St. Matthew Parish Celebrates 175th Anniversary
By Melissa Williams Brown
SALTSBURG – Sep. 25, 2022 – Parishioners labored for months to restore the original St. Matthew Church in preparation for the 175th anniversary of St. Matthew Parish in Saltsburg, a town fittingly named because of plentiful salt resources in Indiana County and home to the oldest Catholic church west of the Alleghenies.
Bishop Larry J. Kulick celebrated Mass on Sept. 25, and said it was an honor and a privilege to be part of this “magnificent milestone with 175 years of a Catholic presence.”
He thanked the Rev. John J. Harrold, pastor, for being so flexible with the parishes of the twin cities of Saltsburg and Slickville (St. Sylvester). He also thanked former St. Matthew Parish pastors Msgr. James T. Gaston, and the Rev. Peter L. Peretti, for their presence.
“It’s a wonderful day of reunions and remembering pastors who served, and a multitude of parishioners who have gone before us,” said Kulick.
He also thanked all those who worked so hard, including the Rev. Eric J. Dinga, who stepped in as master of ceremonies.
The original St. Matthew Church, the only structure ever built offsite from Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, was under the guidance of the late Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, OSB. John Martin, a local stone mason and Irish immigrant, built the church in memory of his father, Peter Martin, who became ill on a voyage from Ireland. John built the church to remember the Sisters of Charity of Quebec, Canada, for saving his dad’s life. That 1847 structure, which is situated adjacent to a downtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still stands next to the current St. Matthew Church, according to Chuck Colton, longtime parishioner and historian, who compiled an impressive history of the parish. Colton is also a greeter, Eucharistic minister, and a member of the Knights of Columbus.
The last Mass celebrated in the original St. Matthew Church was a requiem high Mass on All Souls Day on Nov. 2, 1960. It’s been a storage building ever since. The pews, altar and bell tower were removed years ago, according to Colton.
Colton said if you didn’t get to church early, it was standing-room-only. The building is just 40 by 35 feet. There is a single aisle leading up to the altar, and the foundation stones were brought in on the canal and unloaded at the John Martin Quarry, under the guidance of Wimmer.
In his journal, Wimmer referred to Saltsburg and St. Matthew Church as “a thriving town on the canal from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, which thousands of immigrants from Europe use to go westward. The Rombach brothers, who later became clock makers, built the church almost entirely with their own resources.”
Wimmer referred to the original structure as a “small basilica that is well built.”
The church received a facelift for the 175th anniversary with new window glass, structural and cosmetic repairs done by parish volunteers and replica milk glass light fixtures. A replica of the original altar was built by Angelo Di Lascio and family in memory of their parents, Raffaele and Filomena DiLascio. New landscaping was meticulously done by daughters of Angelo and Theresa DeLuca in their memory.
The old church was open to the public following the anniversary Mass. Wedding photos of couples married at the original St. Matthew Church were on display, including Colton and his wife, Lynette (Maraska) Colton on their wedding day almost 30 years ago, an anniversary they will celebrate next June 26. Photos of baptisms, varied artifacts, and a wedding dress from 1952 were intricately placed inside the historic church for visitors to view.
“It’s all about preserving what’s here,” said Colton.
Harrold, pastor of the parishes of St. Matthew, St. Ambrose in Avonmore and St. Sylvester in Slickville, said St. Matthew parishioners worked hard to establish an endowment for the parish cemetery next to the original St. Matthew Church to make sure it would survive in the future. There are 130 families who are parishioners.
St. Matthew’s parishioners’ hard work extends beyond the church community.
“One of the things St. Matthew’s is famous for is their Lenten perogies and fish dinners. The parish sells perogies several times a year, which is a major fund-raiser for the parish. The nice thing is that people from all three parishes have come together to make the perogies. Not only does St. Matthew’s Parish sell them at Saltsburg Canal Days, but at Slickville Community Days,” said Harrold.