Thursday, October 4, 2012

Coal region Catholics: The story of Pottsville's Church of St. Patrick

One-hundred and eighty-five years ago this month a small group of Catholics gathered for Mass in a private home in the new town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. On that date, October 27, 1827, these families made the decision that it was time they had a church - and they would build one.

This was the genesis of today’s Church of St. Patrick: the first Catholic church in the lower anthracite coal region; the first between "John Potts and the coal mines" and the New York state boundaries to the east and to the north. It would become the mother church in which many other area Catholic parishes found their beginnings over the decades.

The area was originally home only to the Shawanese, Hanticoke and Delaware Indians. Just a trickle of European immigrants had come into the area before 1824: by that date, there were only five houses. But in 1825, the opening of the Schuylkill Canal to Mount Carbon provided a way for coal to be transported out of the area to major markets, and Pottsville's boom began. Waves of immigrant families (many of them Catholic) came to settle in the area to work the mines and perform all the labor that went along with its processing and transportation. By 1826, the year before the founding of the Church of St. Patrick, the population had reached 2,000.

Though the group of families gathered for Mass on October 27, 1827 had made the decision to build their church, they found that getting the project started was not an easy task. They learned that John Potts (namesake of Pottsville) had a plot of land at a bargain price that was located "way up in the woods at Fourth St. and Mahantongo Road" (now in downtown Pottsville). They could not, however, come up with the $150.

At the time Fr. John Fitzpatrick, a Jesuit priest, was serving Catholic families in the area by traveling the approximately fifty-mile journey by horseback from Goshenhoppen, Bally, Berks County (about an hour and a half drive today). He offered to advance the money for the purchase of the land. A log church was built at a cost of $1,000, although it wouldn't be until 1833 that the parish finally had a resident pastor.

Only a short time after that first pastor's arrival, the parish saw the need for a larger church. They built the new one over the old one, and once the new one was completed they dismantled the original log church contained inside it. The second Church of St. Patrick was dedicated on September 29, 1839.

The second Church of St. Patrick was built in 1838-1839.
It was demolished in 1891 to make way for the current church building.


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In 1854, Bishop (now canonized saint) John Neumann of Philadelphia proposed a division of his diocese with the establishment of a new Diocese of Pottsville, and hoped he could be transferred to this rural region and out of the "very cultural world of Philadelphia"* from which he was serving 145 churches and 200,000 Catholics throughout much of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and all of Delaware. It was not to be.

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A vintage postcard of the
third (and current)
Church of St. Patrick,
completed in 1892


Sixty years had passed since the building of the second church, with many pastors making their home at St. Patrick's. By 1889, it was time again to consider the construction of a much larger church. The project was begun by the new pastor, Fr. William Duffy, yet finished under the guidance of Fr. Francis. J. McGovern, a native of Mount Carbon who became pastor after Fr. Duffy's death in 1892.

The third (and current) Church of St. Patrick has an exterior of Avondale limestone with window trimmings of Indiana Limestone. For over a century now, it has had a commanding presence on Mahantongo Street and within the town of Pottsville.


The church is actually directly connected to the Yuengling Brewery, as you can see in the photograph below, and it is difficult to get a clear photo of the church without the brewery, vehicles, or electrical lines in the way.


The year 1892 was not the last time St. Patrick's saw change. Since the church's origins in 1839, a rectory, a convent and a school have also been added and remodeled. During 1969 and 1970 the church building itself underwent a badly needed renovation. Its steeple was restored, its exterior was modernized, and the interior of the church was completely reconstructed, with a new sacristy, oratory and underground crypt added.

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Many of my family members have walked through the doors of the Church of St. Patrick on many occasions since first settling in the Pottsville area in the middle of the 19th century. Under its steeple, they pronounced their vows in the sacrament of Matrimony, the baptized their babies, and they lived out their lives of faith by attending Mass - no matter how hard the trip or inclement the weather.

The occasions that have touched my heart the most, however, have been the funeral processions I have read about in my ancestors' obituaries. They carried the coffins of their deceased loved ones' through the doors of the Church of St. Patrick for a Requiem High Mass as they said their last goodbyes before burial up on the hill at Pottsville's St. Patrick's Cemetery.

St. Patrick's Cemetery No. 3 overlooks the city of Pottsville


This article was largely based on a history of the Church of St. Patrick written by Margaret Condron Sterner (1917-1981). For more information about St. Patrick's and other historic churches of Pennsylvania, you might enjoy reading Diocese of Allentown: A History published in 2011.

*Words of Saint John Neumann taken from his letter to Alessandro Cardinal Barnabo, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

This article is part of the "Doors of Faith" series on our ancestors' Catholic parishes. Visit The Catholic Gene to learn how you can share photos and stories of your family's "Doors of Faith" in honor of the upcoming Year of Faith 2012-2013.

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