Until the turn of the 19th century, Cowenshannock Township was sparsely populated rolling farmland with no Catholic church. However, the discovery of abundant coal seams in the hills surrounding Rural Valley heralded the opening of mines, and an exciting new era of change began in the valley.
In March 1899, Lucious Waterman Robinson, president of the Commonwealth Coal and Coke Company, a subsidiary of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company, purchased 1,000 acres o farmland from millionaire capitalist Adrian Iselan. Robinson's intention was to open a coal mine, erect mine buildings and build a company town for his employees. He named the town Yatesboro after Arthur G. Yates, president of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad (BR&P)
The rich veins of coal turned out to be very productive, and by 1901, Commonwealth Coal employed 400 men in the Yatesboro mines. By 1913, the number of miners soared to 1,075 men who mined more than 825,000 tons of coal yearly. In the early years of production, nearly all of the coal from the Yatesboro mines was sold to George Eastman (the famous camera magnate) who used it to heat his Eastman Kodak laboratories in Rochester, NY. Eastman and Robinson were quite good friends and neighbors in Rochester.
With the opening of the mines, immigrants from Europe flooded into the area to seek their fortune. Many Italians, Scotch, Swedes and middle-Europeans such as Poles and Czechoslovakians left their homelands to seek the riches promised in America. Not sure what they would find in this new land, many let their families behind in Europe. The coal company especially encouraged married men to work in the mines, as they represented a more stable workforce.
Coming by train, straight from New York to Yatesboro, most of the immigrants boarded in the company owned Valley Hotel until the company built the planned 250 single and double houses that would allow the miners to send for their families.
Eventually, Commonwealth Coal and Coke was operating five mines in Yatesboro. The company town grew to include a company-owned store, The Valley Supply; a fine hotel and pool hall; a school for first through tenth grades; and churches.
Many of the European immigrants brought with them their strong Catholic faith and traditions, which were a central part of their lives in their homelands. With no church within walking distance, Roman and Greek Catholics began to congregate at Peter Mann's Hall where the Lutherans also held their Sunday services. Peter Mann's Hall was a social hall and pool room located on the site of the present day William Penn Club on Main Street in Rural Valley.
It was at Peter Mann's Hall on Aug. 15, 1901, on the Feast of the Assumption, that the late Father John DeVille, a priest from St. Anthony's Church in Walston, Jefferson County (Diocese of Erie), gathered the Catholics together to celebrate their first Mass.
While Mann's Hall served their immediate needs for worship, the Catholics longed for their own worship space. By, 1902, Father DeVille organized the congregation to build a Catholic church in Yatesboro. With the generous support of the Commonwealth Coal and Coke Company, which donated the land next to the public school, the congregation undertook the task of building their church.
On Oct. 1, 1903, the cornerstone was laid, and Mar. 9, 1904, the last Bishop J.F. Regis Canevin of the Diocese of Pittsburgh dedicated St. Mary, Mother of God Parish by celebrating the first Mass.
Even before construction was completed, however, the church was put to use. The first baptism, Joseph Cerafice, occurred on Feb. 12, 1904, and on Feb. 20, 1904, Michael Montante took Maria Guastaferri as his bride in the first wedding ceremony performed at the yet-to-be-completed church.
At a cost of $8,000, the new church stood proudly on a hill overlooking the town of Yatesboro. Twenty-two days after the first Mass was celebrated, on Mar. 31, 1904, the church deed was recorded in the Armstrong County Courthouse, officially transferring the land from the coal company to the late Bishop Richard Phelan of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. By March 1906, a beautiful rectory was completed next to the church to house a parish priest.
The first priest at St. Mary Parish was the late Father Cajetan Federici. Born, raised, and ordained in Italy, Father Federici served his first pastoral assignment in America at SS. Cosmos and Damian Parish in Punxsutawney. He then transferred to the Diocese of Pittsburgh and was assigned to celebrate Masses for the people of Yatesboro.
