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Fall festival, church tour fill gap left by Nationality Days in Ambridge

| Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, 3:14 p.m.

Ambridge will play host to a new event to celebrate, honor and showcase its religious community and heritage.

The Ambridge Fall Festival of the Churches will celebrate the rich history of the founding fathers of Old Economy and the 20 ethnic churches in Ambridge's religious community.

Kim Villella, president of the Ambridge Chamber of Commerce, said the festival, which runs Sept. 23 and 24, is Ambridge's twist on Founder's Day, a concept that originated from the religious history of Old Economy Village founded by the Harmony Society in 1824.

“A lot of communities have a Founder's Day and because we were founded by a religious community, the Harmony Society, and the churches have always been a pillar, that's where the concept originated from,” Villella said.

The festival starts Sept. 23 with a three-hour historic bus tour to four churches: St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox; St. Vladimir Ukrainian; St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic and St. John Lutheran, which is the oldest church in the borough and the first Harmonist church. The tour includes an architectural review and history of the buildings.

The tour is limited to 100 people and costs $10 per person. Tickets are available online or at the Ambridge municipal building, 600 11th St. A tour guide from Old Economy and an Ambridge historian will be on the buses. Registration starts at 6 p.m. at Trinity Seminary, 311 11th St., and will end there with light refreshments.

On Sept. 24, a parish parade will be held at 10 a.m. The parade routes down Merchant Street, up 14th Street to New Economy Way and ends at P.J. Caul Park on 11th Street. The opening ceremony will be at 11:30 a.m. followed by an all-day festival in the park. State Rep. Rob Matzie is the master of ceremonies and the Rev. Joseph Carr, pastor of Good Samaritan, will say the opening prayer.

To kick off the festival, Villella said organizers are starting what they call the Ringing of the Bells — one that they hope to continue. At noon, all of the church bells in town will ring simultaneously.

Ambridge is home to 20 active churches and boasts one of the largest religious communities per square miles nationwide.

Little bells will be passed out to the kids to ring and the hope is that in years to come, participants will bring bells as well, Villella said.

“Our church bells have always played an important part. With me being a merchant for over 30 years, every day the church bells would ring. I think it is a cool part of the festival.”

Villella said organizers took little elements from past festivals and tried to recreate and rebrand something they could be proud of. They also wanted to fill a void, especially after the popular Nationality Days festival ended last year after running annually for 50 years.

Ambridge also once had a seven-church walk on Holy Thursday, when hundreds of people would gather at the park and walk to each church to say a prayer. That's the idea for the bus tour came in, Villella said.

“We've tried to bring back old elements from Ambridge festivals that have been lost,” Villella said. “There always used to be big floats in our parades. We have a few churches bringing out the floats. Part of Nationality Days, one of the old traditions that was lost is they always had a king and queen. Every church had a student represent them who would be in the parade dressed and crowned. So we're bringing that factor back.”

Each participating parish will be represented by a girl and boy, known as Good Will Ambassadors. The children will participate in an essay scholarship contest and one girl and boy will be awarded a $100 scholarship. The king and queen will be crowned at the opening ceremony.

In all, there are 12 participating churches. Ten will be participating in the festival along with five non-profits, for a total of 15 vendors. Some churches have partnered with local businesses to sell food while others will have homemade ethnic food offerings prepared by the churches. Highlights also include live ethnic music and dance, community bingo, and children's activities sponsored by the borough.

Ambridge Councilwoman Tina Iorfido-Miller said the borough's fall festival has merged with this new festival. Activities include face painting, balloon art, a petting zoo from 3 to 5 p.m., pumpkin painting, cookie decorating, spin art, a duck pond, and pony rides.

“It's going to be great. To see the chamber and the borough join forces, it's never happened before,” Iorfido-Miller said.

“This could not be possible without the cooperation of Ambridge Borough,” Villella added.

Larissa Dudkiewicz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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