Western Pennsylvania's Polish Prayer
I went for a Scott Hahn seminar. I wanted to stay for the beauty of the church that hosted it.
A friend had learned about the event a month earlier and proposed we make it a “guys' night out.” Our wives were more than accommodating, as long as we promised to bring back one of Dr. Hahn's books for each of them.
Being unfamiliar with the town and never having visited the church, we allowed for extra travel time. As it happened, we had no difficulties, so we arrived quite early — and were glad we did.
New Kensington, Pa., is a humble town of around 14,000 in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. Although it's just a 30-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh, it seems to have so far avoided the city's sprawl of business, traffic and commercialization.
It is in this unremarkable setting that St. Mary of Czestchowa Church sits, a startling expression of the Catholic faith in stone and wood.
St. Mary's was founded in 1893, a time when ethnic parishes were common in American towns and cities. The parish was originally the center of New Kensington's small Polish Catholic community. The current church was built in 1912, though some of the artwork dates from the 1940s.
The parish's ethnic heritage is also evident in the many Polish saints whose likenesses populate the site. And the large Stations of the Cross along the walls still bear prominent Polish titles along the base of each.
While many Catholics of Polish descent still call this their parish, today's parishioners come from the wide variety of ethnic backgrounds to be found in the New Kensington area. Look in the local phone book, and you'll see, for example, lots of German, Italian and Irish names.
The exterior is a modest red brick, not unlike many other churches built between 1850 and 1950. What we discovered when we went inside, however, caused us to catch our breath. Though we had almost an hour until the talk began, we had no trouble filling the time by carefully pondering the various aspects of this extraordinary place of worship.
Upon entering the church, our attention was immediately captured by the reredos that towers behind the main altar. This structure, of intricately carved linden-wood, is topped with dramatic Gothic spires and highlighted in elaborate gold leafing. The statues of a half dozen prayerful saints stand guard around the tabernacle. Among them are St. Stanislaus Kotska, St. Casimir, St. Agnes and St. Anthony.
Mounted at the top center of the reredos is a reproduction of the famous icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Known as the Black Madonna, this image has its own rich history, starting with the traditional account that it was painted by St. Luke the Apostle. (The original has drawn pilgrims for centuries to the Shrine of Jasna Gora in Poland.)
At the heart of the reredos, just above the tabernacle, stands a beautiful, carved crucifix. And directly above all this, on the ceiling of the sanctuary, is a painting of the Lamb of God, slain and in glory as described in the Book of Revelation.
“That Lamb is essential,” said Father Richard Karenbauer, the pastor, when I spoke to him later. “It reminds us of the heavenly liturgy that we're a part of when we come to Mass.”
The altar in the middle of the sanctuary is also beautifully carved lindenwood, with a relief sculpture of the Last Supper depicted on the front. Though it was constructed in the 1970s, at the time of some renovations to the church, its style is perfectly consistent with the reredos; a casual visitor would think they were created together.
There are also two side altars at the front of the church, each with its own reredos, smaller but equally beautiful and deserving of attention.
Once you are able to tear your eyes from the sanctuary, there is plenty more to engage the senses. Along the left and right sides of the ceiling, from the front to the back of the church, is a series of large and striking paintings. Each features a particular saint or event of Catholic history and spirituality.
We see St. Peter receiving the keys to Christ's kingdom, and St. Dominic receiving the rosary from Our Lady. There is also St. Isaac Jogues preaching to Native Americans, and Jesus revealing his sacred heart to St. Margaret Mary Aloquoque. Sts. Cecelia, Francis of Assisi and John the Baptist are here, too.
Indeed, one of the most memorable aspects of this church is its reverence for the saints. The holy ones of ages past accompany us from above, from the front door and up the main aisle of the church. They gather together with us around the altar, before the tabernacle, at the foot of the cross.
My friend and I remarked in admiration that any Catholic who came regularly to Mass in this building could not fail to appreciate the reality of the heavenly worship into which he is entering. This is a building that succeeds in fostering worship, prayer and reflection upon the spiritual heritage we share as Catholics.
Father Karenbaurer expressed similar thoughts to me. “This church is a catechism,” he said. “All of the elements of the faith are here — in the sanctuary, the paintings, the windows. It's all there.”
Because Dr. Hahn's reputation precedes him, my friend and I fully expected to come away from our little trip with plenty to think and pray about. What a joy it was to receive the same gift from the very church in which he spoke.
Barry Michaels writes from Blairsville, Pennsylvania.
- November 21-27, 2004