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New exhibit remembers 1907 Darr Mine disaster

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2007

John Manack and his son, Steve, should have been underground that day.

Into the abyss, the others had gone, carrying their open-flamed lanterns and armed with black powder and dynamite to pry the coal from the earth.

But on this day -- Dec. 19, 1907 -- the Manacks were not with their fellow miners at the Darr Mine in Van Meter, Rostraver Township.

Instead, they and about 200 other miners were gathered across the Youghiogheny River in the village of Jacobs Creek to celebrate the feast day of their patron saint, St. Nicholas.

The blast from the mine came at 11:30 a.m., forever silencing the 239 men and boys underground.

But the men who were at church -- mostly Carpatho-Rusyns who had forgone a day's wages to pay homage to their patron -- would live on in flesh and in lore.

"I do believe that that was the way it was supposed to be," said John Manack's granddaughter, Mildred Calderone, 87, of West Newton. "It was a miracle. I just think it's more than we can imagine."

As the 100th anniversary of the Darr Mine explosion approaches, people are pausing to not only remember the 239 victims but to celebrate what some have called "The Miracle of St. Nicholas."

On Saturday, historians and mining experts will gather for a symposium at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh as a kick-off to its new exhibit, "The Darkest Month: Coal Mining Disasters of December 1907."

And on Dec. 19, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Jacobs Creek, founded after the disaster to honor the saint's life-saving role that day, will hold a special service.

December 1907 was the darkest month in U.S. coal mining history.

More than 700 miners across the United States died in mining accidents that month -- most at either Darr or Monongah, a West Virginia mine that claimed the lives of 362 men in the worst mining accident in the nation's history.

Darr and Monongah remain linked both by tragedy and by the "Miracle of St. Nicholas."

The Monongah mine exploded on Dec. 6, 1907 -- the feast day of St. Nicholas in the Roman Catholic Church. An estimated 60 miners, who went to church instead of work because they considered St. Nicholas their patron, were spared that day.

Thirteen days later, the Carpatho-Rusyns in Jacobs Creek, East Huntingdon, celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas because Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches followed the Julian calendar.

For Christina Duranko, of Whitaker, Allegheny County, who has researched the disasters, it's more than a coincidence -- it's a miracle.

"If the dates had been flipped, it wouldn't have been possible," she said. "That, to me, is irrefutable that it's a miracle."

It's a miracle that will be celebrated by two churches to honor St. Nicholas' role that day -- St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Jacobs Creek and St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in Perryopolis, Fayette County.

Members of both will gather Dec. 19 at the Orthodox church to remember those who died and those who were spared.

"We certainly don't believe that those who were saved were better than those who died, but for whatever reason, St. Nicholas prayed to save those miners that day," said the Rev. Ed Pehanich, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. "If it wasn't for the service that day, another 200 men would have lost their lives."

In 1907, it was a Greek Catholic priest from Leisenring, Fayette County, who traveled to Jacobs Creek for the Dec. 19 observance.

Although the mine had been closed for two days and they would lose wages for a third straight day, the miners went to church instead.

"If you were Orthodox, you just didn't work on St. Nicholas, and they didn't go to work that day," Calderone said of the stories she heard of her uncle and grandfather. "And mom said that's why they lived, because they didn't work on St. Nicholas Day, and that's the day the mine blew up."

Calderone's mother, Katherine (Manack) Ritz, was 9 years old when the explosion occurred. If her father had died, the family would have been destitute.

Calderone is not sure -- dates and memories have faded -- but she thinks some of her mother's five brothers and sisters were born after the mine explosion.

"That was kind of always the story," said Calderone's granddaughter, Kristen Matey, 31, of Jacobs Creek. "There would have been part of the family that wouldn't be here. It literally would have been life-altering for a lot of people."

Duranko said it's been difficult to find people whose loved ones survived because of the miracle.

Many families packed up and left the area to find other work after the explosion, and some headed back to their homelands.

"If they survived, there really wasn't a reason to stay," she said.

And while newspaper accounts mention the men and boys who survived because they were in church, there was no in-depth interviewing of survivors.

Duranko said reporters of the day couldn't communicate with the mostly non-English speaking miners. And miners hesitated to talk about the disaster because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

So the story is told through snippets of newspaper articles, oral histories and photographs.

Calderone never met her grandfather -- he died either before she was born or soon after.

But there were little things she remembers from years gone by, like the group of men who would come on Orthodox Christmas and sing carols at her house in an unfamiliar tongue.

"I'd say, 'What are they singing• Why are they here?' " Calderone remembers asking her mother. "She'd say, 'Well, they belong to the Russian Orthodox church.' She didn't go into detail, but she said, 'They know they're welcome here.' "

It was a strange sight to Calderone, who was raised Roman Catholic because of a religious split in the family.

Her grandmother was Roman Catholic. Her grandfather was Orthodox. So the girls, including Calderone's mother, were raised as Roman Catholic and the boys in the Orthodox church.

Calderone converted to the Orthodox church in 1936, the year she got married.

And, true to her family connection, she attends St. Nicholas in Jacobs Creek, where the story of the miracle lives on.

Anniversary events

Two upcoming events are scheduled to mark the 100th anniversary of the Darr Mine disaster:

• A symposium of historians and mining experts will mark the start of the "Darkest Month" exhibit Saturday at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. Registration, which runs from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., can still be made today by calling Nicholas Ciotola at 412-454-6433. The symposium costs $19.07, which includes breakfast and entrance to all exhibits. The exhibit, which includes photos and artifacts from both the Darr and the Monongah mine disaster in West Virginia, will be open until June.

• St. Nicholas Orthodox Church on Main Street in Jacobs Creek will hold a service at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 to remember the deaths at Darr Mine and those whose lives were spared because they attended church on the feast day of St. Nicholas. The service will include the unveiling of an icon of St. Nicholas with a group of coal miners.

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