The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Home Lands

November 28, 2010

Houses of worship | Churches served as cultural, social places for Hungarian immigrants

For generations, local churches founded by Hungarian immigrants thrived.

But now, those institutions – and the history they represent – are disappearing at a rapid rate.

In just a seven-year span from 1997 to 2004, all three Hungarian-founded Roman Catholic churches in Cambria and Somerset counties closed because of mergers with other parishes.

And there are dwindling congregations at two remaining Hungarian Reformed churches in Johnstown and Vintondale. But, for now, a handful of dedicated members are keeping those churches open.

“To keep their (ancestors’) heritage and legacy alive, they come to this church,” said the Rev. Joseph Posta, who leads Vintondale Hungarian Reformed Church.

“Somehow, some way, it still survives.”

Hungarians, like other immigrant groups in the early 1900s, banded together in communities where their numbers were large enough to support a church.

Sometimes, “they built the churches before they built their own homes,” said the Rev. Albert W. Kovacs, minister at Johnstown-Windber Hungarian Reformed Church on Chestnut Street in the Cambria City neighborhood.

“It was their center for worship, but also their cultural and social center as well,” Kovacs said.

Johnstown’s Reformed congregation has staying power, celebrating its 110th anniversary this year. Local historical records say the church building dates to 1902.

“It’s actually one of our oldest Hungarian Reformed churches in the United States,” Kovacs said.

He added that Windber’s Hungarian Reformed congregation merged with the  Johnstown church in the late 1970s.

Even as a merged congregation, though, the Johnstown church struggles. Only about a dozen people attend services every other Sunday.

The same small numbers are found at Vintondale Hungarian Reformed Church on Main Street.

That congregation dates to 1916, and its first church was dedicated in the early 1920s on land donated by a mining company, Posta said. It burned in 1929 and was rebuilt the following year.

The Vintondale church holds services once a month, and an average of 15 to 20 people attend, Posta said. Nonetheless, like Kovacs in Johnstown, Posta is impressed by the devotion of those who remain.

“It’s coming to an end. We know that,” Posta said of the small community’s church.

“But as long as we are able to keep these congregations alive, we’ll work hard.”

Parishioners of the area’s three former Hungarian Roman Catholic churches were not so fortunate. None of those parishes still function, and two of the buildings are gone:

The earliest Catholic church founded by Hungarians was St. Emerich in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood, the primary place where immigrants from Hungary had settled in the city.

Permission was granted in 1905 to form a parish, and a small frame building was erected at Power Street and Sixth Avenue.

The first Mass was celebrated at a new, larger church – which was given the St. Emerich’s name – in May 1914.

At the direction of Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, St. Emerich merged in 1997 with nearby St. Casimir. The St. Emerich building was demolished in 2003.

In Windber, a Hungarian parish was formed in 1912, with a church called St. Mary’s built in the early 1920s.

The parish merged with St. John Cantius in 2000 to form St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. But one weekly Mass still was celebrated at St. Mary’s until 2002, when structural problems forced the building’s closure.

St. Mary’s was razed in 2003, and Windber Research Institute expanded on the property.

In Portage, 32 Hungarians met in 1915 to discuss the formation of a new church.

Property was purchased at Johnson and Cambria streets in 1922, and St. John the Baptist Church was dedicated there the following year. The building’s cost was $13,975.

In 2004, the diocese merged St. John the Baptist into Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. The St. John building still stands and was sold to a private owner in 2006 for conversion to apartments.

 

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