ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

After the Boom

Residents of Pennsylvania’s former coal towns battle the region’s bleak economic landscape

It is the eve of Theophany at St. Mary Protector Byzantine Catholic Church in the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Kingston. Masses of red and white poinsettias frame the iconostasis; the fragrance of beeswax tapers and votive candles fills the air. Father Theodore Krepp celebrates the blessing of water, a purification rite of profound meaning and quiet drama marking the feast of the baptism of Christ. Afterward a hushed congregation lines up to fill bottles with the holy water. “High test stuff,” says an elderly parishioner.

Few of the 100 or so in attendance are children or, for that matter, young. When Father Krepp arrived at St. Mary’s eight years ago, the church had about 275 families. It now has 250, but only 50 children. He points, in contrast, to St. Anne Byzantine Catholic Church in Harrisburg, which was founded in the 1960’s in part because of migration from towns like Kingston; it now has about the same number of families, but three times the number of children. Simply put, demographics indicate that all churches in the region are losing people. With few opportunities locally, almost all the young have left.

Northeastern Pennsylvania at one time contained three-quarters of the world’s anthracite deposits. The 18th-century discovery of the hard coal – formed over 250 million years ago – later sparked a mining frenzy that would fuel the industrialization of the United States, spur revolutions in technology and create boom towns across the region. Desperate for workers, mining companies scoured Central and Eastern Europe for cheap labor, recruiting many agricultural workers eager to escape the turmoil and poverty of their homeland.

The immigrants saw opportunity in the dirty, dangerous jobs in the mines. Devoted to their families and churches, these hard-working people shaped the resilient character of the coal region.

But as the country’s energy consumption shifted toward cleaner fossil fuels and the once massive deposits of coal became depleted, the mines began to close. By the late 1950’s, only a few were left, devastating the region’s once vibrant economy and leaving miners without jobs or the skills to compete in a changing labor market.

Garment, shoe and textile factories provided some economic hope in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but they could not compete with rivals in the South and abroad. Consequently, many were forced to leave the region to find jobs. Coal made many towns and for almost a century they thrived, but the closing of the mines sent these towns into a spiraling decline, from which they have never recovered.

One of the oldest Eastern Catholic churches in the United States, St. Mary’s was founded in 1887 to serve Ruthenians. Peasants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they came from the Carpathian Mountains, a hardscrabble region now divided among the modern states of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine. Like many Austro-Hungarians, these people did not have a clear sense of ethnic identity. Their faith, Catholic or Orthodox, set them apart from their neighbors.

Tradition and family, says Father Krepp, have always been central. “Our primary goal, beyond serving the existing population, is to instill the identity of being an Eastern Christian, a Byzantine Catholic, into our youth so they can take it with them when they leave their families. Once that identity was a given. When the church was the center of life, you didn’t have to know a lot about it; it just was. Now if you don’t know what your religious faith is and understand why it is important, it’s just lost when you leave.”

A week after Theophany, Father Krepp is conducting a round of house blessings in the neighborhood. John and Mary Ann Evans share a converted duplex with Mrs. Evans’s 93-year-old mother. A retired social worker, Mr. Evans takes care of his mother-in-law while Mrs. Evans works in their son’s office. Their three children and their grandchildren remain in the area.

Married 50 years, the couple met in the church choir as did many of their friends. From choir and catechism class to caroling and socials, says Mrs. Evans, everything then was “church-involved.”

TV and computers, they agree, have changed life. “You always looked forward to church on Sunday,” says Mr. Evans, “but now everybody seems to have things that are more important.” He worries that, because so many people have left for jobs elsewhere, there are few young adults to assume responsibilities in the church.

Further down the block, Mary Yasenchak, 80, lives next door to her widowed daughter, Mary Ann Mehm. Of Ukrainian background, Mrs. Yasenchak married into the church, while her daughter married out of it only to return after losing her husband in 1996. “It was like I came home because everyone I knew growing up was still there. And they all welcomed me back. It’s like I never left.”

Mrs. Mehm is speaking, however, of her mother’s generation. Most of Mrs. Mehm’s contemporaries have left the area. Of her three children, the youngest is still at home, another remains in the area and the third lives in Brooklyn.

When conversation turns to feast day picnics and piroghi, halupki (stuffed cabbage) and other traditional foods, the two women drift into the kitchen. There spread across the table are homemade bread, kielbasa with horseradish and sweets – cookies and coffee cake, a congenial ending to a house blessing.

Located in the Wyoming Valley, both Kingston with 13,512 residents and neighboring Edwardsville with 4,984 now have declining populations and share a history of catastrophes. In 1959, the Knox mine disaster put an end to mining in the region; in 1972 Hurricane Agnes caused the Susquehanna River to flood, creating one of the most devastating natural disasters the country had ever seen.

