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Orthodox faithful endure in the face of mine disaster, church fire

| Sunday, June 1, 2003

To Kathy Matey, the recent re-dedication of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church at Jacobs Creek was "an uplifting day."

The church had sustained extensive damage in an early morning electrical fire on Jan. 29, 2001, and it had been closed for a year for renovations. The official re-dedication of the church by His Eminence Metropolitan Nicholas, Hierarch of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the USA, marked an end to a trying time for the parish.

Matey, a parish council member, said the church had been under-insured and the small parish faced a daunting task. Down to a membership of 20 to 30 families, the church had already been operating on a month-to-month basis.

Becky Bobich, a church member for 55 years, said her husband, Charles, turned on heat or air-conditioning an hour before a service, and turned it off after the service was over.

"We (the parish) managed on the income we had," Becky Bobich said.

She added that it helped that "our boys are all handy," to help with repairs. One son, Michael, is the current parish council president.

It might have been easier to close the church after the fire, but Charles Bobich and others, were "not ready to let it go," Matey said.

Construction on the current church was started in 1959 to replace a circa 1911 house of worship that was threatened by a stream that ran under it. Charles Bobich, his brother, the late Frank Bobich, and a handful of others converted an old school building in the village.

But the Orthodox faith in Jacobs Creek predates churches there, with immigrants from Central Europe starting to meet for services in one another's homes soon after they arrived in America to work in the coal mines.

Metropolitan Nicholas came to Jacobs Creek a few days after the fire to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the charred church.

His recent return was to re-dedicate the church and consecrate the icon screen.

He celebrated the Divine Liturgy with the Rev. Daniel Montville, the pastor of St. Nicholas in Monongahela, who also serves the Jacobs Creek parish.

Visitors from other area Orthodox churches also attended the service. The choir of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Homestead sang.

While the church was being rebuilt, parish members again met in a more humble facility, crowding into a former one-room school house.

Mystic Restoration of Pittsburgh was contracted to rebuild the church. But once again, the parish depended upon volunteer help from its members to clean up debris, and provide such skills as carpentry for the effort. Another Bobich son, John, disassembled a 19th century chandelier, cleaned it, and rebuilt it piece by piece. "He saved us $11,000 right there," his father said.

The church also depended on donations from members of other Orthodox parishes. There are about 85 churches in the diocese, which is based in Johnstown.

In addition to structural damage to the inside and roof of the brick building, some of the church's religious symbols were also destroyed.

Matey said a parishioner was able to persuade firefighters not to chop down the frame of the icon screen as they fought the blaze. But the icons themselves suffered water and smoke damage and had to be redone.

An important part of the reconstruction of the church was hiring iconographer Paul Zimmerman of New Florence to paint the new icons.

The icons are painted according to prescribed rules sent down for thousands of years so that an Orthodox cathedral or church anywhere in the world has the same appearance as the Jacobs Creek church.

The Rev. Frank P. Milro, the chancellor of the diocese, explained that an icon is "not to be worshipped," but it can be thought of as "a window to heaven," helping to lift the mind to a higher spiritual level.

Matey pointed out that many Orthodox churches are named for St. Nicholas. This is particularly appropriate for Jacobs Creek because of the events of Dec. 19, 1907.

On that date, the nearby Darr mine exploded killing 239 miners in one of the worst mine disasters in U.S. history.

But Dec. 19 is also the feast day of St. Nicholas and many of the Orthodox miners didn't work that day, attending the Divine Liturgy instead. An icon of "the Burial of St. Nicholas and the Sparing of the Miners" was painted to commemorate the event.

In the rescue effort, Ann Toth's grandfather carried some of the 239 Darr dead out of the mine. Many of them, like Toth's grandfather, were Hungarian immigrants, and many were buried at the cemetery of the former St. Emery's Hungarian Catholic Church in Connellsville. Toth, of Bobtown, was at the St. Nicholas service to commemorate the deliverance of the Orthodox miners and to remember those who perished.

Metropolitan Nicholas lauded parishioners for rebuilding the church largely on their own.

He also told the members of St. Nicholas that since Jacobs Creek is such a historic town, that "you are an icon."

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