Sacred Heart Church, Newtown

1946 was an important year for all of us, a mixture of great joy with great sorrow.  Two of our three churches, Ss. Peter and Paul in Tower City, and Sacred Heart in Newtown, celebrated their Golden Jubilees in the very same year that a horrible fire totally gutted the third, Immaculate Conception in Tremont.

Saints Peter and Paul Church, Tower City

The following summary was composed by Mr. Charles Joyce, parish historian, pertaining to the Remembrance of the Golden Jubilee, composed by Rev. Daniel B. Powell from 1946:

1867 - 1896

 From 1867 until 1893 the village of Tower City was part of Porter Township. In 1893 Tower City was incorporated as a borough. The foundation of the town came from the disclosure of deposits of anthracite coal in the vicinity. The Brookside mines were developed in 1867. The owners of the land discovered one of the finest deposits of anthracite coal in the world. After the opening of the mine it became necessary to establish dwellings to house the employees. Tower City is bounded on the North by Big Lick Mountain in which are found the rich coal veins and on the south by Peters and Stony Mountains, containing small deposits of coal and iron ore. On entering the valley from the East one descends what is known to people as the Keffers Highway.

The opening of the East Brookside mine and the Kalmia mine brought into the Schuylkill County section of the Williams Valley the first advance of permanent settlers. The hamlets of Johnstown (Orwin), Kalmia (now extinct), Reiner City (Muir), Bearmont (Rinerton), gradually came into existence and finally with the opening of the West Brookside mine in 1867 the village of Tower City came into existence.

A fair portion of the first settlers were of the Catholic faith and principally of German or Irish extraction. Of these first Catholic settlers living as they were, so far from their Parish Church at Tremont, PA and prevented by the rough roads and lacking the means of travel to enable them to attend the divine services of their church, which is always the vital spark of Catholic life, many of them lost their faith. Realizing the critical spiritual condition of the few remaining Faithful, the Reverend Pastors of Tremont adapted the plan of bringing the services of their religion, closer to the dwindling and famishing flock living in these parts. At stated times during the late 1860s and most of the 1870s, the remaining few Catholics were assembled in the various and most convenient Catholic homes in the valley and the Priest, coming from Tremont, would celebrate Mass, administer the Sacraments, and attend the spiritual wants of the little congregations in these humble improvised home chapels. The Reverend Pastors were often compelled to travel this distance by horseback.

Probably the first place where Mass was celebrated in this Schuylkill County section of the Williams Valley, for the small assembly of Catholic inhabitants, was in Bettinger's Hotel, Reiner City (Muir), in the house now occupied by the Paul Wirt family, Reiner City (Muir).

The Rev. John M. Cox, an Irish Priest, and later on the Rev. Francis X. George, a French Priest, succeeding pastors at Tremont, PA for several years made regular visits for religious services to the Bettinger Hotel. Later on, Father Brennan said Mass for the assembled Catholics of the valley, at the Sabastian Shreiner Hotel at Bearmont (now Knouff”s Hotel, Rinerton). Father Brennan also said Mass at appointed times in the early 1870’s at the Brick School House, Bearmont (Rinerton). Mass was said by Father Brennan, for some years in the late 1870’s in the Martin Carroll home, Tower City.

In 1880 the Catholic population was showing a small and gradual increase. In the fall of that year the Tower City Board of Education allowed the Catholics the use of the old Brick School Building (the old brick school that stood where the Public High School now stands) for Sunday worship. It was in this building for nearly eight years, on specified Sundays, that the Rev. John J. McDevitt, then Pastor of Tremont, PA celebrated Mass. Father McDevitt generally traveled this distance by horseback, and the older inhabitants recall to this day his excellent horsemanship.

In 1888 the Catholics, upon their own initiative, started a movement for a church building of their own. A committee of the Catholics of this district was formed, and Mr. John Monahan, an official of the Brookside Mines, was made chairman. A spacious lot of ground was purchased on the south east corner of Ninth St. and Grand Ave. Mr. Charles Knect, one of the early Catholic settlers, was selected to be the builder of the new church building. The plain little church building was ready for occupancy in the fall of 1889. The building was accepted by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, as a mission church of the Immaculate Conception Parish of Tremont, and as such it was placed under patronage of the Holy Apostles Saints Peter and Paul. That Sunday in the fall of 1889 must have been a great festive day to the Catholics in the eastern end of the Williams Valley, as they knelt for the first time in their own church at Mass celebrated on that occasion by Father McDevitt.

Being only a mission church, the people did not have the privilege of having Mass regularly every Sunday, and on those vacant Sundays, the faithful would walk to the Catholic Church at Williamstown, PA as they had been doing for many years. In the fall of 1896 the congregation appointed a committee made up of Mr. John Monahan, Mr. Patrick Berney, and Mr. Thomas Carroll, and commissioned them to convey to the Archbishop of the Diocese their wishes and desires.


