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Locking the doors: Tears and memories mark parishioners' farewell to 103-year-old St. Stephen Hungarian church

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

By Mary Niederberger

Steve Siebert's grandfather, Janos Szajbert, attended the first Mass held at St. Stephen Roman Catholic Magyar Church in McKeesport on Aug. 20, 1899.

On Sunday, Siebert was present for the last Mass at the 103-year-old parish, where five generations of his family have attended.

Mary Ann Kyne wipes away a tear during Sunday's final Mass at St. Stephen Roman Catholic Magyar Church in McKeesport. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

"It's sad," Siebert, 86, said of the church's closing. He greeted fellow parishioners at the door Sunday, handing out programs for the last Mass, and was part of a trio who took offertory gifts up to Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl, who officiated at the service.

Though in recent years, roughly 75 people attended Masses at St. Stephen, Sunday's service was packed with more than 300. Folding chairs were set up for several rows to provide additional seats behind the pews.

As Wuerl instructed parishioners to be grateful for the years the church had served them and to accept a future that will involve attending new churches, some parishioners dabbed tissues at their eyes.

Throughout the Mass flashes from cameras lit up the church as people took their last shots of the place where they have held generations of baptisms, marriages and funerals of loved ones.

Among the crowd was John Ruby, usher, eucharistic minister and lifelong parishioner, who baptized his five children and later buried two of them from St. Stephen.

"In all elements of growth and change, there is a sadness. We all would like things to remain unchanged, but that doesn't happen," Wuerl said.

He likened the situation to one he experienced when his father moved his family from a house into an apartment after the death of his mother. He said his father told them the family home would be wherever he was.

Likewise, the bishop said, "where the Eucharist will be is where the church is."

He instructed St. Stephen parishioners to move on to their new churches, but to keep in their hearts St. Stephen and their memories of their former pastor, the Rev. Stephen Kato, who died in April. "What lives in us lives in our heart -- our heritage, our traditions, our culture ... but more importantly our faith," Wuerl said.

He pointed out that a number of other ethnic churches met the same fate nine years ago -- the same time the closing of St. Stephen was announced.

Merged with St. Pius

In 1994, St. Stephen lost parish status and was merged with nearby St. Pius V. But at the time, Kato, who was celebrating his 50th year as a priest, asked Wuerl if the church could remain open as long as Kato was able to say Mass.

It looks like any other Sunday after Mass as worshippers leave St. Stephen Sunday, but this time it's for the last time. (Frank Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Wuerl granted Kato's request, and St. Stephen remained open eight more years until April, when Kato died. It was then that parishioners knew the church soon would close.

"We all depended on Father and hoped he would never die," said parishioner Pat Spivak. "It's a death. We knew it was going to happen someday, but just as with any death, you are never prepared for it."

Some in the church clapped and nodded at the end of Wuerl's homily Sunday, but many others sat with their hands and faces still.

Some parishioners hope a portrait of St. Stephen, which formerly hung at the center of the altar but in later years was moved to the side, and portraits of the church's four pastors would be kept at the Heritage House.

But the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said no decisions have been made about any of the holy items from St. Stephen, including the wooden altars brought over from Hungary. Lengwin said items from churches that are closed are sometimes given to other churches that need them or are renovating. But, he said, they are never destroyed.

Many of the statues and stained-glass windows in the church depict Hungarian saints.

The idea for the church came from a group of Hungarian immigrants in the Mon Valley in the late 1890s. They approached the editor of a Hungarian newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, who became their mouthpiece.

Started with $25

At a speech to a group of Hungarians in the Mon Valley in November 1897, the editor spoke of the need and the desire for a Catholic church in the area. He ended his speech with a $25 donation to the building fund.

At the church last week, long-time members who had gathered to plan the final Mass and reception, uncovered framed lists from 1899 and 1900 of people who had donated $25 to the church fund.

According to church history, when $650 was raised, the Hungarian immigrants, again through the editor, wrote to the Bishop of Kassa, Hungary, and asked for a pastor to be sent to them. The man sent was the Rev. Kalman Kovats, a priest, professor and editor of a political newspaper.

Kovats arrived in McKeesport on Aug. 12, 1899, and was taken in by the Janos Szajbert family. The first church service was in the basement school hall of nearby St. Peter Catholic Church on Aug. 20, 1899 -- the feast day of St. Stephen.

The initial parish consisted of 23 local families along with 817 adults who were scattered throughout 31 small communities in the Mon Valley.

On April 3, 1900, land was purchased for the church at a price of $2,550. The total cost of the two-story brick-and-stone church was $45,000. Groundbreaking was July 26, 1900, with the cornerstone laid Sept. 9 of that year. The church, named after the first Christian king of Hungary, was completed and dedicated Aug. 25, 1901. According to church history, 4,000 visitors attended.

In 1912, four nuns were the first to arrive at the church to help educate children in religion and their native language. A grade school was built in 1931 -- mostly by the hands of parishioners who helped to dismantle a nearby school that was closing and rebuilt it next to their church. The school remained open until 1967.

At its highest point, which was shortly after World War II, the church had a membership of about 300 families and Masses were often held before a standing-room-only crowd.

The numbers dwindled through the years as younger generations of families either moved from the area or joined the territorial parish nearest their homes. As an ethnic church, St. Stephen drew its members from throughout the Mon Valley. In recent years, members of about 140 families attended church there.

Throughout its 103-year history, the church had just four pastors. Besides Kato, who served for 40 years, and Kovats who served until his death in 1927, there were the Rev. John Rethy, who was pastor from May 1927 to his death in July 1946, and the Rev. Raymond Novak, who served from December 1946 until June 1962, when he was transferred.

Loss of traditions

Parishioners say it's difficult to accept the loss of their traditions.

Gone will be the Hungarian hymns sung once a month at Mass.

And it's likely there will be no more annual church picnic, the one held each August to commemorate Kato's birthday and St. Stephen's feast day -- which were the same, said Doris Stipkovits. She has served as sacristan at the parish since 1967 when the nuns left after the parish grade school was closed.

At the picnic, the parish would gather at Renzie Park in McKeesport and feast on stuffed cabbage, noodles and cabbage, kielbasa and nut rolls.

"We've been saying for the last seven years, 'This might be the last one,' " said Steve Hogya, 79, who led the congregation in Hungarian hymns at Sunday's last Mass.

Though the idea of trying to continue the picnic has been discussed, Stipkovits said it would be too difficult because church members won't see each other on Sundays to make plans and the women of the parish won't be able to gather at the church kitchen to cook the food.

"We won't be in touch anymore. We are never going to see our family anymore once the church closes," Stipkovits said.

She said the hardest thing for her would be to see padlocks go on the church, which is the plan from the diocese.

Kato insisted, she said, on never locking the church doors, even at night.

"Father Kato said he would never lock up Jesus. He wanted people to always be able to reach him," she said. "Now the church will be padlocked."

Mary Niederberger is a free-lance writer.

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