The history of Orthodox Christianity in the Conemaugh Valley starts with the Lebanese immigrants who brought their Holy Faith with them from the “Old Country.”The first Orthodox immigrants began to arrive in the Johnstown area during the 1860’s; however, the first large wave of immigrants came during the World Depression of the 1880’s.The group of immigrants settled in Minersville, one of the former boroughs, which was eventually consolidated to form the City of Johnstown in 1889.Whenever traveling priests were available, they gathered together in houses to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.Though often the Divine Services were not held on Sundays, because the priests were not always available.The community was hurt, along with the rest of the city, in the Great Flood of 1889, but the community survived and would soon be strengthened by the large numbers of immigrants that would join their small group.
Around the turn of the century, a larger influx of Lebanese immigrants arrived in Johnstown from the contiguous villages in the county of El Kura, the Orthodox Christian mountain stronghold east of Tripoli.The immigrants had fled Lebanon to avoid mandatory conscription in which they would have been forced to fight other Christians and dissidents in the Ottoman Empire.The immigrants made their way to New York City, and then eventually traveled to Johnstown on the nation’s railways.In settling in Johnstown, the immigrants immediately moved into the merchant class, becoming peddlers and opening family-owned stores.The mission community continued to celebrate the Divine Services whenever a visiting priest was available.
In 1904, Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny of Brooklyn, later to be canonized a saint, along with Johnstown’s Orthodox Church Faithful, established the parish of St. Mary in the city.The parish became a part of St. Raphael’s diocese, the Diocese of Brooklyn, in the ethnically based American diocese under the Russian Orthodox Archbishop of New York and ultimately under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow.The Diocese of Brooklyn served the Syro-Arab Orthodox Christians in North America.Within a year, St. Raphael assigned the Rt. Rev. Michael Saba Curry to be the first pastor of the newly founded parish and he remained so until his death in 1932.The parish community served Johnstown and the surrounding areas including Altoona, Connellsville, Greensburg, Mt. Pleasant and Portage.Moreover, the parish served Orthodox Christians of other ethnic ancestries until they were able to establish their own parishes in Johnstown.The Divine Services were celebrated on a regular basis in parishioners’ homes and other makeshift and temporary places of worship, until the first church was built in 1911.The church building was located on Chestnut Street in the Cambria City section of Johnstown.
The young parish entered tough times in the 1910s for various reasons.The great flu epidemic of 1914 killed scores of parishioners.Secondly, there was turmoil across the entire Diocese of Brooklyn following St. Raphael’s death in 1915.In 1914, Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi came to the United States to collect funds for an agricultural school in his own diocese of Zahle.However, after the death of St. Raphael, Shehadi claimed to be the representative of the Patriarch of Antioch.Those who desired to be under the jurisdiction of the Church of Antioch formed new parishes under Metropolitan Shehadi, while many of those who did not believe that Shehadi was the rightful representative stayed faithful to the Church of Moscow.A significant faction of St. Mary parishioners followed Metropolitan Shehadi and formed the parish of St. Demetrios in 1917, which was located in the Woodvale section of Johnstown.St. Mary Parish stayed under the jurisdiction of Moscow and was under the See of Bishop Aftimios Ofiesh, the official successor of St. Raphael.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 brought increased confusion to the situation in America.The Russian Orthodox Church, under heavy attack, was barely able to sustain itself, let alone provide for the numerous ethnic dioceses in North America.In 1920, Archbishop Tikhon (later to be consecrated a saint), the Patriarch of Moscow, issued a decree that all of the Orthodox Christians in the United States should seek immediate refuge from whichever jurisdiction would shield them from the evils of communism.In so doing, St. Tikhon left all matters of jurisdictional debate to the parishes themselves and the diocesan leaders.The parish of St. Demetrios continued under the legitimate jurisdiction of Archbishop Victor Abo-Assaley, the first primate of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, under the Patriarchate of Antioch.In 1927, the Diocese of Brooklyn was granted autocephaly by the Russian Orthodox Church and became the American Orthodox Catholic Church with Archbishop Ofiesh as primate.The parish of St. Mary, one of the parishes sympathetic to the original Russian jurisdiction, moved into the newly formed diocese.In 1930, Archbishop Ofiesh was removed as primate of the authocephalous diocese and was replaced by Bishop Emmanuel Abo-Hatab.As primate of the diocese, he realized that the only way to unite the Middle Eastern Orthodox Christians of North America was to be done under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch.Bishop Emmanuel worked until his death to ensure the reunification of the two Orthodox Catholic dioceses in North America.In 1933 shortly before Abo-Hatab’s death, the American Orthodox Catholic Church, along with the parish of St. Mary, was canonically released to the Patriarch of Antioch and became a part of the Syrian (Antiochian) Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.
