Thursday, July 23, 2009

Coal Country Closings


This is a little outside the Project's sphere of influence, but it's of great interest to us anyway.

According to a report from the good folks at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese is closing four Catholic churches in a 10-block radius, and consolidating them into a fifth. St. Casimir, St. Columba, St. Rochus Croatian and Immaculate Conception--all ornate, grandiose ethnic national parishes--are getting the axe, and will be replaced by a new parish, Resurrection, which will be housed in the building of the former St. Stephen parish, also ethnic.

There was a sixth, too--St. Emerich--but it was demolished in 2003.

Six churches in a 10-block radius? The Project feels faint.

From the report:

The Catholic churches of the Cambria City neighborhood have survived floods and mine accidents, but in the end they couldn't overcome the changing cultural and economic landscape of their community...


For each ethnic group - first Irish and German, followed by Slovak, Polish, Hungarian, and Croatian immigrants - the stories were similar: They were fleeing oppression and searching for better jobs in the United States, where factories were hungry for unskilled labor.

In Johnstown, they labored in the coal mines and at the Cambria Steel mill, at one time the largest producer of railroad rails. But they forged their own identities in their off-hours, in the fraternal societies and the magnificent churches built on this sliver of land hemmed in by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Conemaugh River.

Their homes may have been simple, but the ethnic communities hired their own architects and built large churches in the Romanesque and Gothic styles, weaving their cultural identities into the buildings' fabric, with their own icons and saints and hymns. They paid homage to the living and the dead in stained glass.

See Alley, Church. Also now facing the same problems.

The most interesting thing here is the discussion about the fates of these historic and beautiful buildings. The former parishioners of these parishes are understandably concerned, and don't want to see these monuments torn down.

Yeah, join the club. The Project finds the possibility of converting them to restaurants or performance spaces amusing. Not that we doubt the sincerity of the talks, but...our own experience suggests otherwise. We hope we're wrong; maybe the Altoona Diocese is far more competent and sympathetic than others.

Keep an eye on this one, folks. We may be seeing the same thing sooner than you think.

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