He was speaking at the ordination of three priests – Fathers Michael Kelly, Dan an Nguyen and Richard Shannon — for the diocese, which includes large swathes of the province of Leinster. There had been none in 2006 and 2007. This is a rather different situation to that prevailing in the 19th century. John Neumann, who was born in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1811, was told in his early 20s that there were more than enough priests throughout Europe. He came to the United States, where he was ordained and eventually appointed bishop of Philadelphia. In that role through the 1850s, he set about building schools and churches in an atmosphere hostile to Catholics and immigrants. Many of the faithful worked and lived in harsh conditions, particularly in the mines, yet when asked they paid for their places of worship. One was St. Kieran’s in Heckscherville, a town named for the mine owner, in the heart of what was and is known as Irish Valley. In this case, they gave more than just money. Miners, either before or after their shifts, contributed their labor to the building of the church.
Bishop John Neumann seemed to have a particular interest in the simple structure in Heckscherville, which was completed in 1857. He visited it a dozen times up until November 1859. He died on Jan. 5, 1860 in Philadelphia at the age of 48. He was canonized in 1977, becoming the first U.S. bishop to be recognized in this manner.
St. Kieran’s served its community through the generations – 150 years –until the final Mass last Saturday night. It was one of 32 that closed in the Allentown Diocese.
There are inevitable parallels with St. Brigid’s in Manhattan. Both churches, named after early Irish saints, were built literally by people who’d fled the Famine. The two cases involved short-sighted decisions made by diocesan officials without reference to the heritage issues that their closures raised. The sort of leadership shown by Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin seems to be in short supply in New York City and Allentown. (Happily, the St. Brigid’s controversy has been resolved in a manner that is satisfactory to all interested parties, thanks to a very generous anonymous donation.)
There are interesting differences, however, between the two cases. First of all, there are no reported structural problems in St. Kieran’s, whereas the New York Archdiocese had claimed that the East Village church was unsafe.
Second, while the descendants of the original Famine immigrants had for the most part moved out of the Lower East Side and Manhattan generally, this is not the situation in Irish Valley. In other words, many of the parishioners of St. Kieran’s are conscious of the fact that their direct ancestors paid for and built the church with their own hands.
Thirdly, Irish Valley is bound up with the history of an important organization that is still very much with us, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (and one that isn’t, as far we know, the Molly Maguires).
All of this gives us hope that Irish America will strongly support the parishioners’ demand that St. Kieran’s be preserved as a shrine to a canonized saint and to the poor immigrants who paid for and built the church.