the opposite direction spilled wooden logs onto the railroad tracks. More than 60 people died in the December crash, which happened near Dawson.
After Feniello died, Our Lady of Mount Carmel floundered financially and closed.
Then, the Rev. Enrico DeVivo arrived in town. He rallied the Italian Catholics. In 1915, construction of St. Rita's Church began at its present site on Second Street, West Side. Church-goers helped to build it. Like IC Church, St. Rita's is constructed from recycled bricks that were painstakingly cleaned with the strenuous work of its congregation members.
St. Rita's first mass was celebrated on Christmas 1915. By the early 1920s, its Tiffany stained glass windows glittered and its ceiling fresco paintings transformed it into the miniature Sistine Chapel that it is today.
Ethnicity has blended
Many things change with the years. So it has been with the congregations of Connellsville's Catholic churches. Membership — much like America — has become a melting pot. People from all nationalities attend the churches. They enjoy the ethnic backgrounds of each, especially during the summer festivals that attract hundreds of people — of Catholic, Protestant and other faiths — who savor the foods unique to each of the parishes.
These churches — built with the labor and love of their members — are a testament to a faith longstanding, as evidenced by the many renovations that have occurred over the past 100-plus years. Each parish welcomes the chance to share their building's history this Saturday during the It's a Connellsville Christmas tours.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.
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