The falling numbers are crippling Greater Johnstown. Every 10 years, the U.S. Census confirms our continuing slide. The Cambria-Somerset county population decline, despite yeoman efforts from myriad local groups, continues unabated.
Cambria County is losing 1,000 people every year. Death and out-migration are the chief contributors to this deteriorating spiral. Once it seemed only the young unemployed or underemployed were leaving this region. Today, our out-migration rate is fueled by nearly every demographic group.
The poor economy shoves our youngsters toward distant employment opportunities. Many middle-aged citizens are facing local job cutbacks. They move elsewhere. Then, their parents leave to move closer to their children. These dwindling trends have drastic consequences for local municipalities and other established organizations.
The Tribune-Democrat recently highlighted an aspect of this issue in the article “Congregation appeals for help to maintain historic cemetery.” The Hungarian Reformed Church, located in the Cambria City section of Johnstown, has a problem. Its membership has dwindled to a mere handful.
The pastor, the Rev. Albert Kovacs, reported that it cost $400 a year to maintain the church’s cemetery. This cemetery is located in Richland Township along Cemetery Road. It’s a short hike from Windber Recreation Park.
The church’s falling numbers created a cash shortfall. The Hungarian Reformed Church lacks the manpower and necessary funds to operate its cemetery. Kovacs approached Richland Township with a novel notion: Would the township consider managing the historic cemetery?
I know this cemetery well. I frequently run past it. I have also walked the grounds, exploring its tranquil setting.
The last mile of the old Windber five-mile road race plodded past this cemetery.
The Hungarian Reformed Cemetery is located in a clearing just off Cemetery Road. Many people have driven or run past it for years, never realizing a large cemetery was located back there. An entrance sign was added in 1997 for Windber’s 100th centennial celebration.
The Hungarian Reformed Cemetery was also the subject of a Tribune-Democrat editorial. The Nov. 27 editorial, “A matter of grave interest,” discussed whether Richland Township should assume operation of this cemetery.
As several Richland Township supervisors stated, this is an unusual request. Municipal governments are usually not in the cemetery business. Richland Supervisor Gary Paul asked during the Nov. 18 township meeting, “Will we have to dig graves?”
There are at least 18 cemeteries located in Richland Township. A decision by the Richland supervisors to manage the Hungarian Reformed Cemetery could create future cemetery takeover requests.
Our falling numbers have left many civic groups scrambling for volunteers and revenue. Many overworked and understaffed groups would welcome municipal assistance.
My borough, Scalp Level, currently maintains a cemetery. Scalp Level, for decades, has spruced the Foust Cemetery, located near Luther and Phillips streets. Scalp Level does an excellent job there. The final resting place for many early settlers exudes a green park quality. This cemetery is in decent condition.
But, there is a major difference between the two cemeteries. The Foust Cemetery is a pioneer cemetery. The Hungarian Reformed Cemetery is a church cemetery. Most locals would not mind municipal assistance in running a cemetery. However, some would raise that murky separation of state versus religion issue.
Should public funds be utilized to assist a religious project? What happens 10 years in the future if the nearby Catholic, Orthodox or other Richland cemetery needs assistance?
The Baumgardner Cemetery, located on the southern slope of the Pitt-Johnstown campus, poses additional questions. This family farm cemetery is located in a remote campus location. The mortal remains of several Bumgardner, Wissinger and Foust family members are buried there.
The UPJ History Club, under the direction of Professors Veronica Wilson and Paul Newman, maintains this cemetery. The students keep the cemetery in great shape. However, the two cemetery access trails are in deplorable condition. The trails need to be graded and the brush cut back. Will Pitt-Johnstown ask Richland for help with this project?
Richland Township is wisely reviewing this Hungarian Reformed Church’s request. We need a sensible solution compatible with our falling numbers. Cemeteries are our historical legacy. Our ancestors reside there. They deserve our respect.
George A. Hancock of Scalp Level Borough is an occasional contributor to the editorial page.