It's time for the 24th Annual Clover Irish Weekend Festival!



St. Kieran's Church, built in the 1850's, faces the closing of its doors despite the protest of its faithful and evidence that the church has strong historic ties both within the religous and social communities. It had many times been called the "favorite" of St. John Neuman, who personally oversaw its construction.  The little church in Irish Valley has been marked for immediate closure along with many others across Schuylkill County.  The following articles about St. Kieran's plight have appeared in recent publications at the local and national levels, as well as reaching across the sea as far as Ireland.  "An Epoch Ends" was written by Peter McDermott and recently appeared in the Irish Echo.  Both other pieces were written by local reporters from the Pottsville Republican and Herald.

An epoch ends

Saint's miners church to close in Pa.
By Peter McDermott

July 9, 2008 A church that was built by Irish miners in the 1850s at the direction of John Neumann, the first U.S. bishop to be made a saint, is one of 32 that will close this weekend in the Allentown diocese in Pennsylvania.

Mass will be said for the last time at St. Kieran's, the parish church of Heckscherville in Schuylkill County, at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday evening.

The surrounding area, known locally as "Irish Valley," is steeped in the history of anthracite coalmining and the railroads. After the Famine, thousands of Irish immigrants settled there, many of them working in the harsh conditions that produced the Molly Maguires episode two decades later.

"We knew it was coming," said parishioner Catherine Clifford. "But people are very upset and angry. The process was very secretive."

Locals want the church to be preserved as a shrine to a canonized saint and to the immigrants who built and paid for the church.

"We filed an appeal with the diocese of Allentown," said Clifford, who traces her family back to ancestors, Callaghans and Hegartys who came to Irish Valley in 1850. "If he [Bishop Edward Cullen] denies the appeal, then we can go to Rome," she said.

So far there has been no formalized campaign other than collecting signatures after Saturday evening Mass. "But we are setting up a meeting," Clifford said.

Parishioners fear the "reversionary" clause in the deeds, which states that if the building is used for any purpose other than as a Catholic Church it goes go back to the mine company. Locals believe that the company might knock down the church and its ancillary buildings -- and that it would have little interest in maintaining a churchyard that contains at least 11 members of the Molly Maguires.

In a letter published in this week's Irish Echo (page 13) parishioner Joe Anthony writes: "By the orders of Bishop Neumann, Father Malone, pastor of St. Vincent's parish in Minersville, was to visit all the families in Heckscherville, which was a distance of seven miles from Minersville. His purpose was to solicit from the people to erect a new church in the valley. All families were asked to pledge $10.00.

"The church began construction by Irish miners after they worked their shift in the mines. Specifications of the church are written in excerpts from the saint's personal diary, which can be viewed in the rear of the church," he adds.

St. Kieran's (originally St. Kyran's) was involved, as noted, in the story of the Molly Maguires, one of the most debated chapters in Irish-American history. During the Molly Maguire period in the 1870s, there were 22,000 working miners in Schuylkill County - 5,500 of them children between ages 7 and 16 employed separating slate from the coal.

Clifford said that Heckscherville, which hosts an Irish festival in late July, is the largest of several small towns and hamlets in the valley. The area was exclusively Irish until a few decades ago. Even after several generations some people have retained an accent, Clifford said. "You can hear the Irish," she said. "You'd swear that they just got off the boat."

Yet a Czech clergyman figures prominently in the story of Irish Valley, too. John Neumann, who born in Bohemia in 1811, came to the U.S. in his 20s intent on being a missionary. He'd written to several bishops back in Europe only to be told they had more than enough priests. He joined the Redemptorists and in time became the order's superior in America.

Neumann, a scholar who spoke eight languages, was appointed bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. He set about building churches and schools against the backdrop of the Know-Nothings' opposition to Catholic immigrants and their faith.

In November 1859, Neumann traveled to what was said to be his favorite, the little church in Heckscherville. It was his 12th visit in the two years since its construction. He was felled by a stroke in Philadelphia in Jan. 5, 1860. He was 48. He was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1977.

Now, the local Republican Herald reports that some parishioners in Irish Valley and other parts of the diocese are so upset with the closures they are considering attending churches of other denominations.

In addition to the 32 churches being shuttered this weekend in the Allentown diocese, another 17 are listed in the "fate undetermined" category.

St. Kieran's parishioners Catherine Clifford and Joe Anthony can be contacted by emailing Clifford at ccc2@ptd.net.

This story appeared in the issue of July 9-15, 2008
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St. Kieran to conduct Mass during Irish Weekend

Published: Saturday, July 12, 2008 7:33 AM EDT
HECKSCHERVILLE — St. Kieran Church in Heckscherville has received special permission to host its annual Irish Weekend Mass on July 27, two weeks after its closing as part of the consolidation of Catholic churches in Schuylkill County.

