History

In a city with as much religious diversity and prominence as Pittston, there is an astounding number of churches that have played central roles in forming the region’s history. In order to understand the impact of this faith, particularly that of the Catholic faith, one can turn to the exemplary model of Saint John the Evangelist Church. Like the many other embodiments of Catholicism in Pittston, Saint John the Evangelist Parish on William Street has a long and intricate history, and its story reaches back to 1854. The church received its now iconic designation as the “jewel of the diocese” by Bishop O’Hara, the first bishop of Scranton, at the church’s dedication in April 1893 when he proclaimed, “We now have many beautiful churches in the diocese, but I must say this grand church is a jewel.”[1] It has witnessed more than 160 years of history, constructed two church buildings, followed the guidance of 14 priests, and founded a school as it has grown and transformed along with the city’s and the Catholic Church’s history.

This historic parish has its roots in the 1840s, when Catholic priests began to visit homes in the Wyoming Valley and establish a community of the faithful.[2] However, the parish of Saint John the Evangelist would not come into existence until the hard work of Father John P. O’Shaughnessy. As the first priest of Saint John the Evangelist parish, he purchased a plot of land on William Street and began the process of fundraising for and ordering the construction of the parish’s first church in 1854.[3] That same year during the construction of a physical center of worship, Bishop John Neuman of Philadelphia formally established Saint John the Evangelist Parish, providing the Catholic Church’s blessing that the church would be an official spiritual home for Catholics in Pittston.[4] At this time, Catholic churches in the Wyoming Valley still belonged to the Philadelphia Diocese, and as a diocese it served the function of uniting local churches under the direction of a bishop. It was not until 14 years after the founding of Saint John the Evangelist parish that its current home, the Diocese of Scranton, came into being.[5] This church, with its deep historical roots, has influenced Pittston through its significant contributions to the community, seen in its promotion of Catholic education, its preservation of its historic church, and its focus on unifying the community through shared goals and activities.

Saint John the Evangelist church has pursued the mission of its faith primarily through its contributions to Catholic education in Pittston. In 1863, Father John Finnen, an Irish immigrant and the parish’s beloved third priest, purchased a brick building next to the church and converted it into a school and a convent to house the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (who ran the school).[6] The school opened in September 1864 as Saint John’s Academy, “a select school for boys and girls, up to the age of 14 years,” and the monthly tuition cost was set at one dollar per student to encourage the poor miners and laborers of the area to provide their children with a Catholic education.[7] Funding improvements to the school and convent became a community affair, and church members came together to organize events such as the Fourth of July picnic held in 1867, and the Christmas Fair held in 1873.[8]

In order to expand the opportunity for Catholic education in the Greater Pittston Area, Father Finnen sought to create a free parochial school to serve the area’s families. After fundraising and construction, the old Saint John’s Academy was closed, and the new Saint John’s High School opened at 21 Church Street on September 5, 1899.[9] Over the subsequent seven decades, Saint John the Evangelist High School taught thousands of Pittston’s youth and garnered an excellent academic reputation. In the first twenty years of service, the school became so popular that it was necessary to expand to avoid turning students away. A new building for Saint John’s High School was erected under Father Peter C. Winters, and the new home for the school opened on September 5, 1922.[10] Saint John’s continued to promote the values of Catholic education for decades to come.

Then, in 1976, Bishop J. Carroll McCormick announced that Saint John the Evangelist High School would be designated as a central Catholic high school to administer a Catholic education to the members of 24 parishes in the Greater Pittston Area.[11] The building was renamed Seton Catholic High School, after Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Commenting on the change, Bishop McCormick noted:

It is extremely important that all of us, bishops, priests, sisters, and faithful, do what we can to keep Catholic education available to as many children as possible. . . Other schools may provide a fine secular education. Catholic schools, however, while still providing a fine secular education, teach their students what they should know about the existence of God, about His Church, and about His way to eternal salvation.[12]

Aside from its contribution to public education, Saint John the Evangelist has left its mark on Pittston through its magnificent church. By 1889, it became obvious to the members of the parish that they were quickly outgrowing the original wooden structure that had served as their church since the 1850s, and were in dire need of a new one. On September 17, 1889, the parish witnessed the laying of the cornerstone of the present church, “marking the beginning of one of the most attractive edifices and architectural attractions in Wyoming Valley.”[13] Though the project initially cost around $150,000 in 1889, with the guidance of then head-priest Father Finnen, the church remained debt-free from the moment it was dedicated in April of 1893.[14] This financially-stable start for the church was thanks to the fundraising efforts of its parishioners, a “remarkable testimony to the faith and charity of the parishioners at the time, most of them either Irish immigrants or their offspring.”[15] The architectural wonder that still stands to this day is composed of Trenton stone with Indiana limestone trimming, and its magnificent twin spires and gilded crosses are visible across the city.[16] 

As this story suggests, a key component of the continued success of Saint John the Evangelist has been its community. In addition to the fundraising efforts for construction and renovations of the school and the church building, the church community has also engaged in a number of unifying activities as a parish. For example, when Saint John’s High School experienced significant damage from a fire in February of 1960, Saint John’s Church held a High Mass of Thanksgiving to join together and give thanks that no lives were lost to the devastating fire.[17] Rather than allow the destruction to discourage them, the parish proceeded to completely rebuild the damaged school with an addition and construct a new youth center.[18] Then, in 1969, a number of parishioners at Saint John’s took up the work of restoring the church’s splendid 3-manual Kilgen pipe organ that had spent many years out of use, and by September of that year, the organ was sounding throughout the church once again.[19] Events like these, along with the bazaars, religious societies, and weekly celebration of the Mass, create a special sense of spiritual unity in the parish community of Saint John the Evangelist.

Saint John the Evangelist Church has proven through its history that it is a longstanding testament to the faith of the Catholic people of Pittston. Observing Saint John’s alongside the city’s other magnificent churches of all denominations, it is evident that faith has remained a central facet of life for Pittston residents. Saint John the Evangelist has played its part in this religious narrative through its encouragement of Catholic education, its dedication to maintaining a glorious church building, and its engagement as a community. The faith of the Pittston community has stood strong through the historical test of time along with the pressures of war, economic hardship, and political change. This is evident when one examines the history of Saint John the Evangelist Church, a powerful example of the physical and spiritual prominence of religion in Pittston. If its past is any indication of its future, Saint John the Evangelist will continue to flourish for years to come.

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