Mass will be said for the last time at St. Kieran’s, the parish church of Heckscherville in Schuylkill County, at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday evening.
The surrounding area, known locally as “Irish Valley,” is steeped in the history of anthracite coalmining and the railroads. After the Famine, thousands of Irish immigrants settled there, many of them working in the harsh conditions that produced the Molly Maguires episode two decades later.
“We knew it was coming,” said parishioner Catherine Clifford. “But people are very upset and angry. The process was very secretive.”
Locals want the church to be preserved as a shrine to a canonized saint and to the immigrants who built and paid for the church.
“We filed an appeal with the diocese of Allentown,” said Clifford, who traces her family back to ancestors, Callaghans and Hegartys who came to Irish Valley in 1850.
“If he [Bishop Edward Cullen] denies the appeal, then we can go to Rome,” she said.
So far there has been no formalized campaign other than collecting signatures after Saturday evening Mass. “But we are setting up a meeting,” Clifford said.
Parishioners fear the “reversionary” clause in the deeds, which states that if the building is used for any purpose other than as a Catholic Church it goes go back to the mine company. Locals believe that the company might knock down the church and its ancillary buildings — and that it would have little interest in maintaining a churchyard that contains at least 11 members of the Molly Maguires.
In a letter published in this week’s Irish Echo (page 13) parishioner Joe Anthony writes: “By the orders of Bishop Neumann, Father Malone, pastor of St. Vincent’s parish in Minersville, was to visit all the families in Heckscherville, which was a distance of seven miles from Minersville. His purpose was to solicit from the people to erect a new church in the valley. All families were asked to pledge $10.00.
“The church began construction by Irish miners after they worked their shift in the mines. Specifications of the church are written in excerpts from the saint’s personal diary, which can be viewed in the rear of the church,” he adds.
St. Kieran’s (originally St. Kyran’s) was involved, as noted, in the story of the Molly Maguires, one of the most debated chapters in Irish-American history. During the Molly Maguire period in the 1870s, there were 22,000 working miners in Schuylkill County – 5,500 of them children between ages 7 and 16 employed separating slate from the coal.
Clifford said that Heckscherville, which hosts an Irish festival in late July, is the largest of several small towns and hamlets in the valley. The area was exclusively Irish until a few decades ago. Even after several generations some people have retained an accent, Clifford said. “You can hear the Irish,” she said. “You’d swear that they just got off the boat.”
Yet a Czech clergyman figures prominently in the story of Irish Valley, too. John Neumann, who born in Bohemia in 1811, came to the U.S. in his 20s intent on being a missionary. He’d written to several bishops back in Europe only to be told they had more than enough priests. He joined the Redemptorists and in time became the order’s superior in America.
Neumann, a scholar who spoke eight languages, was appointed bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. He set about building churches and schools against the backdrop of the Know-Nothings’ opposition to Catholic immigrants and their faith.
In November 1859, Neumann traveled to what was said to be his favorite, the little church in Heckscherville. It was his 12th visit in the two years since its construction. He was felled by a stroke in Philadelphia in Jan. 5, 1860. He was 48. He was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1977.
Now, the local Republican Herald reports that some parishioners in Irish Valley and other parts of the diocese are so upset with the closures they are considering attending churches of other denominations.
In addition to the 32 churches being shuttered this weekend in the Allentown diocese, another 17 are listed in the “fate undetermined” category.
St. Kieran’s parishioners Catherine Clifford and Joe Anthony can be contacted by emailing Clifford at email@example.com.