ZERBE TOWNSHIP - The cross standing atop the mountain south of Trevorton was especially eye-catching at the beginning of May.
It was lighted for three days to honor its creator, Stephen Shingara Jr., who passed away May 2 at age 54.
Prior to his death, the cross had remained dark for three years. It is only lighted when a local coal miner dies.
The cross, which stands on the edge of the “zero vein” of anthracite coal in Zerbe Township, serves as a symbol of the heritage of the miners who founded and inhabited the community below for more than a century.
Upon hearing of Shingara’s unexpected death, miners brought a generator to the base of the cross. They lined the winding, rocky road leading to the top of the mountain.
Shingara suffered from emphysema, an ailment that plagues many who breath in coal dust. The disease is woven through his family history as prominently as the mines that drew the Shingaras to and kept them in Trevorton.
Stephen Jr.‘s great-grandfather, Michael Shingara, began the family tradition of coal mining. Patriarch to the Shingara clan, Michael was 26 when he arrived in 1889 from Czechoslovakia. He and his wife, Sara, settled at a farm in Lower Augusta Township and had 13 children. Today, the number of living descendents of the Shingara family is in the hundreds, including many of Michael’s 48 grandchildren.
From the time Michael settled in the region, the Shingaras have been coal miners. All six of his sons - excluding his namesake, who died in infancy - became coal miners.
One of his sons, Stephen, was killed in 1946 at age 38 when the shaft in which he was mining collapsed. He left behind 10 children, including one born shortly after his death. At age 15, Stephen’s eldest son - also Stephen, who died in 2003 from miner’s asthma - went to work in the mines. His four brothers followed suit.
Naturally, when fourth-generation Stephen Jr. came of age, he, too, joined the family business of mining.
Becoming a believer
Unlike many members of the Shingara clan, which had a strong ties to the Roman Catholic church, young Stephen Jr. questioned the existence in God. He searched for signs that something was out there watching over him and told friends he was considering leaving the church altogether for atheism.
In 1998, the test of faith Stephen Jr. needed came. The young man had several years of mine work under his belt and was comfortable with large machinery. But on one fateful day, he stuck his head out over the edge of the front end loader he was working with to get a better view of what he was moving.
The next thing he knew, his head was caught in the hinge.
“He said, ‘God, if you’re there, get my head out,‘” said Margie (Shingara) Conrad, Stephen Jr.‘s aunt. “And the hinge released his head.”
Stephen Jr. was left permanently disfigured; his face was scarred and a chunk of his ear was missing.
But he was a devout believer in God from that moment on.
Honored with a cross
To honor the God that had graciously saved his life, Stephen Jr. that same year built the cross from discarded bridge beams. It stands 40 feet tall.
It was raised on the mountain with an enormous crane in the early morning sun while a fog was still lingering over Trevorton.
Once the steel frame was anchored onto a concrete base, Conrad’s nephew, Matthew, climbed to the top of the cross, which was anchored at the endpoints by wires that held the steel frame steady in the wind, and unlatched the hook of the crane.
The cross was riveted in place with loud hammer blows that resonated through the village below. The steel was painted a clean white.
The day she blessed the cross, Conrad rode to the top of the mountain in a “bogie wagon,” an old beater truck. The road was lined with miners.
“They were so respectful,” she said. “Everyone took their hats off.”
Conrad brought with her a book of blessings and holy water from the Jordan River. Stephen Jr.‘s daughter Mandy held the book open while Conrad read prayers aloud to the crowd. Then Conrad doused the base of the cross with the holy water.
After the blessing, Conrad was taken to a “shiftin’ shanty,” a shack where miners prepared meals and changed their clothes at the end of the workday. The miners offered her a seat in a discarded, overstuffed living room chair.
“I felt like I was really queen of the mountain,” said Conrad.
Inside the shanty, the miners served Conrad a cup of coffee.
“It was the strongest cup of coffee I ever tasted,” she said. But it was served in a delicate China cup with roses painted on it.
The spirit of miners is like this coffee, said Conrad. They are strong, energizing, powerful. But they are also kind, sensitive and caring, like the teacup she used that day.
Although Stephen Jr. is gone, Conrad and her brother, Dan Shingara, believe the miner’s spirit lingers on in the town once dominated by men in work boots and headlamps.
And the cross, dark again until the passing of the next miner, will continue to stand as a symbol of the strength and determination of the men who worked the hills below.
©2014 The News-Item (Shamokin, Pa.)
Visit The News-Item (Shamokin, Pa.) at www.newsitem.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services