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'Repository of personal history': St. Joseph's in Bethlehem holds final Mass as parishioners mourn

St. Joseph's last mass procession
Ryan Gaylor
Clergymen proceed toward the altar at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Bethlehem Saturday for the church's final Mass.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Parishioners filled the sanctuary at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Bethlehem on Saturday morning — a rare instance these days, as the long-dormant opens once a year for the Feast Day of St. Joseph.

It also was the final Mass ever at St. Joseph's, as the Allentown Diocese prepares to sell the building.

  • St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Bethlehem held its final Mass on Saturday
  • For more than a decade, the church has opened once a year for the Feast of St. Joseph
  • The Allentown Diocese soon will offer the historic building for sale

And for some families who had attended the church for generations, it was a mourning as much as a celebration.
“It's kind of like somebody's dying,” said Nancy Aaroe, who told of how her parents were married at St. Josephs in 1964, and how she recalled attending the church with her grandparents while growing up.

“There are special memories here, I’m sure, for everybody.”

The church was founded by Windish immigrants from what is now Slovenia in the early 20th century, drawn to the city by the promise of work at Bethlehem Steel, and thereby a better life.

Those immigrants wanted a place to worship. The cornerstone of St. Joseph’s was blessed in 1914; construction concluded in 1917.

“This isn’t just a church,” Stephen Antalics said to the congregation. “It’s a repository of our Slovenian history.”

Repositary of personal history

It is also a repository of generations of personal history for church members.

“I went to school here for eighth grade," attendee Glenn Donchez said. "I was an altar boy here for Father Joe and Father Lubric. And I got confirmed here.

“My mother, she sang in the choir, and my father, he did every Saturday the bingo downstairs.”

Nancy Wiktor said she was active in the church for decades, and baptized her daughter at St. Joseph’s.

“It all began with my husband and I getting married at this church,” she said. “It’s just a hard chapter to close.”

By the mid-2000s, church attendance was declining nationally and the Catholic Church was facing a shortage of priests.

In Bethlehem, those forces were compounded by the decline and bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel.

The bishop overseeing the diocese convened the Second Synod of Allentown in 2005, which was charged with finding ways to consolidate parishes.

“There’s lots of movements in our minds and hearts. There can be sadness, but I pray there’s also hope.”
The Rev. Andrew Gehringer, said as he began Saturday Mass

Clergy decided to merge St. Joseph’s with the nearby Incarnation of our Lord Parish in 2008, which eventually took over maintaining their former building.

St. Joseph's damage
Damage in the choir loft at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Bethlehem. The more than century-old building has proved increasingly expensive to maintain.
Ryan Gaylor
The damaged plaster above a doorway shows the wooden lath underneath. The plaster is badly damaged.

In recent years, St. Joe’s has shown its age. The front is wrapped in scaffolding to stabilize a deteriorating facade. Roof leaks have eaten away at plaster in the sanctuary.

The diocese said the building has “structural issues.”

Paying to maintain the structure proved increasingly burdensome to Incarnation of Our Lord; this past January, The Diocese of Allentown granted its request to sell the church.

'Sadness, but I pray there's also hope'

For years, the church has only opened once a year, for the Feast Day of St. Joseph. When representatives for the Diocese of Allentown announced the sale, they noted that the sale would be delayed to hold just one more.

“There’s lots of movements in our minds and hearts,” the Rev. Andrew Gehringer said as he began Saturday Mass. “There can be sadness, but I pray there’s also hope.”

St. Joseph’s was nearly full Saturday morning. Gehringer thanked members of his audience for traveling from as far away as Florida.

St. Joseph's last mass choir
Ryan Gaylor
Choir members sing at the final mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Bethlehem.

A member of Slovenia’s diplomatic corps traveled from Washington, D.C., for the occasion.

“It hurts me very badly to say this may be the last time we are here together like this,” said Andrew Azan III, a lector who spoke as the service wound down.

“You're probably sitting in the same pew as you always did, near the window or the station of the cross that you always did."

“My prayer to each of you is that this Mass brings you some peace.”