Immigrants – the cornerstones of Diocesan churches

By Elisabeth Smith
Contributing Writer

The life of St. Joseph reflects the story of all who seek and find a home in a new land.

The Holy Family faced tremendous challenges as refugees in Egypt, and today, St. Joseph serves as the patron saint of immigrants, demonstrating that God will walk with us wherever our journey may take us.

The Diocese of Greensburg celebrated the March 19 Solemnity of St. Joseph with a pilgrimage led by Bishop Larry J. Kulick, exploring the four Diocesan parishes under this beloved saint’s patronage.

Bishop Kulick noted that St. Joseph Parish in Everson is the oldest Polish parish in the Diocese, founded by immigrants from Poland. Several other Diocesan parishes share similar roots, including St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish and Mount St. Peter Parish both in New Kensington, founded by people from Poland and Italy, respectively.

“The story of St. Joseph mirrors so many of our parish communities and the immigrant Church that not only built so many of our parishes, but laid the foundation of faith in the four counties of the Diocese of Greensburg,” Bishop Kulick said.

He reflected on his home parish — the former St. Martha Parish in Leechburg — which was primarily founded by immigrants from Slovakia who came to southwestern Pennsylvania in the late 19th century and early 20th century to work in steel mills and coal mines.

“There were already Catholic parishes in these communities, but they wanted to create a church where they could express their own particular ethnic culture and customs and grow together as a community, especially in a foreign land,” the Bishop explained.

“They raised money, built beautiful churches and made many sacrifices. They were not making a lot of money, but the Church, their faith and the building of a parish community was such a priority that the percentage of their sacrifices was tremendous.”

St. Martha Parish opened its doors in 1911 and a second church was built because of the growing population. Then the Great Depression hit. The parish had trouble making the mortgage payments, and the bank ultimately padlocked the doors.

In response, the parishioners took the few possessions they had, like dining furniture and quilts, and began leaving them on the church steps as payment toward the mortgage. Bishop Kulick said according to family lore, his great grandmother carried her beloved rocking chair across the train tracks and to the church steps as part of the effort.

“The banker was so moved that he said, ‘If the people are willing to make this kind of sacrifice, I have no doubt that you’ll pay the mortgage,’” Bishop Kulick said.

The mortgage was ultimately paid off after the Depression, and several years ahead of schedule.

“Stories like this remind us how the lives of immigrants shape the lives of our Church, even today. With each successive wave of newcomers to the area, we strengthen our Church,” the Bishop said.

Last summer, the Diocese remained faithful to its immigrant roots by focusing ministry on Ukrainian refugees displaced by the Russian invasion.

“I have been so proud of the people of our Diocese who are opening their hearts and their hands to our newest newcomers,” Bishop Kulick said. “These refugees have been fleeing some of the most horrible situations that we’ve known in the last several decades.”

He said the Church and these newcomers benefit each other.

“The Church means so much, because it’s an opportunity for them to experience commonality of custom, tradition and familiarity, while also having a spiritually refreshing place to pray, to feel welcomed,” he said. “They (also) really reinvigorate the Church.”

The Church also continues to embrace its immigrant beginnings by its ongoing devotion to St. Joseph, and maintaining ethnic customs that are both beloved and catechetical. These include the annual blessing of Easter baskets, Easter foods that represent new life and the Resurrection, and cooking of pierogies at Lenten dinners and Italian knot cookies at St. Rita Parish in Connellsville, at Christmas.

“There are so many wonderful ways that we remember and keep our particular ethnic heritage and legacy alive,” Bishop Kulick said.


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