Historical Markers
St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church Historical Marker
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St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
Corner of Chestnutand Oak Sts., Shenandoah

Dedication Date:
November 4, 1984

Behind the Marker

Saint Michael’s Church, Shenandoah, PA, circa 2005.
From the earliest days of European settlement, one of the first actions that new immigrants took upon their arrival in Pennsylvania was the construction of a place of worship. Across the Commonwealth, separate immigrant groups fought for and preserved their own religious and cultural institutions as a way to safeguard "faith and fatherland," as one scholar put it.

As hundreds of thousands of Southern- and Eastern-European immigrants arrived each decade after 1880, the steeples and domes of neighborhood churches rose into the skylines of Pennsylvania's industrial towns and cities. The new cultural diversity shaped places like Pittsburghmarker, Johnstown and Scranton, and smaller coal towns like Shenandoah in Schuylkill County. There, in 1884, Rev. John Woliansky arrived as the new parish priest for Ukrainian immigrants who wanted their own church where they could worship in their own language.

Print of Shenandoah, PA, 1889.
Shenandoah (pronounced Shen-do), a coal town located in the heart of the Commonwealth's anthracite fields, was typical of single-industry communities that emerged during the industrial revolution around Pennsylvania's rich iron ore, coal, and oil deposits.

It was Shenandoah's earliest settler, a farmer named Peter Kehley, who first discovered coal in a stream sometime in the 1830s. Kehley failed to uncover any substantial coal reserves, but in 1862, two years after he ceased his digging, the town of Shenandoah City was laid out and the Shenandoah City Colliery was opened. Soon after, railroad lines reached the community and economic development began in earnest with the opening of the Kehley Run, Plank Ridge, Kohinoor, Turkey Run, and Indian Ridge collieries. The coal mines soon attracted Irish, Welsh, English, and American-born laborers. In the 1870s, Shenandoah became a center for Irish labor radicalism, and included an active cell of themarker Molly Maguires.

Attack on the coal and iron police by a mob of Polish strikers
"Pennsylvania. - the mining troubles in the Schuylkill region - attack on the...
Lithuanians first arrived in Shenandoah in 1869, their culture, language, and Catholic religion in tow. Eager to establish a parish, they in 1872 joined with local Poles to create the Society of St. Casimir, one of many eastern European and Catholic benevolent associations established throughout industrial Pennsylvania. After 1880, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Russians, and other Slavs were drawn to the region by the expanding anthracite economy. By 1890, Shenandoah's population had reached 10,000 inhabitants. By 1920, the town had a population of nearly 30,000 residents and had become, according to Ripley's Believe it or Not, the most densely populated square mile in the United States, not excluding New York or San Francisco's Chinatowns.

To preserve their ethnic heritage and preserve stability and security, ethnic communities across the Commonwealth established strong cultural institutions. Benevolent societies, athletic associations, cultural centers, and church-affiliated men's and women's groups reinforced traditional roles and customs. Many of these organizations revolved around the ethnic parishes and synagogues.

A new kind of ethnic and religious diversity took hold quickly, reshaping the identity of the community and sometimes threatening the status of established churches and their congregants. In addition to traditional Protestant denominations and small Orthodox populations, ethnic Catholic parishes proliferated in Shenandoah. New Catholic parishes included St. Casimir (later St. George) Lithuanian Catholic Church, St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church, and St. Michael's Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Established in 1884 by Ukrainian (sometimes called Ruthenian) immigrants who were Eastern Rite Catholics, St. Michael's has the distinction of being the first Greek Catholic parish in America.

Shenandoah's Ruthenians were members of a religious movement that could be traced to the earliest apostolic ministry throughout Asia Minor and parts of Eastern Europe and that dates back to the original twelve apostles. Although they accepted the primacy of the Pope in Rome, Greek or Eastern Rite Catholics saw themselves as spiritually distinct from the Latin or Roman Catholic Church. These immigrants were heirs to a Byzantine spiritual tradition that originated in the geographic region of "Rus," or northern Ukraine.

Interior, Saint Michael’s Church, Shenandoah, PA, circa 2005.
In 1884, Rev. John Woliansky arrived in Shenandoah, assigned as a parish priest to Ukrainian immigrants who wanted their own church where they could worship in their own language. Woliansky held the first service shortly before Christmas in 1885, and the next year supervised the purchase of two buildings on Center Street. The congregation continued to grow, as family members followed each other into the coal region, and in 1909 a new church was completed. The first liturgy in the new St. Michael's was held on Palm Sunday, 1909.

Ethnic parishes in Shenandoah and elsewhere continued to thrive through the Second World War. The church remained one of the essential institutions in maintaining a semblance of Old World identity-language, ritual, and communal solidarity-even as succeeding generations moved into the mainstream.

On the morning of April 7, 1980, a fire destroyed the church and most of the priceless artifacts and icons within it. Preparations began almost immediately to build a new edifice, which was completed three years later, almost 100 years after the parish's start.

Other ethnic churches have not fared so well. Indeed, the collapse of local economies and flight of residents has resulted in the closure of churches and synagogues across the Commonwealth. Diocesan mandates to shut down local churches and consolidate parishes have caused controversy across Pennsylvania, often pitting local congregations against the will of ecclesiastical authority.

In Schuylkill County, a bitter and protracted court battle with the Catholic bishop who had sanctioned the closing of Shenandoah's Lithuanian Catholic Church for economic reasons, ended in 2009 when the court denied the plaintiffs' appeal to keep the parish intact. As Lithuanian Catholics in Shenandoah and elsewhere rallied in prayer and protest, the wrecking ball struck St. George's lofty spires, said to be the tallest in the region.

Unlike St. George's Catholic Church, St. Michael's Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church continues to function as a spiritual and social center. A church festival in 2009 commemorated 125 years of continuous worship and fellowship, as well as the survival of ethnic and religious solidarity.
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