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November 24, 2013

Congregation appeals for help to maintain historic cemetery

JOHNSTOWN — Hundreds of immigrants and their families packed Hungarian Reformed Church services in Cambria City and Windber generations ago.

Today, many of them are laid to rest in the church’s rural Richland Township cemetery, in numbers that far surpass the dozen now filling pews at their twice-monthly Chestnut Street services, the church’s pastor says.

 Now, it has reached the point where even the Cambria City church’s $400 annual cost to maintain its dead’s final resting place threatens its dwindling congregation’s survival – a dilemma that prompted church members to write to the Richland Township’s supervisors this month to see if they would consider taking the graveyard off their hands.

“We are having financial shortages and cannot adequately maintain our church,” the Rev. Albert Kovacs wrote.

“We feel a sense of responsibility to that cemetery – to the people that helped the church grow. But we’re under a dozen members now,” said Kovacs, 84, a long-retired pastor who continues delivering sermons at the church twice monthly. “There could be a time very soon where there will be no one left in this church to be responsible for it.”

It’s a request longtime Richland Supervisor Melvin Wingard called “a first” in his

46 years with the township.

But it’s also one that deserves careful consideration, he said.

The Hungarian Reformed Church was given the land for $1 by the Wilmore Coal Co. in 1919. Kovacs said the church is proposing to hand over the deed to the acre-plus graveyard.

Tucked nearly 50 yards behind Cemetery Drive outside Windber, the cemetery’s entrance is marked by two small brick pillars.

About 120 gravestones, many from the 1920s and 1930s, are scattered on the lot, divided by two flags – one the Stars and Stripes, and the other a faded and tattered Hungarian flag.

Kovacs said its been at least five years since someone was buried in the lot.

A few headstones are inscribed in weathered Hungarian lettering. More than a handful of the burial sites hold markers honoring World War I and World War II veterans.

Richland Township is home to numerous cemeteries, but none is township-owned, Wingard said.

“Would we have to dig graves?” Supervisor Gary Paul asked during the Nov. 18 meeting.

Wingard, a longtime Richland Cemetery Association board member, said the township would have to contract with someone for gravedigging services. Township crews or an outside landscaper could perform upkeep the property, he said.

“It’s an unusual request,” Supervisor Wayne Langerholc added. “On the one hand, the township really shouldn’t be in the business of being caretakers for a cemetery. But these are people who no doubt played a part in the growth of this community.

“I think we have a duty to give this careful consideration,” he added.

Kovacs said he understands it is an  unusual request. But these are unusual times, he said.

“The last thing we want to do is abandon this cemetery,” he added, hopeful the township or a local civic or veterans group might have a solution. “Hopefully, we can figure something out.”

David Hurst covers Richland Township for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at tddavidhurst.

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