WILKES-BARRE —The congregation of St. Mary of the Assumption Byzantine Catholic Church of North Wilkes-Barre filled the seats in the ornate church to the point of standing room only Sunday afternoon as the church marked 125 years of religious service to the community.
An anniversary Mass was held with Metropolitan William C. Skurla, archbishop of Pittsburgh, Bishop John Pazak of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Eparchy, Toronto, many other clergy members, the Sisters of St. Basil the Great, and the Knights of Columbus.
Voices lifted in song and prayer filled the church for an hour and half as incense drifted through the air. Following the service, an anniversary banquet was held at the Best Western Genetti Hotel and Conference Center, Wilkes-Barre.
“We have grown into one of the stronger parishes, ” Skurla told the congregation,
Building to this moment took time and devoted members who continually built the church’s presence within the community. The Rev. James G. Hayer said the church is a beacon to the community.
“My first parish, no one came to the daily liturgy,” he said. “But even if it was just me, or me and one other person, people outside knew that someone inside was praying for them. Once they know there is activity they will come. That is why we ring the church bells.”
The church becomes a focal point of prayer, Hayer said.
Skurla noted the exceptional events within the church’s history, such as having the first Byzantine Catholic school in the United States in 1909. The Sisters of St. Basil the Great came to teach at the school in 1925 and have stayed with the church for “88 unbroken years,” Hayer said.
“There are still two here,” he added. “They help by visiting the sick and home bound. With an aging population, they really are a blessing.”
The school graduated its first class in 1929, Hayer said. It has since closed with the last graduating class of 2003. Hayer said, the building is now used for community events and was used as a shelter about 10 years ago during area flooding.
Skurla said the internal council organization — called the Greek Catholic Union (GCU) — first started here in Wilkes-Barre, guiding theological and moral teaching to bring people a better understanding of the Holy Trinity. Now, it does work all over the United States.
The founder of GCU, George Juba who is originally from Dunmore, was in attendance at the Mass.
Today, Hayer said St. Mary of the Assumption Byzantine Catholic Church has a congregation of 300 families with 200 in attendance weekly.
The church’s cornerstone was dedicated in August 1887 and the official dedication of St. Mary Church was held in 1888. A new church had to be built because of a rapidly growing congregation. On Palm Sunday in 1908 the first divine liturgy was celebrated in the new church.