Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Imagine a once-thriving town with seven churches, businesses, schools, and working families — now with less than 10 residents. Imagine all but a handful of those homes and building once alive but now mostly razed. Imagine only one beautiful structure left. The only one that remains fully alive and thriving in the ghost town.
Imagine no more because the municipality is Centralia, Penn., and the only one, thriving edifice is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church. So flourishing, in fact, that it has been designated a holy pilgrimage site and was chosen to have a Holy Door of Mercy in the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The pilgrimage begins in a big way on Sunday, Aug. 28, the feast of the Feast of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God celebrated on the Julian calendar. Much will go on beginning with the Divine Liturgy celebrated by the archeparchy’s Metropolitan-Archbishop Stefan Soroka and other priests.
Great Town to Ghost Town
Once a successful coal-mining town, Centralia had a turnabout in the spring of 1962. Some hot ash put into the town’s dump-landfill somehow ignited a vein of coal beneath the spot. Fast forward to 1979 when people began realizing the fire in the coal veins had never stopped. A few years later most people were displaced. The government began relocating them, and the state finished the task.
The underground fire spread constantly and was impossible to extinguish. Here and there ground began to collapse including a state highway, and dangerous gases were released into the air. The Post Office stripped the place of its zip code. Only a tiny handful of people refused to leave as most buildings were being torn down. The fire still goes on along the coal veins while noxious fumes now seem no longer a threat.
Centralia has become a tourist destination of sorts for a lot of macabre reasons,” said Father Michael Hutsko. “Literally hundreds look for evidence of the fire, and part of the state highway closed. People turned it into the graffiti highway. They come to see how nature has taken over. All that’s left are street grids where once was a bustling town.”
Yet the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church, built in 1912 on a hill overlooking this town 115 miles northwest of Philadelphia, has never waned. Despite what looks like so few around, the church, the parish, and the location was designated a place of pilgrimage for all Catholics and people of good faith.
Why a Thriving Church?
“The members are the ones who were displaced, and they travel to church,” Archpriest Father Michael Hutsko, the pastor, explained. They come from the different communities to where they dispersed. Of the less than 10 permanent residents of Centralia today, none are parishioners. Two years ago he buried the last resident in town who was a member of the parish. The others likely attended one of the six churches that were razed.
“Last November his Beatitude Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk (Primate of the world-wide Ukrainian Catholic Church), visited here,” Father Hutsko said, explaining then and now that the church remains here “because there was a commitment from our bishop to keep our church open for as long as the people continued to come and support it. For better than 20 years after the relocation efforts our parishioners have remained extremely faithful,” he emphasized. “The families that were dispersed can still find a place they can call home spiritually and socially.”
Father Hutsko, who is also pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, shared that when Patriarch Sviatoslav also asked why this church was able to stay when everyone else was forced to move?
Father Hutsko told him, “The commonwealth sent people in to bore holes to see if there was coal beneath the property that would eventually ignite and cause the destruction of the property. But they found the entire property was sitting on solid rock.”
“That struck him as something moving,” Father Hutsko said. The patriarch immediately referred to Peter as the rock on which the Church was built and that through him this church standing on the rock continues to serve the needs of the people.
It was a providential sign of the Church universal being built on solid rock, and surely others an echo of Matthew 7:24-25 too. When the church was built on then unbeknownst solid rock in 1912 God already knew it over a century later would be a witness and symbol.
On the grounds, then inside the lovely white church with its three blue onion domes, Patriarch Sviatoslav felt a sense of true holiness permeating the entire church property. Because of that, he desired all people of faith to experience this holiness, sanctity and serenity as pilgrims to this holy place on the mountain.
“We talked about the number of vocations from the parish, both diocesan and international,” Father Hutsko also said. From this small parish there came four priests and three sisters. “One was a Franciscan friar who served the indigenous people in Argentina and founded a Catholic community there.”
He was referring to the late Franciscan Father Theodore Wenick. “Our patriarch was well aware of his name. People in Argentina have his picture hanging in their homes and are praying to him and asking him to intercede with God for their needs.”
The reasons kept piling up as to this being a special parish. Father Hutsko ticked them off: “The fact it still exists, the fact it is built on rock, the fact it provided vocations not just to serve the Church locally but worldwide” were enough for the patriarch of the entire Ukrainian Catholic Church to proclaim this a holy place that needs to be a pilgrimage place for people.
“We’re following his wishes this week,” Father Hutsko said, “and we will have a yearly pilgrimage at this same time of the year as the patriarch requested.”
This First Pilgrimage and More
All is in the ready for this Sunday, Aug. 28, with its theme “Beseeching God’s Mercy — Praying for the Intercession of the Mother of God,” Divine Liturgy, Living Rosary, procession, prayers (Moleben) to our Blessed Mother, Blessing of Water for the Jubilee Year, opportunities for Confession, prayers and anointing for the healing of soul and body, and veneration the Icon of Our Lady of Pochaiv.
Pilgrims not familiar with this church will find the interior full of beauty, from the celestial iconostas (wall of icons separating nave from sanctuary depicting icons of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, saints and holy days) to the stained glass windows that on one side of the church colorfully depict the major feasts of our Blessed Mother — naturally, one being the Assumption — and on the other side of the church feasts of our Lord, including his baptism and Resurrection.
Since this church also has the Holy Door for this Year of Mercy, everyone will surely enter through that door.
Another main feature will be veneration of the Icon of Our Lady of Pochaiv.
This icon is an 18th century replica of the original icon “that is a very precious part of our heritage,” Father Hutsko reminded.
The wonderworking icon of Our Lady of Pochaiv (Ukrainian spelling) goes back centuries. Among the many miracles, in 1675 a monastery where the people of Pochaiv had assembled because the place was being invaded by Turks prayed to Our Lady and Venerable Job of Pochaiv for help and protection. Our Lady appeared with a host of angels, and when she spread her white mantle over the monastery, the Turks’ arrows bounced back on the attackers who were confused, then thoroughly routed.
With this year being the 30th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl after which Priayt, Ukraine, the closest inhabited town to that nuclear plant, had to be abandoned, people in Ukraine had heard about this man-made disaster with the mine fire.
Three television stations sent crews to Centralia to film extended stories how and why the Ukrainian Catholic Church remained in Centralia, “and why and how it continues to serve the people even though they have been relocated, while in Ukraine there was a complete loss of community. They thought it was quite a gift from God that we were able to continue to do this,” Father Hutsko said.
“Our church here continues to provide a home for the former parishioners and provide for their needs spiritually and socially,” he explained. “The hand of God is very evident in what has happened and continues to happen with the parish and the church.”
Exactly five years ago on Aug. 28, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the parish in 1911, Archbishop Soroka told the people, “This church is standing after 100 years, despite the mine fire and the town leaving, to deliver a message to the world: We are to be like your namesake, the Mother of God, to be servants to others."
Simple High Hopes
What are hopes for this first pilgrimage and the church?
Father Hutsko put it this way. “Our hope is very simple. Our hope is those that come will experience a sense of holiness, experience the presence of God and spend time in prayer for whatever needs they may have from God, and somehow they are touched by the presence of God and our Blessed Mother.”
He admired the parishioners’ great efforts preparing for this pilgrimage day. “They lost their homes, their town, and the possibility of the loss their parish.” No surprise “it means the world to them.”
And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Blessed Virgin Mary spreading her white mantle over this solid-as-a-rock church honoring her.
For information, call the rectory at 570-339-0650.