Church in the valley celebrates 180 years

PHOTO PROVIDED Photographed prior to 1910 Immaculate Conception Church was built on land purchased in 1838 by Father Nicholas Steinbacher, a Jesuit missionary and assistant pastor at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Churchville, Berks County.

BASTRESS – Legend has it that a Jesuit missionary traveling from near Philadelphia was on a wooded trail in the Nippenose Valley when his horse stumbled — or perhaps the horse stopped to pray — and the rider, the Rev. Father Nicholas Steinbacher, looked about at the valleys, which reminded him of his home in Bavaria, southern Germany, and he said, “I’m home.”

Steinbacher began his ministry with three German Catholic families around 1836. He began a far-reaching Catholic presence in the area when on April 14, 1838, he purchased over 414 acres of land for $250. He then deeded 20 acres in 1853 for the parish. The first and second church and cemetery are located on the parcel, according to Father Bert Kozen, of Bastress.

Now 180 years later, Immaculate Conception Church, the oldest Catholic church in the area and the oldest German parish in the Scranton Diocese, at 5973 Jacks Hollow Road, celebrated its anniversary on June 3 with a large ceremony and dinner. The 10th Bishop of the Scranton Diocese, Joseph C. Bambera, presided over the special ceremony with 10 other pastors and a large catered dinner followed in the parish social hall.

They ‘sprang from here’

“All the other Catholic churches in the area sprang from here,” Kozen said.

The three families grew to 70 families of German descent and two Irish families in 1842. The number increased rapidly, reaching 196 families in 1876, then reduced to 100 by 1892 due to western emigration. As Williamsport and Jersey Shore became more industrialized, more families moved into the cities for jobs and the parish held steady at 100 families during the Great Depression. Travel became easier in the post war years and the parish again began to expand, Kozen explained.

Kozen currently has 380 families, amounting to 900 parishioners in his membership. “There are a lot of young families with lots of children,” Kozen said.

The church’s oldest member James H. Eck, 93, said he has attended Immaculate Conception “all my life. I was baptized there.” He and his wife, Irene, celebrating 70 years of marital bliss, were married and baptized all 11 children, 10 girls and one boy, at the church. His favorite song is “How Great Thou Art.”

Over 100 years ago, the songs in the Catholic church were spoken in Latin. “The chant setting is very similar during Lent,” Kozen said. “But for the most part they are not the same body of hymns.” Kozen added that for its size the church performs a surprising number of baptisms and weddings each year.

Eck, born in Renovo to Herman and Mable Eck, attended the Sisters of Christian Charity School for eight years near the church. “We went to the old school and convent, which has been torn down now,” Eck said. “We were taught English, math, history and religion. Everybody toed the line or the strap came out.”

A spirit of giving

“A lot of people didn’t have anything in their pockets then,” Eck said. “Everyone got along and self-denial was a sign of the times. You did what had to be done. Everyone sat in the pews alphabetically in the church. We were in the fifth seat. The tithe was a quarter a Sunday in the 1930s during the Depression. It then went up to 50 cents. I believe the practice went away during the war and tithes were set up based on income.”

Pew rent was paid for the maintenance of the church, similar to tithes and offerings.

Eck volunteered at the church dinners, which were established to support the school, from age 21 up to two years ago. Originally three turkey and ham dinners were held, but now there are two all-you-can-eat family-style meals held the Sunday prior to Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. The church dinner has served as many as 1,600 meals, according to Kozen.

“They serve a real good meal with lots of choices and the price is economic,” Eck said.

The beauty of the Christmas and Easter celebrations stand out in Eck’s mind, remembering good times at the church. “With the singing and decorations, we go all out to make the birth of Christ stand out,” Eck said.

He also enjoys the May devotions, which began approximately in 1927. “We had a parade of people from the church to the grotto to the cemetery after services in a fashion of honor with the creator,” Eck said. “The amount of people for the parade isn’t the same anymore, the church continues to hold May devotions at 3 p.m. on Sundays during the month, according to Kozen.

The third, and final, church

The building of the present church began in 1855 and was completed and dedicated in 1860 under Father Joseph Hamm. It is the third church on the property. A monument was erected on Dec. 8, 2007, commemorating the location of the second church and marking the corners of its foundation, according to Kozen. Records show the first church to have been a two-story structure with the first story made of stone and the second story made of wood. The first story was used for a time as a school. Steinbacher hoped to expand the second church, located between the cemetery and the current rectory, but he was assigned elsewhere.

The third and present church was built by church members for free. The walls are constructed of native field stone laid two to three feet thick and the timbers supporting the floor are hand-hewn yellow pine harvested from the church property, according to Kozen. The steeple stands about 101 feet. Carpenters who were not members received $1 a day for labor. The main carpenter, called architect in the books, received $1.50 daily, Kozen said.

The two bells, which were cast three blocks from Independence Hall at the Joseph Bernhard Bell Foundry, 120 N. Sixth St., Philadelphia, still ring at noon and 6 p.m. “One tolls and the other peals,” Kozen added.

The total sum, according to records for the church construction, was about $3,000 to $4,000 ($85,000 to $113,000 in today’s economy), Kozen said. The income of the parish for the two years in 1859 and 1860 was $3,150.

After the present church was completed the second church was then used as a school. In 1872, under the pastorate of Father John Lenfert the present brick rectory was constructed.

The blessing of the grotto, which holds the statue of the Immaculate Conception, was held Oct. 14, 1915.

There are no additions planned for the present church, according to Kozen, “but as with all buildings with age there is always the possibility of replacing a roof or boiler.” The interior of the church, including the statues, recently was painted.

Kozen has been happily serving at Immaculate Conception for eight years. “The parish is noted for the longevity of its pastors,” he said. “There are a few buried in the cemetery. The last 15 years there has been a quick turnaround but just because of what was needed and necessary.”

Mass services at Immaculate Conception are held at 4 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 a.m. Sunday.