After 121 years, Catasauqua’s first Orthodox church closes
CATASAUQUA (AP) — The Rev. Timothy Hasenecz doesn’t remember the topic of the last homily he gave at tiny Holy Trinity Orthodox Catholic Church in North Catasuaqua.
He simply poured out whatever his heart had to say, and then, like he did after every liturgy, glanced over at the spot before the altar where his grandparents were married more than a century ago.
On Oct. 4, he and his small congregation of less than two dozen said a tearful goodbye for the final time, closing out the 121st year of the Lehigh Valley’s oldest Orthodox church.
“I saw it happening, and we knew in my little church that it was happening,” Hasenecz said of the final months. “But we were fighting tooth and nail.”
The parish — known to the rest of the Lehigh Valley for its annual paska bread and kielbasi sales — tried to draw in more members, and that seemed to begin working for a time. But the coronavirus pandemic, as multiple church leaders put it, put the nail in the coffin.
So after a vote among the small parish, the “mother church” of the Orthodox faith in the Lehigh Valley quietly closed its doors, and the property, blessed and consecrated by two saints, was sold. Its religious contents are making their way to other Orthodox churches, and its archives, dating to the 1890s, to the diocese.
To the congregation — lifelong attendees who came together every week from as far as Souderton, Quakertown and Topton — it felt like a family torn apart.
“It’s a community, and for the Orthodox it’s a lifestyle,” said Valeria Sajez, a member of 30 years who lives in Center Valley. “We’re an extended family. We all sort of take care of each other. It’s not just we come together on Sunday.”
When she joined in 1989, she estimates there were 120 or so members. At the end, there were 22, parish council President Jim O’Brien said.
Though the church was on level financial footing, there were too few people to run it, he said.
“I think everybody realized it was time to close, although nobody wanted to,” he said.
Nor did anyone want to say it, Hasenecz said. In July, the parish council considered its options. In August, the council held a meeting with the congregation, and a vote — not unanimous, but close to it.
It’s difficult to say goodbye to a community with 121 years of ties.
The building dates to 1899, when its first lime cornerstone was laid and blessed by the Rev. Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre, who in 1997 became a saint. The parish traces its roots back to 1891, when its founders recorded their first baptism, according to a 100-year history commissioned for the church’s centennial.
Its founders were immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia, drawn to Catasauqua for its fertile farmland and employment opportunities in steel mills, cement quarries and clothing factories.
Until they could find a church building of their own, they held worship services in homes or, for some years, in the Catasauqua Town Hall on Front Street. Catasauqua, then the booming home of Dery Silk Mills and other industries, was considered a good halfway point for parish members living in Allentown and Northampton.
Trustees of the Greek Russian Orthodox Catholic Church bought a property on a hill on Fifth Street in 1898 for $500. Parishioners contracted the then-Catasauqua sheriff to build the church, at the time one floor with a pot-bellied stove for heat.
In 1903, the church was consecrated as Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church by the Archbishop Tikhon, then the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in America who later became the patriarch of Moscow and a saint.
Since it was the only Orthodox church in the region, it drew a mixture of nationalities — Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, even Greeks — which was unusual for that time, said Sajez, a lecturer of Russian at Lafayette College who has been translating the church’s archived documents and letters.
“It kind of was the melting pot,” she said.
But since members were of the working class, financial hardship plagued the church in its early days. It had a difficult time collecting dues and often fell behind on mortgage payments. It couldn’t support its first full-time priest, the Rev. Myron Volkay, who left after one year. In the 1910s, as some industries floundered and people lost work in a recession, the church could only collect $4 a month from a congregation of more than 1,500 people, forcing the priest to conduct services just once a month.
Economic conditions lightened after World War II, and the 1950s began a period of growth for the church. It built a new rectory, remodeled the interior of the church, and held a mortgage burning celebration in 1965.
In 1992, owing to its ethnic diversity, the parish requested to change its name to Holy Trinity Orthodox Catholic Church of North Catasauqua.
Though financial troubles were long gone, the issue of declining membership, like in many churches in the United States, began coming to the forefront.
Holy Trinity is at least the third Catasauqua area church in recent memory to close for this reason. St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church held its final service in June 2019 after 167 years. Grace United Methodist Church folded in 2007 after 117 years.
By the time St. Paul’s closed, Holy Trinity was already making efforts to draw more people. Hasenecz went from part-time priest to full time in 2018. They started Bible studies at the Trivet Diner on Tilghman Street, where at least a dozen participated. Before the pandemic, a couple of people joined the church.
“We had high hopes things were going to turn around,” Hasenecz said. “But then once COVID hit, that was it. We just didn’t recover.”
In his 13 years at the church, he officiated funerals for 60 people, and those 60 were never replaced, he said. He could see things weren’t going to get better, and council members were burning out.
The church will have a new life, though it’s not yet decided exactly what kind.
The Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania sold the church and adjoining rectory to a Quakertown renovation company called New Image Enterprises in early December for $300,000, property records show.
The father-and-sons company does four to six renovation projects a year, but this is its first church. Their goal, father Mark Zaffarano said, is to figure out what the community wants and needs, whether it be another church, a community center or some type of small business.
Zaffarano said his first priority would be to renovate both buildings and find another church group that could make use of it. But he said he has also fielded interest from an organization involved in aquaponic research that may want to put an educational center there.
A family that was renting an apartment in the rectory found another home but the church could be turned into residential rentals.
The diocese did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Sajez is continuing to translate the church’s archives, estimating she’s about a tenth of the way through the documents handwritten in a blend of Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Polish. When she’s done, she said, she’ll donate them to a historic society and the national Orthodox church headquarters.
The church’s bell, purchased in 1902 and inscribed with the names of Saints Tikhon and Toth, is in O’Brien’s house, waiting for a new Orthodox church home. The altar went to a church in Orlando, Florida.
And after a Christmas spent apart from their extended family, Holy Trinity’s parishioners will find new homes in the New Year.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.