Although the official final Mass will be at 5:30 p.m. today, parishioners said the Mass on Irish Weekend, an annual fundraiser for the Clover Fire Company, will take on a greater sense of finality.

“It’s going to be like a funeral Mass,” lifelong parishioner Liz Quinn said.

The Mass has been a staple of the Irish Weekend since it’s inception. This year’s 21st Annual Irish Weekend, scheduled July 25 through 27, will feature ethnic foods, historical clothing, dancing and its first-ever fiddle contest.

Catherine Clifford, a Heckscherville native and St. Kieran parishioner, said the backdrop of Irish culture will be appropriate for the final Mass at noon, July 27.

“The Irish immigrants built that church not only with their money but physically,” Clifford said. “Men dug the foundationand helped lay the stones. I think it’s very fitting that the Mass will be an Irish Mass.”

The Rev. Msgr. Edward J. O’Connor, chaplain for Clover Fire Company and pastor at St. Patrick, Pottsville, has presided over the Irish Mass every year, Quinn said.

“His parents are natives of Heckscherville, they lived here when he was ordained, so we consider him a son of our parish,” Clifford said.

Both Quinn and Clifford said that O’Connor had contacted the Diocese of Allentown for permission to hold the Mass, although they were uncertain of the exact process.

O’Connor could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Clifford said the Irish Mass fills the church, and some Irish Weekend visitors come for the service and forego other festival activities entirely. Quinn, a member of the festival planning committee, called the Mass “very solemn, yet very happy.”

The presentation of gifts will be carried out by the oldest parishioners and Quinn’s grandson, who was the last parishioner to receive his first Holy Communion at St. Kieran.

St. Kieran, along with St. Vincent de Paul Parish and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, Minersville, will merge to become the new St. Michael the Archangel Parish at the former St. Vincent de Paul church building in Minersville. While the Irish Weekend Mass is set to continue, the traditional march from the fire company to the church makes the new location less than ideal.

“Minersville would be a little far,” Quinn said. “I don’t think we’ve have too many people marching to Mass.”

No plans have been made, Quinn said, but the Mass might relocate to the festival grounds, which was one of the contingency plans if the Mass was not held at the church.

“If St. Kieran is not there, it will probably be at the festival grounds,” Clifford said. “If there’s an Irish Weekend, there will be an Irish Mass.”

Mary Ann Lubinsky, Port Carbon, does not belong to St. Kieran, but has attended and helped promote the event through the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, for which she is president of the Pottsville division and vice-president of the Schuylkill County board.

“I think St. Kieran is special to all of us, whether we belong to it or not,” Lubinsky said.


With Irish Mass, members bid farewell to St. Kieran

With photos
Published: Monday, July 28, 2008 11:34 AM EDT
HECKSCHERVILLE — Kit Cutler walked slowly down the aisle of St. Kieran Roman Catholic Church as she presented the gifts to Monsignor Edward J. O’Connor for the final time during an Irish Mass on Sunday.

“I’m done,” Cutler said. “I can’t believe this is it. I’ve been here my whole life.”

Cutler, 90, is the oldest member of St. Kieran, and had the honor of presenting the gifts along with her great-nephew, Patrick Quinn, 9, who received his First Holy Communion this year.

The church — along with St. Vincent de Paul Parish and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, Minersville, — will merge to become the new St. Michael the Archangel Parish at the former St. Vincent de Paul church building in Minersville.

The last Mass was said in the church July 12, but special permission was given to allow the Irish Mass to be said one last time as part of Irish Weekend festivities, an annual fundraiser for the Clover Fire Company for the past 21 years.

O’Connor — pastor of St. Patrick Church, Pottsville, and chaplain of the Clover Fire Company — celebrated the Mass as he has every year.

“It is appropriate that permission was given this year for the Mass because of the 21-year tradition of the festival,” O’Connor said. “Even though the church closed, this Mass was so close to the end and we are grateful we could have this Mass here today.”

A procession into the church was led by members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and auxiliary.

The group stopped alongside the cemetery to the right of the lane leading to the church, bowing their heads as Sean McCormick played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.

The church was full and those attending the Mass sat quietly as prayers were said and O’Connor said his homily, which reminded parishioners that the kingdom of heaven is never far from them and isn’t contained in any structure.

The Mass was accented with Irish music as the congregation sang with guitar accompaniment.

People exited the church with tears in their eyes. Some took pictures in front of the church; others visited the Grotto at the side of the church one last time.

