Carpatho-Rusyns are one of the major ethnic groups of Pennsylvania. From the time they settled the state’s small towns and cities in the late 1870s until the present time, Carpatho-Rusyns have left an indelible mark on the state, and their story should be told. This blog is about a project that will do just that. Read more

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"After the Boom" (Shenandoah, Pa., and St. Michael’s Church)

A woman walks past an abandoned school
in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.
After the Boom
Eastern Christians cling to their faith as time runs out on the former coal towns of Pennsylvania, reports Jacqueline Ruyak with photographs by Cody Christopulos
CNEWA World, March-April 2004

(Reprinted/excerpted with permission from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. NOTE: This article described the social conditions prevailing in several Eastern Christian parishes, all founded by Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants, of northeastern Pennsylvania's anthracite coal region. With the recent campaign to save the structure that was the first Greek Catholic Church in the U.S., in Shenandoah, we felt it useful to present the portion dealing with Shenandoah.)

...Some 40 miles southwest of Kingston and Edwardsville lies the town of Shenandoah, which is situated along the Mammoth coal vein. Called the “most magnificent coal bed in the world,” this vein produced over two-thirds of the anthracite mined. Shenandoah was founded in 1866, four years after the first colliery opened, bringing in settlers, eating houses, saloons and more.

A plant near Shenandoah belches out smoke.
Other plants soon followed, and then banks, hotels, boarding houses and tenant houses. In time, three railroads ran into the town. Early settlers were Welsh, Irish and German. Later came the Poles, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Italians. Each group settled in their own neighborhoods and, once enough money was collected, each group built impressive churches that resembled the ones they left behind in the Old World. There was a bar on every corner for miners to stop in and “wash the dirt away.” Once the coal mines closed, most of the bars did, too.

In 1915, at its peak, Shenandoah had about 30,000 people. Ripley, in his famed “Believe It or Not” column, once called the town the most congested square mile in the United States. The population is now about 6,000; almost 70 percent are over 60 and 14 percent live below the poverty line.

All the hills surrounding the town have been mined. Massive banks of culm, the waste left after coal screening, are everywhere. Thanks, however, to three cogeneration plants, designed to clean the waste of whatever energy it contains, trees now grow here and there on the culm. In winter, at least, downtown is a disconcerting mix of shabby, sometimes boarded-up buildings and unexpected promise – a ghost perhaps of what used to be.

Shenandoah, which sits on the Mammoth coal vein, is home to the gold-domed St. Michael's – the first Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the United States.
Seen from high above town, the golden domes of St. Michael Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church still draw the eye. Established in 1884, St. Michael’s is the first Ukrainian Greek Catholic church in the United States. The current church, dedicated in 1984, replaces the original, which was destroyed by fire in 1980. On a morning when the streets are slick with ice and the temperature dips below zero, there are only two women at church.

That afternoon Father Petro Zvarych from St. Michael’s is visiting with three of his parishioners: Nancy Sawka, a recent widow and former bakery owner in nearby Frackville; Andrea Pytak, a retired nurse who volunteers at the rectory; and Samuel Litwak, fresh from a meeting of Downtown Shenandoah Inc., a local group dedicated to the revitalization of downtown.

An early 20th-century house in Shenandoah sits abandoned.
Mr. Litwak recalls when the main streets were “no different from Manhattan. Shops had the same quality of merchandise as in New York and people were shoulder to shoulder. It was just small town America, and that’s the way it was.”

He has childhood memories, too, of coming to church and not being able to get a seat. The parish now has about 150 families, including about 30 children. Says Ms. Pytak, “In the past three years, we have buried 112 parishioners, and there have been only two or three births a year.”

As in other coal towns, many people have left, while others commute many miles a day to work in Harrisburg, Allentown or Reading.

Father Zvarych, who hails from a small town in Ukraine not unlike Shenandoah, has been at St. Michael’s for less than two years. “It’s a small town, but somehow people are enjoying their lives. What’s nice about this area is that people actually live as a community. They go to church together, they share things together. Something happens and they come to each other, not like in a big town or city.”

The full article is available at

Original material is © by the author, Richard D. Custer; all rights reserved.

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