The building of the Church in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was not only one of soul and spirit, but of bricks and mortar. It entailed the bending of the knee, and the shoulder to the wheel. Such small numbers of priests embarking on a life in this new land, could barely keep pace with an expanding westward frontier, and called upon the temporal assistance of the laity. Together, they worked hand in hand, laying one stone upon another, forming the schools, hospitals, and great centers of charity which flourished into the mid-20th century.
IMAGE: Panoramic map of Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1890
Most notable among these edifices was the parish church, the nerve center of Catholic life. A pastor was not only the healer of souls, but an arbiter of personal disputes, and a counselor on matters of the soul and of business. Each wave of immigration came to these shores. First it was the English and Welsh, then the German and Irish, later the Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, Rusins, Slovaks, and many others. For them, the parish priest was the educated, English-speaking advocate within the community at large. Different ethnic peoples, with the blessing of the local bishop, built parish churches where they worshipped in a universal language, and heard sermons each in their own tongue. A working-class neighborhood of a few city blocks could hold several parishes; one for the Germans, another for the Irish, still another for the Italians, another for the Poles, and so on.
IMAGE: Washington Avenue, Scranton, PA, 1907
So it was with the growth of the Catholic Church in the coal-and-iron epicenter that was Scranton, a proud and prosperous city in eastern Pennsylvania, nestled in and among the hills gracing the Lackawanna Valley. For each ethnic enclave, the parish church became the center of worship and reception of the Sacraments, of fraternal aid societies for those wary of the banks run by suspicious Protestants, of schools to assist them in raising their children in the Faith, and of fellowship with kindred in sharing the same language and customs from "the old country."
The years following the Second World War saw unprecedented prosperity for America, and the promise of a bucolic life in the suburbs. The working classes of Scranton were no exception, as many left the old enclaves in search of that promise. They would return to their places of worship for years after their exodus. But this new era of "the good life" was a double-edged sword. There were social and political upheavals in the 1960s, combined with intermarriage among the progeny of those from the Old World, not to mention the sweeping changes in parish life for which the Second Vatican Council was a catalyst. With the unraveling of the old neighborhoods, and the shortage of priests in the 1970s and 1980s, there was the hard choice of dwindling attendance at the old churches, and the Diocese of Scranton was faced with the hard choice, of which parishes would survive, be combined with others, or closed altogether.
This scenario caught the attention of Ivana Pavelka, a local artist and photographer. Together with Mary Ann Moran Savakinus, Director of the Lackawanna Historical Society, they endeavored to chronicle the history of ten local parish churches which were slated for closure. The result, which is beautifully narrated by author Sarah Piccini, is a work published by Tribute Books, entitled Framing Faith: A Pictoral History of Communities of Faith. Within its pages are the stories of ten parishes in Scranton and the surrounding Lackawanna County, their triumphs and tribulations, and the events that led to their eventual fate. It is here that something of their legacy may be preserved for years to come. The accounts are similar yet unique, under the shadow of heartbreak, and the knowledge that these beacons of Faith for hundreds, indeed thousands, of pilgrims toward Heaven, must bring their stories to an end.
Their sojourners must go ever onward, eyes on that Final Beacon, leading to that One True Home.
+ + +
IVANA PAVELKA is a co-founder and co-manager of the photographic gallery Camerawork in Scranton and is a professional photographer who has had many solo and group shows. Her professional career includes teaching in the art department at Keystone College (La Plume, PA), giving workshops and residencies as a rostered artist in schools, and working as a commercial photographer. She is also a professional bookbinder who was trained in European methods in Prague, where she grew up. When she came to the United States in 1980, she free-lanced as a bookbinder for such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has lived in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, since 1991.
SARAH PICCINI graduated from the University of Scranton with a degree in History and Communications. In 2010, she received a Master’s degree in History focusing on the ethnic and labor history of the Lackawanna Valley. She collaborates with the Lackawanna Historical Society on many projects and programs, and serves the Vice President of the board for the Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnaces Associates.
We must acknowledge the cooperation of the Catholic Diocese of Scranton in securing historical information, as well as access to the properties themselves, most notably in the person of Diocesan Chancellor James Earley.
For more information on the book, and to order copies, go to www.framingfaith.com, or its Facebook page. Continuing information about the work can be tracked through its Twitter account.
UPDATE: This review is now published on the framingfaith.com website, and can be accessed here.