1896 - 1946

In December of 1896 the mission church of Sts. Peter & Paul was raised to the status of a Parish Church.

On December 8, 1896 the Rev. Francis M. Ward became the first pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul Church. The new pastor began to plan for a rectory. An ample piece of ground almost opposite the Church on Grand Avenue was secured. Upon this site Father Ward built a commodious three story frame Rectory. Father Ward moved into his completely furnished new rectory in the spring of 1898. In the spring of 1899, Father Ward built a mid frontal addition to the Church that serves as an entrance vestibule and bell tower. The bell was blessed by the Rev. James F. Loughlin, D. D. Chancellor of the Archdiocese on October 1, 1899.

The bell bears the following inscription, which was written by Rev. Dennis J. Dougherty, D. D., of Overbrook Seminary: Reverentiam ad versus Primum Curionem, Franciscum Mariam Ward Adhibeant conflandum currarunt Paroeciae Mulieres, A. D. MDCCCXCIX. Translated: The ladies of the parish present this bell as a token to their reverential respect for their first pastor, Francis Mary Ward. On the other side of the bell is another inscription written by the pastor; Benedictions Hujus Campanulae Rt. Rev. Joannes G. Shanahan, D. D., Bishop of Harrisburg, blessed this bell. The consecration of the new cemetery took place in the afternoon. Promptly at 3 p.m. a procession was formed in front of the residence of Rev. Father Ward. The procession headed by the Tower City Band, acted as an escort to Monsignor Loughlin and the clergy who followed in carriages. The parade proceeded to the new cemetery where, in front of the large cross which had been erected, the ground was duly consecrated by Monsignor Loughlin, assisted by Rev. Father Ward, Rev. Father Barr of Williamstown, and Rev. Father Kaelen, of Lykens. On June 30, 1901 Father Ward was appointed pastor of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Tremont.

On June 30, 1901 the Rev. Vincent W. Corcoran became the second pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul Church. In April of 1902 Father Corcoran was appointed as the first pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Branchdale.

On April 9, 1902 the Rev. James Wilson became the third pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul Church. Father Wilson is remembered by the older parishioners as a musician and under his genial personality a choir was organized, which was second to none in the community. On December 1, 1907 Father Wilson was appointed as the first pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians in Morton.

On December 8, 1907 the Rev. Joseph L. O'Connor became the fourth pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Church. During Father O'Connor's administration, a slow and gradual flow of foreign immigration from the several countries of Central Europe, principally Lithuania, began to settle in the valley. This new influx of people was almost totally Catholic. In May of 1912 Father O'Connor was appointed pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Nesquehoning.

In May of 1912 the Rev. Stephen J. Smith became the fifth pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Church. In the first year of Father Smith's pastorate the parish had the greatest population in its history, a population never equaled even to this day. In the following year, however the parish had to endure its greatest trial. On August 2, 1913 the Brookside Mine disaster, one of the greatest in the history of anthracite mining, took place. This awful event took a toll of twenty lives, eleven of whom were parishioners of this parish.  [N.B.--The official death register of the parish, composed a very short time after the two explosions, actually lists twelve men under two headings "Killed in Mines" on "Aug. 2," 1913"--Editor].  Father Smith was called to the mine shaft prepared to render spiritual aid if possible to the victims. At one of the Funeral Requiem Masses celebrated several days later by Father Smith, six corpses were in the church at the same time. In the death of these Catholic miners, the parish experienced a terrible loss. Most of them were the best parishioners and the fathers of large families. Their families moved away and even the families of their relatives and friends intimidated with a fear of the mines, joined in a pronounced exodus from the town and the parish. The departure of so many families, who were mostly of Irish extraction, threatened indeed, the very life of the parish. Fortunately, however, in the next few years the decided ingress of Catholic people from the countries of Central Europe brought the parish back to a proper equilibrium. The whole aspect of the parish had been changed, from a people principally of Irish extraction it had coalesced into a little congregation of cosmopolitan races. In August of 1915 Father Smith was transferred to the Church of the Most Precious Blood in Philadelphia.

In August of 1915 the Rev. John T. Brady became the sixth pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Church. In May of 1921 Father Brady was transferred to the pastorate of St. Andrew's in Newton (Bucks County).

In May of 1921 the Rev. Cornelius X. Leahy became the seventh pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Church. Father Leahy's pastorate was brought to a sudden close by his tragic death on November 5, 1922. On All Souls' Day, November 2, 1922 over the completion of a successful Confirmation ceremony in his own church, Father Leahy was accompanying the Confirmation Entourage of Bishop Crane to the neighboring Catholic churches. At East Franklin, between Keffers and Tremont, the automobile in which Father Leahy was a passenger, was overturned in some manner, and Mr. James Haley, a Catholic layman of Keffers, was killed outright, and Father Leahy was fatally injured with concussion of the brain. He was immediately taken to the Pottsville Hospital, where he died three days later.