“I really didn’t think it would come to this,” Scott Rowe, a parishioner, said. “I was an altar boy here. I was kind of shocked, especially when you factor in the church was built by a saint. You would think it would be considered a historic landmark.”

In April 1857, St. John Neumann, a canonized saint and the fourth bishop of the Philadelphia Diocese, instructed Father Malone, pastor of St. Vincent Church, Minersville, to visit every Catholic family in the village of Heckscherville, according to the church’s “Blessing of the Religious History, Plaque of St. Kieran’s Parish, Sunday, Aug. 18, 1985.”

The new church was to be called St. Kieran, after the first person to preach Christianity in Ireland in the year 389, 30 years before St. Patrick arrived there.

According to REPUBLICAN & Herald archives, St. Kieran Church was the only building whose construction St. Neumann personally oversaw. Before his death in 1860, St. Neumann walked the grounds of the parish three times.

Cutler said she was baptized, received First Holy Communion and Confirmation, and was married in the church.

“It is wonderful we got to be here one more time,” she said.

Anna Mae Clark, Greenbury, said her parents were married in St. Kieran.

“My mother grew up in this church,” Clark said. “I wouldn’t miss this.”

Carol Blankenhorn, Pine Grove, grew up in Heckscherville and attended St. Kieran.

“It was important for the fire house and for all of us that (O’Connor) could come out and say Mass here today,” she said. “I just hope it isn’t the last time and that something can be done.”

No plans have been made as to where the Mass might be held next year.

“I am sure whatever they are planning we will talk about it and see what the best thing to do is,” O’Connor said. “This year we are just grateful it was here.”

Parishioners press case for St. Kieran's
St. Kieran's Church in Irish Valley, Schuylkill County, Pa.
By Peter McDermott

October 1, 2008 Locals in Heckscherville, Pa., have stepped up their campaign to have the recently closed 150-year-old St. Kieran's Church preserved, following news in recent days that artifacts, including statues, are being removed by the Allentown diocese.


Mass was said for the last time on July 12 in the church that was founded by Czech immigrant John Neumann, who in 1977 became the first American bishop to be canonized.

"It's unsettling news," said Catherine Clifford, one of the parishioners spearheading the preservation campaign, which hopes also to retain the altars, statues, Stations of the Cross, windows, pews and fixtures as they were on the day of closing.

The structure was built by Irish mine laborers at Neumann's direction a few years after Schuylkill County was settled by Famine immigrants. The county is at the heart of the Lower Anthracite Region, which saw much industrial strife in the late 19th century. Many of the 20 men who were executed following the Molly Maguire trials in the 1870s were Schuylkill residents.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians is supporting the St. Kieran's cause at a state level because of the church's centrality to the region's Irish story. "It's tough trying to make it a national issue because there are so many churches," said Ned McGinley, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and a recent national president of the organization.

McGinley revealed, though, that Seamus Boyle, the AOH's current national president, personally supports the campaign to preserve St. Kieran's for future generations.

The former president said that the removal of items is upsetting for locals because they were "locally bought and paid for." Indeed, he said, some of the artifacts were contributed by Joe Hughes, a successful businessman and long-time Hibernian activist who died at age 100 some years ago.

Bishop Edward Cullen denied a petition by St. Kieran's parishioners in July that asked that the church be maintained as a shrine with permission for Masses and other devotions. He cited parish-restructuring criteria that worship sites were not to be established.

Since then, Clifford and other locals have formed a committee for the "purpose of acquiring and preserving St. Kieran's church and grounds for historic preservation and cultural purposes because of its unique religious and ethnic history."

The committee has asked for a meeting with diocesan officials, but has yet to get a reply.

"We're hopeful," said Clifford, a descendent of immigrants who arrived in 1850 in what's known as Irish Valley.

"If it's God's will to save it, then we pray that He will guide us," she added.

"No decision has been made," said diocesan spokesman Matt Kerr, confirming that a letter has been received.

"The diocese has a number of questions about who the people are, what their plans are and to see if they're feasible," he said.

Kerr said that the removal of artifacts would be an inevitable part of a parish restructuring that saw 32 churches close, and that the artifacts would be relocated to functioning churches to make them more welcoming.

St. Kieran's was merged with two other parishes to become the new St. Michael the Archangel parish headquartered in Minersville.

Those who would like to support financially the effort to save St. Kieran's may contact Frank Kearney, Secretary, Hibernian Charity, Box 391, 315 Chamberlain Highway, Conn. 06451, or go to www.hiberniancharity.com and click on "Network for Good." To contact Ned McGinley, email nedaoh1@aol.com. To contact Catherine Clifford email ccc2@ptd.net.




This story appeared in the issue of October 1-7, 2008