Canon Maria Tjeltveit
Church of the Mediator, Allentown
Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you:
in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”
And he took [the lame man] by the hand and raised him up….
In Acts 3, Peter and John encounter a lame man begging at the entrance to the temple. They heal him and he goes into the temple with them, “walking and leaping and praising God.” Everyone is amazed, which gives Peter a chance to preach and then, in the next chapter, to get in trouble with the religious authorities.
Wanting to learn more about the churches in our diocese named St. John’s, I began reading about St. John’s, Ashland, part of North Parish, along with Holy Apostles, St, Clair. North Parish’s motto reminds us of the apostles taking the hand of the lame man: “Through the Hands of God—One Hand Helping Another.”
St. John’s also reminds us that the fate of a church is often tied up with the fate of the community in which it is located. When a group of residents in Ashland petitioned the bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania to start a parish there, in 1856, it was one of the first churches in a town based on the anthracite coal mines in the area. The cornerstone of the beautiful church was laid that year.
The 1909 book, Diocese of Bethlehem and Harrisburg, chronicles some of the struggles of the church as the town changed, and then says, “St. John’s, Ashland, is a fair example of what is found in many of the Missions throughout the coal regions of Central Pennsylvania. When self-support seems in sight and all the conditions are most favorable, there comes along that inevitable periodical exodus which throws the Mission back again, perhaps five, ten, or more years” (p.384).
A “periodical exodus” mentioned was likely an exodus from the town (not the church specifically). In the late 1800’s large numbers of miners left Ashland because they could find no work. After they left, they formed the Ashland Boys Association, in 1900, coming back to Ashland yearly for a Mummers Parade, up until 1976.
Coal mining can be boom or bust, something we are seeing today with the natural gas fracking industry as well. Ashland went from a population of 224 in 1850 to over 7300 in 1890, losing 1,000 people over the next ten years. Its population is now well under 3,000 (according to Wikipedia).
As the 1909 book noted, other churches in the coal regions shared similar population losses. In the 1960’s St. John’s joined with Christ Church, Frackville, Church of Faith, Mahanoy City, St. Paul’s, Minersville, and Holy Apostles, St. Clair, to form North Parish. Today just St. John’s and Holy Apostles are left. They work together and actively serve their communities, supporting local food banks, the Ashland library, and fire stations, and providing coats for school children, and care packages for soldiers overseas.
The people of St. John’s lovingly maintain their church with its organ (built in 1824), and seek to welcome new people. They are proud of their churches and seek to be resilient in the challenging context of a town that is shrinking. They are still reaching out their hands and helping people to rise up and praise God.