Founded in 1911 to serve the then-growing Russian Orthodox community, St. John the Baptist Church is just two blocks from St. Mary’s, and across the tracks, in Edwardsville. Those immigrant Russians were, in fact, from the Carpathian Mountains and Galicia, in what is now Ukraine.

More than half of St. John’s 200 or so parishioners are over 60. To help keep his aging congregation involved, Father Michael Slovesko, called from semiretirement five years ago, is busy overseeing a $300,000 project to install restrooms, as well as an elevator, inside the church. The elevator, he says, will enable wheelchair-bound parishioners to attend church again; it will also make it easier to bring caskets in for funerals.

On a frigid January morning, several parishioners are gathered at the church. Wanda Wanko, 91, who embraced Orthodoxy in 1932, is the oldest; Eugene and Shirley Gingo, in their late 50’s, are the youngsters in the group. The Gingos are unusual in that all their children have opted to stay in the area.

All present remember how it was before people began to leave in large waves, when Edwardsville was a collection of ethnic neighborhoods, but where everyone knew everyone else.

People walked everywhere: to the mines, to visit cemeteries and to go caroling in the town and countryside. They bought their meats and vegetables, their candy and liquor at local stores. They danced and sang, ate and drank at local social clubs. They walked down Main Street, now a dispiriting stretch of marginalized businesses, and saw everyone. Now, those who are left shop at malls.

At the center of it all was the church. “There were a lot of good times that were held from this church,” says one parishioner. “The point is, if there’s no church, there’s no community.”

For the past five years St. John’s has held an annual ethnic food festival, which offers potato pancakes, piroghi, halupki, pigs’ feet, borscht and other favorites. The festival draws people from other churches – even politicians come. So do young people and children. “It’s really very popular,” says Ms. Wanko, “now that they know we have all this good food.”

Some 40 miles southwest of Kingston and Edwardsville lies the town of Shenandoah, which is situated along the Mammoth coal vein. Called the “most magnificent coal bed in the world,” this vein produced over two-thirds of the anthracite mined. Shenandoah was founded in 1866, four years after the first colliery opened, bringing in settlers, eating houses, saloons and more.

Other plants soon followed, and then banks, hotels, boarding houses and tenant houses. In time, three railroads ran into the town. Early settlers were Welsh, Irish and German. Later came the Poles, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Italians. Each group settled in their own neighborhoods and, once enough money was collected, each group built impressive churches that resembled the ones they left behind in the Old World. There was a bar on every corner for miners to stop in and “wash the dirt away.” Once the coal mines closed, most of the bars did, too.

In 1915, at its peak, Shenandoah had about 30,000 people. Ripley, in his famed “Believe It or Not” column, once called the town the most congested square mile in the United States. The population is now about 6,000; almost 70 percent are over 60 and 14 percent live below the poverty line.

All the hills surrounding the town have been mined. Massive banks of culm, the waste left after coal screening, are everywhere. Thanks, however, to three cogeneration plants, designed to clean the waste of whatever energy it contains, trees now grow here and there on the culm. In winter, at least, downtown is a disconcerting mix of shabby, sometimes boarded-up buildings and unexpected promise – a ghost perhaps of what used to be.

Seen from high above town, the golden domes of St. Michael Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church still draw the eye. Established in 1884, St. Michael’s is the first Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in the United States. The current church, dedicated in 1984, replaces the original, which was destroyed by fire in 1980. On a morning when the streets are slick with ice and the temperature dips below zero, there are only two women at church.

That afternoon Father Petro Zvarych from St. Michael’s is visiting with three of his parishioners: Nancy Sawka, a recent widow and former bakery owner in nearby Frackville; Andrea Pytak, a retired nurse who volunteers at the rectory; and Samuel Litwak, fresh from a meeting of Downtown Shenandoah Inc., a local group dedicated to the revitalization of downtown.

Mr. Litwak recalls when the main streets were “no different from Manhattan. Shops had the same quality of merchandise as in New York and people were shoulder to shoulder. It was just small town America, and that’s the way it was.”

He has childhood memories, too, of coming to church and not being able to get a seat. The parish now has about 150 families, including about 30 children. Says Ms. Pytak, “In the past three years, we have buried 112 parishioners, and there have been only two or three births a year.”

As in other coal towns, many people have left, while others commute many miles a day to work in Harrisburg, Allentown or Reading.

Father Zvarych, who hails from a small town in Ukraine not unlike Shenandoah, has been at St. Michael’s for less than two years. “It’s a small town, but somehow people are enjoying their lives. What’s nice about this area is that people actually live as a community. They go to church together, they share things together. Something happens and they come to each other, not like in a big town or city.”

Jacqueline Ruyak is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD. A native of Utah, Cody Christopulos is CNEWA’s publications coordinator.

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