In 1935, Antony Bashir was elected to become the Archbishop and primate of the newly united Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.It was Metropolitan Anthony who directly merged the two parishes of St. Mary and St. Demetrios of Johnstown in 1937.After the reunification, the two parish bodies, who had remained close during their twenty year separation, worked for the growth of the united St. Mary Parish.Thus, Johnstown served as an example and was also a hub for the reunification of the various Antiochian Orthodox factions.The church building that housed the St. Demetrios Parish was sold to the new Serbian Orthodox Parish of St. Petka.Throughout the early history of the St. Mary Parish, Sandyvale Cemetery, a cemetery originally dedicated for Civil War veterans, was used as the town’s Orthodox cemetery.After the cemetery was full, the parish largely used Benshoff Hill Cemetery and Grandview Cemetery, which are still used by many in the parish to date.
The years that followed brought a new set of challenges for the parish.The many young men of the community who were returning home after World War II began to take an active part in the Church’s growth and its activities.The new needs were met through the introduction of the English language into the Liturgical Services of the Church.This proved to be pivotal in the growth of the parish and led to the organization of a young adults club that promoted Church life.The prosperity of the church continued and soon the Chestnut Street facility was outgrown.The church building was sold to the growing community of St. George Serbian Orthodox Church and is still in use today.
In 1961 a new parcel of land was purchased in Upper Yoder Township, Cambria County at 111 Alberta Avenue and the groundbreaking took place on December 7, 1961 following the celebration of a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy under Metropolitan Antony.On Sunday November 17, 1968, the new and present house of worship was dedicated to the glory of God by Metropolitan Philip Saliba to the fulfillment of the spiritual needs of the St. Mary Parish.
In 1977 a new challenge was met by the community.A complete program of beautification of the Church interior and exterior was undertaken.New stained glass windows and icons, in the style of Byzantine art synonymous to the churches of Eastern Christendom, were commissioned and incorporated into the Church’s interior.The Church grounds were landscaped and a Bulletin Board was erected which incorporates the corner stone of the original church building as a dedication to the early pioneers of Orthodoxy in Johnstown.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the St. Mary Parish Family has continued to realize many dreams in regards to the interior and exterior beautification of our church.From the physical perspective of the building, the parish has completed many projects.For example, the parish has enlarged, re-graded and repaved the parking lot (adding designated parking spaces for the physically challenged as well), added offices, enlarged and streamlined the kitchen facilities, replaced the roofs on both church and parish home, remodeled the parish home, and remodeled the Social Hall in 1986 and 2004.In 1994, at the parish’s Ninetieth Anniversary Celebration, His Grace, Bishop Antoun Khouri challenged the parish to complete the dreams of the parishioners’ ancestors by providing a proper church school facility for the children of the parish.The new addition has been realized and is already benefiting the entire parish family, especially the youth, as the parish ministers to their Christian education and development.
A young parishioner, Nathan Catanese, for his Eagle Scout Project, raised funds for and commissioned a shrine to be dedicated to the memory of St. Raphael, the founder of the parish.It was blessed in a Service of Prayer at Nathan’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor in February of 2002.The area around the shrine was landscaped as part of another scout’s Eagle Scout Project and since then it has been maintained by the Faithful of our community.Furthermore, the late Rt. Rev. Fr. John Namie presented his personal relics of St. Raphael to Fr. Donald Shadid and the Faithful of St. Mary.Today, the relics are held in the church and are venerated by the parishioners.The parishioners continue to intercede to their spiritual father to pray on their behalf.
In July 2004, during the Special Convention of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, the delegates of the Archdiocese approved the formation of “Dioceses,” as opposed to “Regions” and St. Mary Parish was placed into the newly formed Diocese of Oakland and all the East.At that time, it was decided to have the “See” of the Diocese located in Oakland (Pittsburgh), PA.St. Mary of Johnstown will be the closest parish to the new bishop, who will reside at the Camp & conference Center of the Archdiocese, the Antiochian Village, located in the beautiful Laurel Mountains outside of Ligonier, PA.The parish will continue to listen to the spiritual guidance of Metropolitan PHILIP and the other bishops of the newly formed Local Synod governing the self-ruling Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.
Liturgically, the parish has constantly sought to preserve the simple beauty of the St. Mary Temple, while maintaining it and complementing it with additional iconography and furnishings.Within the last eighteen years the parish has replaced items, repainted several areas, and commissioned icons and furnishings.A number of projects, including the re-staining & varnishing of the Iconostasis, and the commissioning of life-size icons of Orthodoxy’s liturgists were completed in celebration of the Parish’s One Hundredth Anniversary.This grand event was properly commemorated in October of 2004, under the spiritual leadership of His Grace, Bishop ANTOUN.
