On a recent afternoon, I stood on a narrow street dividing the parish cemeteries of McAdoo, a small borough outside Hazleton in northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal region. Chain-link fences neatly separate the plots, with Roman or Byzantine crosses marking the different ethnic and denominational allegiances. To the west—past the graves of my paternal great-grandparents in St. Patrick’s Cemetery—is a panoramic view of the beautiful spires and domes for which McAdoo became known as the “borough of churches.” Many of these congregations have since closed—a sad trend that preceded the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last spring, not long after the CDC identified the first U.S. Covid case on Ash Wednesday, the pandemic prompted concerns that many houses of worship wouldn’t survive the lockdowns. It’s still too early to predict long-term effects, but so far church closures have not been widespread. Federal intervention undoubtedly helped. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church, according to a recent AP investigation, was “perhaps the biggest beneficiary” of last year’s Paycheck Protection Program. It’s still pre-Covid forces—aging congregations, rising secularism, the fallout of clerical abuse scandals, disillusionment with institutional religion—that imperil the future of churches in urban neighborhoods, sprawling suburbs, and small towns like McAdoo.
Incorporated in 1896, McAdoo once counted ten churches within an area of about 200 acres. These ethnic parishes sprouted after a local coal company permitted Irish, Italian, and Slavic families to build housing. Overall, McAdoo was a lively, but poorer, town: its population peaked at 5,200 in the early 1930s. But through the twentieth century, long after mine closures and economic decline halved its population, the storied churches of McAdoo remained a center of communal vitality.
For generations, the harsh conditions of mining life inspired a regional sense of reciprocity most evident in ethnic beneficial organizations, or in what became thriving parishes like McAdoo’s Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. “Standing by each other during times of need allowed the anthracite mine workers to cope with crises inherent in their occupation,” wrote Harold Aurand, a regional historian. This generous spirit applied to local businesses, too, such as Frank Kline’s clothing store, a handsome brick structure in McAdoo’s downtown. “Mr. and Mrs. Kline provided everything you could possibly wear, with a lot of love and understanding when some parents didn’t have enough cash to pay for everything,” one native recalled to the local paper.
Last June, after 119 years, Holy Trinity closed—its charming brick structure, which housed priceless icons, sold for $75,000. A dwindling congregation, rather than the pandemic, sealed Holy Trinity’s fate. As the Hazleton Standard-Speaker reported, only eight worshippers remained. “All of us were elderly,” one long-time member told the paper. The emotional costs are profound. “We lost something,” he added. “Part of our life is gone. It was a big loss. We still feel it. My wife said today, ‘We have no church.’” Meantime, the community lost one of its focal points; non-parishioners had joined the dwindling congregation to preserve its annual traditions. The church’s summer bazaar, for example, became a yearly homecoming, and regular pierogi sales supported its operation.
McAdoo’s relationship with Holy Trinity reflects the crucial economic and civic role that churches play in U.S. communities, whether in rural towns or city districts. According to Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, small-town or rural churches “have an economic impact of several hundred thousand dollars each year, on average.” As the Wilkes University-affiliated Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development found, in the third quarter of 2020, northeastern Pennsylvania’s churches made about $55.2 million in regional purchases. The Institute’s executive director, Teri Ooms, told me that these churches create “an economic impact that ripples through the economy, generating revenue and supporting jobs in other sectors.”
Among those churches is St. Mary’s, one of America’s oldest Ukrainian Catholic parishes and the first congregation formed in McAdoo. At St. Mary’s, long-time congregants preserve McAdoo’s tradition of church-driven volunteerism. Many of these parishioners have moved elsewhere or no longer have older relatives in McAdoo. Yet, as Joe Krushinsky, a native who lived for years in metro Washington, told me, “the church is something that brings these people back.”
“I always think that St. Mary’s has tentacles,” added Connie Postupack, a parish historian. “You feel rooted.”
St. Mary’s contributes to McAdoo’s economy and civic fabric. The borough’s non-parishioners, for example, join church volunteers in preparing food sales. Earlier this month, the church organized a free soup distribution—two pints per person—for the borough. Father George Worschak, St. Mary’s pastor, is a regular at the local coffee shop, which features Lenten specials like haluski (cabbage and noodles) and pierogis. “I think it’s good that Father is visible,” said Krushinsky, who helps manage the church’s social media. “People notice that he’s here and that he’s a participant in the community.”
Like all churches, St. Mary’s had to navigate the uncertainties of Covid-19. In Krushinsky’s view, though, this “creative thinking . . . helps a community stay together.” He has helped livestream Divine Liturgy on Facebook, where people tune in from as far away as Florida. Later this year, St. Mary’s will organize a 16-mile walk to Shenandoah, where, in the 1890s, immigrant ancestors made the Sunday pilgrimage to St. Michael’s, America’s first Greek Catholic Rite church. In 2016, when St. Mary’s organized a similar event, the walk attracted people beyond the parish. “This wasn’t just St. Mary’s doing this—we wanted to start to unite people,” said Postupack.
As new generations sustain St. Mary’s, McAdoo itself continues to change. The former St. Kunegunda’s, the Polish parish, is now Iglesia De Jesucristo, reflecting the Hazleton area’s shifting demographics. Meantime, massive warehousing projects—thanks to the region’s proximity to Interstates 80 and 81—are slated for parts of the mine-scarred land where McAdoo’s miners worked, along with woods where families picked huckleberries and mushrooms to supplement the household income.
For decades, local churches have helped communities like McAdoo face the challenges arrayed against them. Today, though, it’s the churches themselves that require community support—from congregants with deep parish roots, from non-congregants who appreciate the churches’ spiritual and civic purpose, and from creative fundraising initiatives like livestreaming religious services. “We have seen that congregations adapt best when they engage their communities, and don’t attempt to go it alone,” Jaeger told me. In other words, the tradition of reciprocity continues in the borough of churches.
Top Photo: Charles McElwee