Father Federici served as pastor of St. Mary Parish from 1906 until his death on Aug. 23, 1913. As the Catholics in Yatesboro had no cemetery, Father Federici was buried at St. Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish cemetery in Kittanning.
The death of Father Federici in 1913, and his burial in Kittanning, brought to a head another issue for the Catholics in Yatesboro--the need for their own cemetery. Members of the congregation who died were either buried in the Rural Valley cemetery or in the Catholic cemetery in Kittanning.
In 1920, the mining company again donated land to the Catholics, this time for their cemetery. The first recorded burial at the new cemetery was a World War I soldier, Cpl. William P. Cosgrove, killed in action and buried at St. Mary Parish cemetery on Aug. 19, 1921.
From the time the mines began to operate in 1900, the Commonwealth Coal and Coke Company recognized the importance of religion as a stabilizing force in the lives of their workers. For more than 40 years, the coal company deducted monthly, from each miner, an amount ranging from 50 cents to $2 to support their church. At the end of each month, the mining company sent the accumulated money and a statement to the Catholic Church.
As the mining industry continued to flourish and the mine operations expanded their reach, Cowanshannock Coal and Coke purchased additional land for more mines and the towns that grew up around them. NuMine was established in 1910 and Margaret in 1920.
Both towns had strong Catholic populations, but the lack of transportation to the Catholic church in Yatesboro made church worship difficult. Numine Catholics frequently walked the three miles to Yatesboro to attend Sunday Mass, but the eight-mile distance from Margaret made church attendance impossible for Catholics there.
The need for a mission church in both communities was apparent and the coal company stepped forward to donate the land and build the churches. By 1927, the chapel in NuMine became St. Gabriel Mission Church and the dedication Mass was held on Sept. 5 of that year by the late Father Rocco Maturo.
On Aug. 15, 1943, the feast of the Assumption, a new church in Margaret was dedicated by the late Father Philip Platania as St. Ann Mission Church. By the time World War II broke out, the region had a thriving Catholic population.
The population of the Yatesboro community during these years was much larger than it is today. The 1920 census listed 3,268 people living in Yatesboro with four unemployed. On July 8, 1925, the First Holy Communion class consisted of 74 children--40 girls and 34 boys.
In 1935, 107 children received their First Holy Communion. By contrast, in 2004, 14 children in the parish received their First Holy Communion.
During the 1940s and 50s, the parish even had its own Boy Scout troop. Church population was large enough during this period that a series of seminarians studying for the priesthood at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, also served as assistant pastors in the parish. Nuns from Ford City and Kittanning traveled to Yatesboro for Saturday catechism classes for the children of the parish.
St. Mary Parish is proud that during this period of growth, six of its parishioners were ordained into the priesthood, five of them from one family. The late Father Albert Farina, ordained in 1928; the late Father Louis Farina, ordained in 1931; the late Father Joseph Farina, ordained in 1935; the late Father Edward Farina, ordained in 1943; and the late Father Wilbert Farina, ordained in 1944.
Father Fidelis Levri, was ordained into the priesthood in 1967. Also, Father Emil Capano, ordained in 1931, and Sisters Clauding and Xavier Capano were from a family originally from Yatesboro.
Church suppers were frequent and provided a source of fellowship for the entire community, as well as a means to raise money for worthy church projects. Then, as now, parishioners took an active role in fundraising.
In 1935, the church sponsored a dance at the Club Shannock to raise money to cement the church basement, buy a furnace and build a kitchen. Delicious turkey and spaghetti dinners, as well as fish fries during Lent solidified the reputation of the ladies of the parish as the best cooks in the valley. In 1938, a spaghetti dinner and bingo party were held to purchase altar boy vestments.
Parishioners were always willing to support a good cause, and they dug deep into their pockets to the tune of $876.50 to purchase a pipe organ for the choir loft. At St. Ann Mission Church in Margaret, a second collection for an organ at that church brought in $128.50--more than $30 over what was needed to purchase the small organ.