Since the time of Very Rev. Fr. Michael Saba Curry, St. Mary has been served by Rev. Fr. Andrew Nassir (1932-1935); Rev. Fr. John Saba (1936-1937); Rev. Fr. George Rawieheb (1937-1941); Rev. Fr. George Nasser (1941-1961); Rev. Fr. Athanasius Emmert (1961-1963); Rt. Rev. Fr. Gibran Ramlaoui (1963-1966 … later to be consecrated Metropolitan of Australia & New Zealand); Rt. Rev. Fr. Alexander Curry (1966-1975 … son of Fr. Michael Saba Curry);Rev. Fr. Joseph Shahda (1975-1983); Rev. Fr. George Geha (1983-1986); and our present spiritual leader, Very Rev. Fr. Donald Shadid, who was assigned to St. Mary in June of 1986 by His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip Saliba.Fr. Don is a graduate of Illinois State University (Bachelor of Science, 1981), St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (Master of Divinity, 1984), and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry – Eastern Christian Focus – under the auspices of the Antiochian Archdiocese’s House of Studies Program, 2003).Fr. Don and Khouria Janet were crowned in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony in November of 1985, and they have two sons, Christopher and Stephen.Janet grew up in the sister parish of St. George in Boston, where she was very active with the Church School, Teens and Choir.Before serving the Johnstown parish, Fr. Don and Janet served at the Antiochian Village, where they both worked at the camp for many summers.Fr. Don was the Assistant Director of the Camp & Conference Center from 1984-1986.
St. Mary’s present congregation consists of 165 families, chiefly of Lebanese and Syrian descent.However, in the last fifteen years the parish family has grown to include Egyptian and Greek Families; as well as new catechumens and converts.The parish is a participant in the Parish Ministry Team Concept of the Fellowship of St. John the Divine.The organizations and Parish Ministry Teams are: the Parish Council; Church School; The Prayer Discipline of St. Philip the Evangelist (which includes an adult “Living the Baptized Life” Discussion & Almsgiving Group); (Teen) SOYO (Society of Youth Organization); Holy Bread preparation; Liturgical Preparation; Choir; Junior Choir; Chanters; Mercy Meal Preparation; Collection; Deposit and Special Events (Fund-Raising).The parish of St. Mary has always sought to better the community of Johnstown through service projects and supporting community organizations (e.g. Women’s Help Center various social agencies, serving as a meeting place for Cub, Boy & Girl Scouts, serving as a chartering organization for a Venture Scout Crew, etc.); as well as strengthening the spiritual needs of its own parishioners.The parish also maintains strong relations with the other Orthodox Christian churches of the Johnstown area and continues to participate in various Pan-Orthodox organizations and events.Fr. Don is a member of the Greater Johnstown Orthodox Clergy Association and has also served on the Board of Directors of Westmont Family Counseling Ministries for many years.Presently, St. Mary Church is honored to be the first “home” to St. Sophia Orthodox Christian Academy, a Pan-Orthodox Christian Pre-and Elementary School.
Parishioners of St. Mary have a strong background in the Faith, and over the last one hundred years, many have gone to help other parishes in the Archdiocese.In the early 1900s, many parishioners moved to Cleveland and Detroit and helped to establish parishes in those cities.Later on, parishioners continued to spread the Orthodox Faith around the United States by joining newer parishes and by helping to establish missions in Pennsylvania and other states.St. Mary has also had a few of its native sons enter the Holy Priesthood: the late Rt. Rev. Fr. Alexander Curry; the late Rt. Rev. Fr. George Corry, the Very Rev. Fr. George Alberts; and the Very Rev. Fr. Alexander Atty.
Although parish life is no longer ethnically oriented, parishioner’s still love the old Middle-Eastern customs, foods and traditions.The services are offered by Fr. Don, the Choir (under the direction of Mr. Fred McLoota and his assistants, Lisa Catanese, Betty Ghantous, Genevieve Milkie, Maria Plakakis & Christopher Shadid) and the chanters (Tony Abraham, Paul Finley, Jason Catanese & Christopher Shadid) in English; with some hymns sung in Arabic for those persons having made the transition to the United Sates in recent years.The choir was first formally organized under the leadership of Vivian Curry (wife of our Fr. Alex) and their repertoire has become a model of American Orthodox Unity by incorporating music from multiple Orthodox backgrounds.The repertoire expanded Unity by incorporating music from multiple Orthodox backgrounds.The repertoire expanded under the past leadership of choir directors Professor Dejan Nedelkovich, Helen Spanovich and the late Jim Corey.Recently, multiple languages have been used during the litanies of Great Vespers as is the custom brought back by the parish’s youth from the Antiochian Village Camp.
As the parish is now celebrating its One Hundred & Eighth Anniversary (1904 – 2012), it is the fervent hope of all within the St. Mary Parish Family that the spirit of the Founding Fathers will remain the ingredient for the current parishioners, and those who follow after, to maintain the Faith and Dignity upon which the Church was founded.It is also the prayer of the St. Mary community that Holy Orthodoxy will continue to flourish in the Conemaugh Valley.
Complied and Edited by Nathan S. Catanese & Fr. Don Shadid