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After the Boom

Eastern Christians cling to their faith as time runs out on the former coal towns of Pennsylvania, reports Jacqueline Ruyak with photographs by Cody Christopulos

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It is the eve of Theophany at St. Mary Protector Byzantine Catholic Church in the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Kingston. Masses of red and white poinsettias frame the iconostasis; the fragrance of beeswax tapers and votive candles fills the air. Father Theodore Krepp celebrates the blessing of water, a purification rite of profound meaning and quiet drama marking the feast of the baptism of Christ. Afterward a hushed congregation lines up to fill bottles with the holy water. “High test stuff,” says an elderly parishioner.

Few of the 100 or so in attendance are children or, for that matter, young. When Father Krepp arrived at St. Mary’s eight years ago, the church had about 275 families. It now has 250, but only 50 children. He points, in contrast, to St. Anne Byzantine Catholic Church in Harrisburg, which was founded in the 1960’s in part because of migration from towns like Kingston; it now has about the same number of families, but three times the number of children. Simply put, demographics indicate that all churches in the region are losing people. With few opportunities locally, almost all the young have left.

Northeastern Pennsylvania at one time contained three-quarters of the world’s anthracite deposits. The 18th-century discovery of the hard coal – formed over 250 million years ago – later sparked a mining frenzy that would fuel the industrialization of the United States, spur revolutions in technology and create boom towns across the region. Desperate for workers, mining companies scoured Central and Eastern Europe for cheap labor, recruiting many agricultural workers eager to escape the turmoil and poverty of their homeland.

The immigrants saw opportunity in the dirty, dangerous jobs in the mines. Devoted to their families and churches, these hard-working people shaped the resilient character of the coal region.

But as the country’s energy consumption shifted toward cleaner fossil fuels and the once massive deposits of coal became depleted, the mines began to close. By the late 1950’s, only a few were left, devastating the region’s once vibrant economy and leaving miners without jobs or the skills to compete in a changing labor market.

Garment, shoe and textile factories provided some economic hope in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but they could not compete with rivals in the South and abroad. Consequently, many were forced to leave the region to find jobs. Coal made many towns and for almost a century they thrived, but the closing of the mines sent these towns into a spiraling decline, from which they have never recovered.

One of the oldest Eastern Catholic churches in the United States, St. Mary’s was founded in 1887 to serve Ruthenians. Peasants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they came from the Carpathian Mountains, a hardscrabble region now divided among the modern states of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine. Like many Austro-Hungarians, these people did not have a clear sense of ethnic identity. Their faith, Catholic or Orthodox, set them apart from their neighbors.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Eastern Christianity Immigration