CENTRALIA, Pa. – Only a few structures still stand in what was Centralia, a town in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania. Even fewer are visible through the tree cover from the top of an adjacent mountain overlooking what was once a thriving community.
The most notable and recognizable structure is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church, whose bright blue domes rise out of the foliage on the side of the mountain. Though all but seven of the town’s residents relocated because of the ongoing fire in the anthracite coal mine below its surface, the church continues to serve a successful and thriving parish.
Almost 400 pilgrims from all across Pennsylvania and beyond traveled to the little church on the mountaintop here on Sunday, August 27, for the second annual “A Call to Prayer” pilgrimage.
Two years ago, on November 10, 2015, the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv, visited the church accompanied by Metropolitan-Archbishop Stefan Soroka of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and Father Michael Hutsko, pastor of the parish.
Patriarch Sviatoslav of the Ukrainian Catholic Church marveled at the continuing presence of this church, home of many vocations to the priesthood and religious life, where an underground mine fire resulted in the abandonment of the town, the demolition of almost all buildings and the relocation of all but less than 10 residents.
Patriarch Sviatoslav felt a sense of true holiness which pervades the entire church property. And he desired to share what he experienced and expressed his desire for all people of faith to come and experience this holiness, sanctity and serenity as pilgrims to this holy place on the mountain. In May 2016, he declared it a holy pilgrimage site.
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church is built atop a rock, said Archbishop Soroka. “A rock of faith for the area, for these pilgrims, and that’s what we want everyone to benefit from here, that our Lord’s love for us is unending. With so much negativity today, people can get away by coming here to contemplate.”
The church here has survived despite the hardships that have befallen Centralia and the relocation its residents had to endure. “Even in disaster, the church continues,” Archbishop Soroka commented. He noted that the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and “Our Blessed Mother brings us closer to God.”
On August 27, people crowded into the church, built in 1912, and out onto the grounds for the divine liturgy celebrated by Archbishop Soroka and local clergy.
The church was filled to capacity. People hoping to catch a glimpse of the service piled through the door one-by-one, taking in their moment before making way for others. The rest sat in chairs set up outside the church, all following along in prayer and song heard over large speakers.
In his homily, the Rev. Archpriest John M. Fields stated: “When one thinks of Centralia, two images come to mind – the mountain and the fire. And perhaps this is providential, since many references to holy mountains and fire as the presence of the Divine are found in Sacred Scripture.”
“Today, as all of us come here as pilgrims to this holy site – a church on a mountain overlooking the remains of a town made famous and destroyed by fire. We come seeking an encounter with the divine. We come with our own intentions, our prayers, our hopes, our supplications to Almighty God. We pray before the Icon of Our Lady of Pochayiv for the intercession of the Mother of God. We seek physical healing before the icon and relics of Blessed Nicholas Charnetsky, CSsR., the healer of souls. We come with open hearts, humility and faith to be in the presence of God and seek His grace and His blessings for our needs,” Father Fields told the pilgrims.
Following the liturgy, a large procession led the way from the church to an outdoor chapel that held an 18th century replica of the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Pochayiv, which attracted a long line of patient people of faith waiting to pray before it.
A reflection before the living rosary was given by Conventual Franciscan Father Martin Kobos, pastor of Mother Cabrini Church of Shamokin, Pa., who told the story of meeting the late St. Pope John Paul II and giving him a picture of the relic of St. Anthony. Father Kobos held up a photo of the meeting, but then took out something even more special — a rosary given to him by the pope.
Msgr. James T. Melnic led the pilgrims in the singing of the Akathist to the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God before the Holy Shroud of the Dormition, with attentive parishioners spilling out of the outdoor chapel and unto the surrounding grounds.
The service was followed by a candlelight procession with the icon of Our Lady of Pochayiv to the church for the celebration of a moleben prayer service to the Mother of God led by Archbishop Soroka.
After the service, the pilgrims were anointed with the holy oil of healing and venerated the icon of Our Lady of Pochayiv and the icon and relics of Blessed Nicholas Charnetsky, a martyr of the church,who was beatified by St. Pope John Paul II in 2001.
Pilgrims from afar
The pilgrims traveled from as far as Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Philadelphia to enrich their spiritual lives during the afternoon in Centralia.
The procession was the moment Marsha Brubaker of Lancaster, Pa., had been waiting for. “I think it’s powerful when you see a whole community coming together with force and positivity and commitment,” she said. “It’s visually powerful when you see so many people praying for peace and praying for others; it’s outstanding.”
She and her husband, Phil Brubaker, made the pilgrimage after reading an article about the event in the faith section of a Lancaster newspaper. The two have always wanted to visit Centralia, and Ms. Brubaker said that, with her Catholic background, it seemed like the perfect time to do some sightseeing as well as enjoy the pilgrimage.
“There’s a lot of history I don’t know about, and that was another interesting aspect, to learn what is here,” Ms. Brubaker said. She said she knew the coal region had a strong Eastern European inlfuence and noted the large Slovak population in Lancaster, adding that the pilgrimage was a way for her to better understand her friends and learn how their beliefs compare to one another.
Making the trip from Philadelphia for the second year was Eugene Borys and his family, Lesya Borys, Borys Borys and Yuri Borys, who all received individual blessings from Archbishop Soroka. Eugene Borys said they enjoy being in the area, but they were also there to support Borys Borys’s brother, who was in attendance with five fellow seminarians from St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Seminary in Washington.
Some didn’t need to go too far for the pilgrimage; it was practically in their backyard. Mary Theresa Mattu, 83, of Mount Carmel, Pa., knows the grounds well. Raised in Centralia, Ms. Mattu said she grew up in Assumption of the BVM church. She was baptized and married there, and her children were baptized there. Her parents are buried in the church cemetery and she still attends divine liturgy at the church. Her life history is with the building.
Ms. Mattu was given the honor of holding the crucifix during the Living Rosary, in which people gathered around holding a large rosary made of cloth while taking their turn in prayer.
Barbara Liparela of Shavertown, Pa., said this was her first pilgrimage to the church. She’s part of a choir at St. Mary’s Church in McAdoo, Pa., which sang responses during the divine liturgy on Sunday.
Whenever Ms. Liparela travels through this area, she said she is struck by how the church on the hill always stands out. To her, it shows the church — and people’s faith — is alive and well.
Several languages could be heard among the pilgrims, reminding those on the grounds of the feast of the Pentecost, when the common language understood by all was that of faith.
(With material from Stephanie Bettick, Shamokin, Pa. News-Item; Gary Pang, Bloomsburg, Pa. News-Enterprise; and Dani Fresh, WHYY NewsWorks.)