The Altar Rosary and Holy Name societies were active in raising funds and supporting church activities and functions. On Apr. 8, 1956, the National Court of the Catholic Daughters of America chartered the Court of St. Francis in Yatesboro with 45 women of the parish serving as charter members.
All of these groups focuses their energies on bettering the spiritual lives of the congregation through fellowship and were leaders of the parish when it came to fundraising.
Perhaps no one exemplifies the spirit of giving to the church like Caroline Philippi, a church organist and director of the choirs in the parish for over 50 years. From the early 1930s, until she retired in 1975, she played at every Mass, seven days a week, including three on Sundays. She walked to the church in every kind of weather, and during her tenure, directed a boy's choir, children's choir and men's choir, as well as the mixed adult choir.
Masses on Sundays were filled with music thanks to her dedication. In addition to her contributions to the music ministry, she volunteered to make all of the dinner rolls for each turkey and spaghetti dinner sponsored by the church. In 1975, Caroline Philippi was honored by the late Bishop William G. Connare with the Assumption Award, given to Catholics for their outstanding dedication and service.
Changes to the physical structure of the church occurred periodically. In 1941, while the late Father Philip Platania was pastor, the church roof was replaced and the brown asbestos shingles were added at a material cost of $200.
The late 1950s saw another exterior change with the addition of the "Yatesboro Green" siding on the church and rectory.
In the early 1960s, under the late Msgr. Nicholas A Mitolo's leadership, the interior of the church was remodeled with the addition of new carpeting, pews, lights, and a coat of paint.
During the 1970s, under the direction of the late Father Dominic Pozzuoli, interior renovations were again undertaken. It was during this time that a free standing altar replaced the traditional church altar, and the priest began facing the congregation while celebrating Mass.
In the 1960s, the church purchased the vacant lot directly behind the parish from the Kovalvhivk Company. The lot was at one time the site of the two-story public school building. The land was graded and converted into a parking lot for the expanding church population.
An additional parcel behind the first, used as a playground for the school and later as a ball field by the children in the area, was also purchased. This, too, was used for overflow parking.
In the 1970s, led by Msgr. John Regoli, discussions began on the possible construction of a church hall on the parking lot behind the church. The church basement had simply become too small to handle the large turnouts for the turkey and spaghetti dinners, and the kitchen ladies needed larger, and more modern kitchen facilities in which to prepare food.
In addition, with the closing of Pete Lazzeri's popular dance hall and roller rink at Sunset Grove, the valley was sorely in need of a place where wedding receptions and other large banquets could be held.
Once again, the parish stepped forward to hold numerous fundraisers to support the construction of the hall. While the building was under construction, the popular Lenten fish fries were held at the American Legion.
St. Mary Hall, a beautiful brick building with modern kitchen facilities, was dedicated on July 10, 1977. Within three years of opening its doors, through the enormous fundraising efforts of the parish, enough money was raised to allow the church to burn the mortgage.
Unfortunately, all was not a bed of roses for Yatesboro and the church. With the closing of the local mines in the 1950s, many families found themselves without a breadwinner. Some men were able to find work at the more productive mines in Lucerne and Homer City. Others sought construction jobs at the coal-fired electric generating stations in Shelocta and Homer City, and a few took jobs at the factories in Yatesboro.
However, many families were forced to leave the valley to find work. As a result, by the end of the 1960s, entire rows of homes in Yatesboro, NuMine and Margaret stood abandoned.
The decreasing church population made it increasingly difficult to maintain three church buildings. St. Ann Mission Church in Margaret was the first to close, followed by St. Gabriel Mission Church in NuMine in 1988. The nearby town of Sagamore was also suffering the same fate and its Catholic church, Sacred Heart, was declining in population.
