WILKES-BARRE — For one final and tearful time, Rita Kovalski knelt at the altar of Holy Saviour Church.
And she may have been the last one to ever pray beneath the sweeping arches. Holy Saviour locked its doors for the last time Sunday. The church is closing mostly due to much-needed renovations that exceed the resources.
“It was a great place,” Rev. Kenneth Seegar, pastor of St. Andre Bessette Parish, said during his homily Sunday. “But as you can see, it has reached the end of its usefulness.”
Kovalski grew up in the church; she was baptized there; received First Holy Communion; she married her husband, Butch, in front of the spacious altar.
Kovalski remembered her childhood days when she knelt at the same altar, in the same spot, with her mother.
“We did this every single Sunday in this church,” Kovalski said.
After the couple moved to Mountain Top years ago, they had stopped attending Holy Saviour. Like many others in the crowded sanctuary, they returned for the church’s final mass.
“I just had to pray there one more time,” Kovalski said.
During the last five years or so, parishes around the country have faced consolidation, and Holy Saviour, along Hillard Street in Wilkes-Barre’s East End, was no exception.
In 2011, Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Saviour were consolidated into one: St. Andre Bessett Parish. At that time, church leaders aspired to keep the old Holy Saviour building as a secondary worship site.
A financial review last summer revealed the church could not afford to rehabilitate the decaying building, and it must be closed.
It’s important to know the church isn’t closing, just the building, Seegar said.
Accommodations have been made for the combined congregations to gather in St. Stanislaus Kostka along North Main Street, now the only worship site for St. Andre’s.
Kovalski was concerned some of Holy Saviour’s older parishioners, those who live in the nearby high rises, would not wish to travel too far to get to church.
However, Seegar said Luzerne County Transportation Authority is cooperating to help church members get to St. Stan’s for the 4 p.m. Saturday Mass.
The parish’s social justice committee is working to provide assistance for those who cannot pay for the ride, Seegar said.
Those looking to check ride availability should call the transportation authority.
A century in the city
Holy Saviour Church was founded more than a century ago in 1895 as a predominantly Irish church led by the passionate Rev. John J. Curran, a prominent mine workers union advocate and organizer at the time.
“They called him the ‘Labor Priest,’” John McKeown, known as the church historian, said.
McKeown, 94, has attended Holy Saviour since childhood. He was drafted to the U.S. Army during World War II, but other than his three years spent in the military, he’s attended just about every service, he said.
At one time, the church was a bustling community gathering place, McKeown said.
The spacious meeting hall in the basement was host to stage plays put on by parishioners, and, in its early days, mine workers’ unions held meetings that often summoned renowned labor leader John Mitchell from his Illinois headquarters, McKeown said.
As the years drifted on, McKeown raised his children in the same church where his father raised him; and those of his kids who still live nearby attend Holy Saviour with him to this day.
Such is the case for many parishioners, he said. Most of the members were passed down their parents’ devotion like a family heirloom.
But the number of those who attend regularly is crumbling, much like the once-grand columns that support the sanctuary ceiling.
The near 400 in attendance during Sunday’s final Mass could deceive a newcomer into thinking the church was thriving with members from every generation. Truth is, most were folks whose lives in some way have been affected by Holy Saviour, but had left for some reason or another.
Most of the parishioners are around 65 years old, Seegar said.
Outside, the facade on the church’s towering double steeples is missing in spots. Inside, the marble/plaster columns are wrapped in plastic to prevent plaster from falling; a symptom of efforts to better insulate the building back in the 1980s.
Restoring the old church will cost an estimated $2 million, Seegar said, money the parish simply cannot raise. The Diocese of Scranton likely will put up the old building for sale soon.
During his homily, Seegar challenged the church to carry on in sharing God’s light.
“We have to take the values that were instilled into us here out into the world,” Seegar said. “Like (apostles) Peter and Paul, we can continue to proclaim Christ to the end of the world.”
Following a closing prayer, McKeown and his long-time friend, Mary Golden, locked the front doors for the last time while the congregation looked on from back in the sanctuary.
He and Golden, 93, went to East End Elementary School together, and arguably are the church’s oldest members.
After Mass, Golden sat in the meeting hall with her friends nibbling cookies made by the ladies of the church.
Her eyes grew moist. It will be difficult to travel to St. Stan’s for Mass every week, she said.
“I’ll miss it,” Golden said of Holy Saviour. “You just never think it’s going to happen.”