St. James Catholic Church in Sewickley has spent nearly 10 months celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
On Sunday, the commemoration will culminate with a 3 p.m. Mass celebrated by Bishop David Zubik.
St. James started as a very small community, according to the Rev. Tom Burke, that has "grown and changed so much in the last 150 years."
In 1863, St. James was a congregation of five families. Today, it has 1,800 registered families and 5,000 members.
The church's roots stretch back to the years leading up to its founding, when a traveling missionary known as Father Reid journeyed by horse and buggy to minister to Catholics from the Beaver Valley all the way to Mercer County. Father Reid is said to have carried a violin so that he could entertain the families and neighbors at the homes where he would stay. He visited Sewickley three to four times each year, and in 1863 purchased a plot of land that would become the site of the first St. James Church.
The property, formerly part of the Thorn estate, was purchased for $300 from Judge John W.F. and Mary White. It measured 80 feet by 204 feet. The five-family congregation built a small frame church on the land, and it was named St. James the Great, after Father Reid's patron saint.
The building served for a few years, and on June 4, 1868, the Rev. John Dominic Zwickert laid the cornerstone for a new church on Walnut Street. The congregation at the time had fewer than 100 members but the new church was planned to have a seating capacity of 350. Father Zwickert believed that the Sewickley Valley would someday be "a populous center." The church would serve the community for the next 98 years.
Work on a new church on Walnut Street began April 10, 1967. According to the church's website, on Oct. 29 of that year, "nearly 300 parishioners and their families gathered on the dirt floor of the partially completed church to witness the laying of the cornerstone."
The first Mass in the new church was celebrated July 25, 1968. To this day, St. James has held more than 5,200 baptisms, 2,560 confirmations, 2,000 first communions, 1,375 weddings and 1,050 funeral Masses; more than 880 burials have taken place in its cemetery.
Father Burke has been pastor of St. James since August. He formerly served at St. Alphonsus in Pine, St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland and Good Shepherd Parish in Braddock.
He said he enjoys being at St. James because it is a large, active parish.
The church has "such a rich dynamic of different people," he said. "Sewickley is a very active community. There is always something going on."
In addition to its school, St. James hosts religious education classes, middle and high school youth groups, 55-plus group, Knights of Columbus chapter and St. Vincent de Paul Society. It supports the Center of Hope in Ambridge and the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden.
"I just love the people," Father Burke said, "the well-roundedness of ... working with the youth, the middle age parishioners and also the senior citizens."
On Sunday, the congregation will celebrate all of this.
In addition to Bishop Zubik, the Knights of Columbus will be present in full regalia.
The church choir plans a special performance for the Mass, and church member Earl Bohn will talk about the history of St. James. Eighth-graders graduating from St. James School will be present as the 100th class.
After the Mass, a banquet will be held at Allegheny Country Club on Country Club Road, Sewickley Heights.
"St. James has 150 years of commitment to Sewickley and has many wonderful traditions that have been developed over those years," borough manager Kevin Flannery said. St. James, he said, is "part of what makes Sewickley, Sewickley."
Shellie Petri Budzeak, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.