At the same time population in the valley was declining, the closing of the mission churches in Margaret and NuMine placed a strain on St. Mary Parish in Yatesboro. In addition to the Catholic populations of these two towns now attending church in Yatesboro, Catholics in the Elderton area, who normally attended St. Ann, and Catholics in the Dayton area, who attended St. Gabriel, were now flocking to Yatesboro.
The need for a larger worship space became obvious and Father Gregory Flohr organized a task force of parishioners to study the possibility of building a new church. During Father John Euker's tenure, architectural plans for a new worship space were drawn, but the cost of construction was going to place too much of a financial burden on the congregation so the plans were abandoned.
In the meantime, responding to declining church populations in Yatesboro and Sagamore, and the increasing difficulty in finding priests to serve, the Diocese of Greensburg formed a task force of parishioners from St. Mary and Sacred Heart parishes to study the possible merger of the two communities.
Since their churches were so central to their lives and communities, the task force decided to maintain the status quo and each parish remained autonomous.
With that decision behind them, parishioners at St. Mary revisited the need for a new worship space, this time focusing on renovation of the church rather than reconstruction. The architectural firm of Indovina and Associates was hired to draw up plans, which included renovating the old church, and adding an addition to the worship space.
In 1992, under the direction of Father George Swast, Management Engineering Corporation was awarded the construction bid and work began. In September, parishioners joined together to completely gut the old church, preserving the stained glass windows and carefully removing the delicate and valuable statuary. Some members of the congregation even took home statuary from the church for safekeeping.
In December of the same year, ground was broken and construction on the new addition began. During construction, Masses were held in the parish hall.
On July 25, 1993, the new St. Mary, Mother of God Church in Yatesboro was dedicated. The best elements from the original church, including the stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross, crucifix and statues, and the bell tower and bell were preserved in the new church, which included a chapel where the tabernacle was placed.
Parishioners had to get used to seating in the round, and to individual chairs rather than traditional pews. Some priests enjoyed the flexibility of the seating and tried new arrangements on a regular basis.
With the pending retirement of the late Father Raphael Marzilli, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Sagamore, the subject of a merger of the two parishes was once again a focus of the diocese.
In 1994, following another study, the recommendation was made to partner the two parishes, The partner parishes were to share resources, talents and gifts, and celebrate and preserve the rich heritage of the two communities.
Improvements continued in both parishes. A new cross was installed at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Sagamore and, through memorials, and the fundraising efforts of the St. Mary Cemetery Committee, under the direction of Father Michael Sikon, a chapel was built with no debt remaining at the cemetery at Yatesboro.
In addition, the meditative space at St. Mary was extended outdoors in 2003, to include an impressive water garden outside the chapel door, a gift to the parish as an Eagle Scout project by parishioner Nathan Mohney. In 2004, St. Mary, Mother of God Church also celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Because of structural issues in the roof of the church, and the high cost of repairs, Sacred Heart Church was closed in 2007. The church was officially suppressed by the Diocese of Greensburg on Oct. 1, 2007, bringing many of its parishioners to St. Mar to worship, and creating a new and larger parish family.
Sacred Heart Church was then subsequently torn down, with many of the beautiful features of the church preserved for other uses. The stained glass windows are not part of the newly built St. mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Summerfield, Fla.
On Oct. 30, 2007, because of diocesan-wide restructuring of parishes, St. Mary was partnered with St. Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Kittanning. On that same date, pastoral care of these newly partner parishes was given to Father Daniel L. Blout.
The partnership of these parishes not only meant sharing a pastor, but also sharing resources for religious education and pastoral care. Subsequently, on July 1, 2009, Sister Jacqueline Trzeciak, C.S.J. became the pastoral associate and director of religious education of our partner parishes.
The good news is that our parish community remains strong because of its people, who, like their ancestors who came to this valley, still hold firmly to their beliefs, and to the central role the Catholic faith plays in their lives. As parishioners, we owe a great deal to the men and women who prayed, worked and sacrificed for St. Mary, Mother of God Church, because they believed in the mission of the Catholic faith in this valley.
History by Ronald A. Juliette