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Closings, mergers alter McKeesport's church landscape

| Monday, July 11, 2011

(This is the first of a two-part story about the church closings, mergers and demolitions in McKeesport. The first story reflects the memories of three parishioners from three closed parishes. Tomorrow`s story will address the history of those churches.)

Throughout history, when people settle in an area, one of the first things they do is build a place to worship because their lives center around their faith.

McKeesport was no exception, with the different nationality groups that settled in the city building houses of worship. These Catholic churches represented folks who wanted to maintain their ethnic roots — German, Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian.

Through the years, those once-thriving churches began to feel the impact of an aging population and economic changes in the community. Many of those parishioners worked in the steel mills and, as they gradually began to slow production and eventually close, younger members began to move away to find employment. Devoted but aging congregations continued worshipping in buildings constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, often by their relatives.

Eventually, some of those parishes closed their doors as 'new' churches were formed by those congregations. Some of those churches remain closed while others are being demolished. For some, this marks a bittersweet end to memories and traditions forged in those houses of worship, an ending some believe did not have to come.

Three men who were members of churches involved in the recent mergers discussed the impact it has had on them and how they feel a part of their lives has been taken away.

Jared Mansfield of Port Vue grew up going to St. Stephen`s Church along Beacon Street. Church was such a big part of his life that he attended seminary for three years. But in recent years, he sees the church — especially its leaders — losing focus.

'The mission of priests is to bring people close to God and on a path of holiness,' he said. 'A lot of priests come in and it`s just about the money and balancing the books, it`s not about bringing people to God.'

He said his entire family attended St. Stephen`s since it was founded. 'I went there all my life until it closed when I was 18. I was an altar boy and helped out doing things around the church. It was quite a disillusionment when it closed.'

The final Mass at St. Stephen`s was July 7, 2002.

It`s that disillusionment that does not sit well with him. 'There`s not a reason for people to go to church. They (church leaders) don`t try to bring people back to the church once they leave. They think they can close as many parishes as possible and people will keep going, but that doesn`t happen. A lot of people fall away from going to church and then they just stop going altogether. It`s a very slippery slope. There are enough Catholics in this area that the churches shouldn`t be closing. They just want to have as few churches as possible without regard to history or people,' he said.

When the decision is made to close a church, Mansfield said, there is no concern for the history of the parish.

'These churches have been here a long time and they were built by immigrants with their own money and labor,' he said. 'They did it so their families would have a church to go to for worship. A lot of the churches were built by fewer families than were attending the church when it was closed. St. Stephen`s was the third Hungarian church founded in the United States. St. Mary`s German at Olive and Locust streets was the only German church modeled after the early Christian basilicas, but because it didn`t have a social hall, they tore it down. Corpus Christi doesn`t have a social hall either, they use St. Peter`s social hall (along Market Street). The leaders will use any excuse to close a church.'

Mansfield said that in the early `90s, churches were closed without input from the parishioners. Members of parish councils charged with the task of assessing the possibility of closing a church often were chosen by the pastor, he said.

Citing reasons given for some of the recent closings, he said the walls reportedly were listing at St. Peters, 'but did anyone come in and see what the cost would be to fix the problem• To do any renovations, you have to get permission from the diocese to do the work and they won`t give permission.'

Questioning the financial side of church closings, Mansfield said St. Stephen`s had a six-figure surplus when the parish closed in the 1990s. That money, he said, went to St. Pius V along Versailles Avenue when the two parishes merged.

In the case of St. Pius V, he said it was closed after the blizzard of 2010. 'They claimed it was ice that damaged the church. I don`t know.'

He said there are instances when a priest is sent to church with the intention of closing the parish. 'When certain priests go to a parish, everyone knows what will happen — it will close.'

Bernie Bubanic of Port Vue went to Holy Trinity along Seventh Avenue since he was a child, attending school there and walking every day to class because there were no buses.

'From the time I was in third grade I was helping out in the church,' he said. 'I became an altar boy in sixth grade and the priest depended on me all the time. I stayed for all the Masses and anything he wanted done he would ask me and I would do it.'

When someone was needed to fill the position of sacristan, Bubanic said he considered the task. 'I felt a breeze over my head and I thought that was a sign. I told them I was interested and they handed me the keys to the church. I`ve been a part of the church all my life.'

Like Mansfield, he`s also disheartened by the closings. Since his parish closed, he`s been attending Mass at St. Joseph in Port Vue because it`s close to his home. Parishioners could join Corpus Christi, he said, or like him, a parish closer to their home. 'A lot of people are going to St. Patrick in Christy Park or St. Angela Merici in White Oak. I`ve heard that members of the other churches cannot get involved with programs at Corpus Christi, like the choir. That`s what people have told me,' Bubanic said.

Before Holy Trinity closed, he said there was a meeting with parishioners to talk about gas leaks in the school and church. 'We were told they could replace the gas valves and the same with the gas lines in the church because it was a service line outside. The priest closed Sacred Heart and St. Peters in the winter because of the gas bills and said they would reopen in the spring, but they never reopened. The people didn`t agree to close the churches down.'

The diocese theme, Bubanic said, is 'The Church Alive.' 'But it`s not. Is that the church alive at St. Peters• It`s not a church that`s alive. They are trying to kill the church by driving a stake through its life and vitality,' he said.

John Kessler of McKeesport was a third-generation member of St. Mary`s German Church, which eventually became part of St. Martin de Porres and is now Corpus Christi.

'I went to school there and was very involved at the church,' Kessler said. 'I was a sacristan there and also a Eucharistic minister. When St. Mary closed, it was a big decision for me because I didn`t know whether to stay with them or go elsewhere. But I decided to say when they became St. Martin de Porres. It took a few years, but I eventually got involved with things there, too.'

St. Mary`s German was the second oldest church in McKeesport, with St. Peter`s being the oldest. 'When St. Mary closed it was one of the saddest days I can remember,' Kessler said. 'My family went back in that church to my great-grandparents. It was really, really tough when it closed.'

The closure of St. Martin de Porres, he said, 'marked the end of the line for a lot of us. When it became Corpus Christi, there were not a lot of opportunities for volunteers. When that building closed, my wife and I decided to go to St. Mary Romanian (in Christy Park).'

Kessler said he met the priest at that church when Holy Trinity/St. Martin de Porres closed. 'He asked me if I would be interested in taking care of that church. I felt like he wanted me to be there and I wanted to go someplace where I felt wanted and needed. It`s Catholic but a little different.'

His interest in the churches in McKeesport led Kessler to becoming an historian of sorts, documenting in recent years their closings and demolition. He noted a bit of historic irony when St. Martin de Porres closed its doors. 'St. Mary`s German closed Oct. 24, 1993. The first Mass at St. Martin de Porres was Oct. 31, 1993, and the last Mass at that church was Oct. 31, 2010. It was sad when that church closed, too, and it took me back to when St. Mary closed.'

Kessler said the parishioners are the 'heart and soul' of the church and 'we really didn`t have a say in what happened. There was a church council of maybe six to 10 members and they met with Father (John B. Gizler) and discussed what to do. There was a meeting to explain the things that were wrong but there was never anything about what it would cost to have it fixed.'

Describing the feeling of having two churches close that he was involved with, he said, 'For me it was like a friend dying. You want to see a piece of it remaining but it`s gone altogether now. Holy Trinity is demolished and it is unbelievably sad. It leaves me with an empty feeling.'

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