On November 19, 1922 the Rev. John F. Cunniff became the eight pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Church. Father Cunniff was an ardent admirer of religious art, and during his pastorate acquired many beautiful art pieces, the most famous being a hand woven tapestry, "The Adoration of the Magi" designed by the celebrated designer, Reubens. Peter Paul Reubens, eminent Flemish painter, was born at Westphalia, June 28, 1577, and died at Antwerp, May 30, 1640. The seventeenth century tapestry was the personal property of Father Cunniff. During the fifteen years of his pastorate at Tower City, Father Cunniff was instrumental in bringing about great improvement to the interior and exterior of the church and to the rectory and grounds. The church was completely refinished in its interior and exterior and only recently a beautiful stone was was built around the front of the church and the grounds to front planted evergreen trees. Father Cunniff came into considerable prominence several years ago when he erected a shrine on the rectory grounds enclosed in native stone and more recently this was augmented by the erection of a large crucifix, the whole being set in a beautiful arrangement of evergreen trees. The rectory grounds have become known near and far for their beauty and many have journeyed here to view them. Most of the improvement to the rectory and the grounds was done by Father Cunniff at his own personal expense and will remain as a memorial to his work at this place. His love for the beautiful also found expression in a number of valuable paintings which he acquired and in the exquisite furnishings of the rectory. On December 27, 1937 the parishioners were saddened by the tolling of the bell announcing the death of their beloved pastor.

On January 4, 1938 the Rev. Garrett F. Murphy became the ninth pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Church. In May of 1939 Father Murphy was transferred to St. Clement's Parish in Philadelphia.

On July 14, 1939 the Rev. Francis T. Meagher became the tenth pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Church. In March of 1940 Father Meagher died suddenly in the Wolf Hospital in Philadelphia.

In April of 1940 the Rev. Daniel B. Powell became the eleventh pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul Church.


Immaculate Conception Church, Tremont

The following is a summary that has been compiled from several sources. 

Immaculate Conception Parish in Tremont began in 1853 as the result of the efforts of Father Barr, who was pastoring St. John's German Catholic Church in Pottsville. Because of the vast influx of immigrants, Bishop John Neumann of Philadelphia assigned to Father Barr the task of conducting an accurate spiritual census of all the Catholics living west of Pottsville all the way out to the Dauphin County line. This happened soon after Saint Neumann became the Bishop of Philadelphia.

Father Barr was assigned the responsibility of setting up a mission for all the Catholics within this area. This began with the erection of a church in Donaldson. Mass was first celebrated in Tremont at the home of Peter Laux, who lived on what would become Main Street.   As the number of Catholics grew, it became necessary to hold Masses temporarily in the space of the German Lutheran Church in town. Bishop Neumann encouraged the building of a Catholic church.   Since, at the time, lots of Catholic miners were coming to Donaldson to live and work, the first plan was to build a Catholic church there. But after Father Barr was given a gift of land on the beautiful plateau above the small but fast growing town of Tremont, plans to complete a church in Donaldson were discontinued in favor of building a church in Tremont, the central point within the parish's boundary lines. Saint Mary's Mission in Tremont was established in 1853.

The transition from mission to parish in 1854 required the name to change officially. Because Pope Pius IX had just made use of the God's gift of infallibility in defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the name of the parish was fittingly changed from Saint Mary's to Immaculate Conception.   At the time, America had too few priests. After Sylvester Eagle came to our country by being recruited as a seminarian in Prague, Bishop Neumann ordained him to be a priest, and assigned him to be the first pastor of Immaculate Conception parish. In 1855, the laying of cornerstone took place, and the new church was blessed by Bishop John Neumann on June 25, 1856. In the same year, Bishop Neumann personally visited the new parish in order to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation on 122 children. The following year Saint Neumann returned to confirm 77 children and solemnly bless the stone church building.

As early as 1865, the pastor of Immaculate Conception started a mission in the Tower City neighborhood.  In 1896 this growing mission became an independent parish, Ss. Peter and Paul, under Pastor Francis Ward.   In 1893, part of Immaculate Conception parish became Our Lady of the Snows, in Keffers.   In 1925, Immaculate Conception School was opened and staffed a religious order of sisters, the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In 1946, a fire destroyed the interior of the church but a rebuilding and renovation of the church soon followed. The where-abouts of the bell that fell during the fire are still unknown.  In 1964, Immaculate Conception School merged with Saint Mary's in Branchdale.  

The last pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish was Father Michael Ahrensfield, the son of Mr. William Ahrensfield, who died before Father Michael was appointed its pastor.  Deacon Bill served Immaculate Conception for many of the thirty-one years that Father James Brady was the pastor (1969 - 2000).

Soon after Father Brady arrived, Catholic Social Agency asked him to sponsor a home for foster children in the old school building.  This was so successful that later he himself sponsored almost two-dozen Vietnamese refugees, and even a homeless Mexican family.  Father Brady was the Pastor Emeritus of Immaculate Conception before the parish closed in 2008.