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Mt. St. Macrina offers beauty, tranquility

| Tuesday, March 25, 2008

For many years, Mt. St. Macrina in Uniontown has been a site of spiritual awakening and reflection. Its acreage offers visitors a peaceful and tranquil setting.

Since 1934, the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great have called the site home, but its birth began with the boom of the area's industrial age.

The place now known as Mt. St. Macrina was once part of the extensive 1000-plus acre property of Josiah Van Kirk Thompson, millionaire baron of the coal industry. He bought and built Oak Hill Estate at the eastern end of the property in 1902-1903.

Thompson, of Uniontown, began work in the First National Bank upon gradation from Washington and Jefferson College. After his father, who served as president of the bank died, Thompson inherited the business. He began to invest in the coal industry and soon found himself a millionaire.

While Oak Hill was being built, Thompson took his bride "Hunney" on an extended around-the-world honeymoon, purchasing fabulous furnishings and accessories to bring to their new home.

The marriage only lasted a few years, however. After a reputed divorce that cost him $1 million, Thompson found himself at odds with coal baron Henry Clay Frick and Thomas Lynch of the U.S. Steel Corp. He soon declared bankruptcy.

Thompson not only lost his business, but Oak Hill. He was permitted to remain in his 43-room mansion until his death in 1933.

During Thompson's illness, the sale of the southeastern part of the property was finalized, and the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great relocated from Scranton to Uniontown. They began to remodel the estate, converting the mansion to suit their needs.

The former billiard room was converted into a chapel and still showcases the California redwood of the original dwelling. The adjacent sitting area, done with massive baroque and lavish ornamentation of the Louis XIV French-style period, was transformed into the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

The white Italian marble fireplace was remodeled to suit the sisters' needs.

"The mantle in that room was extended to make the altar," Sister Barbara Jean Mihalchick said, "and a hand-painted icon hung above it for many years."

The icon was in place until the mid-1980s when it was replaced by a mosaic, created and donated by a Vatican mosaic artist.

Over the years, a large mausoleum was added to the cemetery area, and a five-story building was constructed in 1965 that became the home for all the Sisters of the Uniontown Province of the Sisters of St. Basil the Great. The last and latest facility to be built on the property was Mt. Macrina Manor Nursing Home.

"It's a nice facility," Mihalchick said. "It was completed in 1971 and expanded in the early 1990s. It houses about 140, and we now offer two levels of Alzheimer care."

The former Thompson estate was officially dedicated on Sept. 3, 1934, and was named Mt. St. Macrina after St Basil's sister. That Labor Day dedication was the first pilgrimage held in honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and the first event, which featured hundreds of the faithful, has grown to feature thousands. It stands as the largest event of its kind to be held in the United States.

"The pilgrimage is attended by thousands who travel from all over the county," Mihalchick said, adding that they are delighted to see a surge in youth participation in the pilgrimage. "The progress that we see is the increasing number of families and young people. The numbers have been increasing, perhaps for the past 10 years, and we now have a sizable number of young people who attend."

Preparations are fully under way for the upcoming Labor Day pilgrimage and the sisters are already looking even further ahead.

"2009 will be our 75 anniversary for the pilgrimage and the sisters are already planning for it," Mihalchick said.

Featured at the annual pilgrimage is the selling of the "honey cake," made in large quantities by the sisters.

"The sisters, along with volunteers, make about 30,000 cookies every year," said Susan McCarthy, communications director. "People come every year and buy dozens of them. They begin to make them in May and June."

In addition to the annual retreat, smaller intimate retreats and group gatherings are held throughout the year. The House of Prayer, the former Thompson mansion, was added to the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of Interior and is open for tours upon request.

Volunteers help throughout Mt. St. Macrina and the grounds.

"Our volunteers are involved in the monastery, help on the grounds and at the House of Prayer," Mihalchick said. "We couldn't live without them."

The grounds are open to the public, enabling visitors to quietly walk or visit the shrines and meditation areas dotted throughout the former estate.

"I often look out and see someone praying at the outside shrine here or walking the grounds," Mihalchick said. "We welcome people who respect the property and who wish to visit."

The religious gift shop is open year round, and includes many icons, inspiration cards, religious jewelry, medals, statues and hand-made items for many occasions.

For information on retreats or for volunteer information, contact the sisters at 724-438-7149, visit the Web site at www.sistersofstbasil.org or e-mail msm-rc@earthling.net.

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