40 years of decline closes church in Wilmerding

Parish community was ‘center of social life’ for Ukrainian residents


Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

In one old photo, hundreds of smiling faces fill the dining hall of SS. Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Wilmerding, waiting for after-dinner slices of cake to be served. In another, two dozen children -- half of them communicants -- and their parents, grandparents and teachers celebrate a first communion with breakfast at church. For decades, dozens of families filled the 17 pews inside the small church on State Street, and supported its upkeep with weekly collections and frequent homemade pierogi fundraisers.

But nearly all of the people who once gave life to the church have died or moved away, leaving church leaders a handful of regular parishioners and the difficult but inescapable decision to close the church, which opened in 1929. On Sunday, Bishop John Bura and the Rev. Gregory Madeya celebrated the church's final Mass and offered one last Communion to approximately 50 parishioners, past and present, who had worshipped at SS. Peter & Paul for much of their lives.

For many, it was an emotional end to a church community they once called home.

"I feel lost," said Cladys Kazousky, 86, as she dabbed away tears with a white handkerchief after taking communion. "Lost."

Hugging her, 67-year-old Henry Kwolek said he, Mrs. Kazousky and other parishioners had tried hard to raise money -- making pierogis and anything else they could do to help the church -- but that the number of parishioners "just got smaller and smaller."

Now, even though parishioners can attend St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church in McKeesport, the old connections seem to be breaking.

"She said she felt bad because we'll probably never see each other again," said Mr. Kwolek of Forest Hills, as his eyes filled with tears. "I told her it wasn't true."

For much of its existence, SS. Peter & Paul was the center of social life for many Ukrainian residents of Wilmerding, many of whom lived in the neighborhood of Russian Hill and walked to church and to work at the nearby Westinghouse Air Brake factory. At the church's dedication in 1929, so many parishioners wanted to be included in the photograph that they lined the church's first-floor windows after filling its front yard.

Back then, Masses were said in Ukrainian, and little American-born boys and girls attended Ukrainian language lessons in the church's basement twice a week for several years so they could understand the liturgy and read and write in Cyrillic, said 91-year-old Evelyn Zeleznak, whose maiden name was Panchison.

"We'd be outside playing and our mothers would say, 'Get to school!' " Mrs. Zeleznak said, whose daughters Donna Samsa of Penn Hills and Diana Mikash of North Huntingdon attended the final Mass with her on Sunday. "It paid off in the long run because I could read and write in Ukrainian."

The church was still going strong in the 1950s when Mrs. Zeleznak's daughters and their friends celebrated first Communion; "everyone knew everyone" and families joined each other in the church's dining hall for Christmas and Easter dinners, she said. By the 1960s, however, few of the younger members had learned Ukrainian, so they could not understand what the priest was saying, and many families left for Roman Catholic churches, parishioners said.

The parish dwindled further after Route 130 was built, destabilizing Russian Hill and forcing evacuation of the neighborhood's families beginning in 1971, according to a Pittsburgh Press article from October 1975. By the late 1970s, Russian Hill and its families were gone, relocating to outlying suburbs and joining parishes there.

While the remaining families at SS. Peter & Paul soldiered on, even the church's decision in the early 1980s to offer an English-language Mass could not stop its decline.

The older order hung on as long as it could, said 63-year-old Roman Polnyj, whose mother, Lydia, baked weekly communion bread -- the Ukrainian Catholic church uses bits of bread rather than wafers for the Eucharist -- and Paska bread at Easter, and made countless pierogis for fundraisers until a few years before her death in 1985 at age 90.

"She'd be having trouble getting around, but they'd bring her down and put her at the table so she could pinch the pierogis," said Mr. Polnyj of North Huntingdon. "Being involved in a church like this added a lot of purpose to her life."

The parish put off closing the church -- even as much larger congregations in Cleveland, Allentown and Philadelphia were forced to consolidate and close churches -- but trying to support an aging building with a few regular parishioners who are able to contribute a total of $15 a week just isn't possible, Bishop Bura said.

Bishop Bura said the church's expenses come to as much as $2,000 a month, the neighborhood has become unsafe because of drug activity and other crime, and the building needs a new roof, a new furnace and air conditioner, mold remediation and costly repairs to fix sewage backups after every hard rain -- all at a cost of more than $75,000. As difficult as it is, things change and life must go on, he said.

"These memories are precious, they are sacred and they will last forever," Bishop Bura said. "Closing the parish is the last thing I want to do -- it's sad. I would rather be opening a parish."


Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here