St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Lansford, has served God and the people of the Panther Valley and Tamaqua areas since 1892.
The parish was founded to serve the spiritual needs of Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholics, who emigrated from the Carpathian Mountain region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years preceding World War I. Those original "Greek Catholics," as they were then called, hoped to make a better life for themselves and their families in the anthracite mines.The first meeting of parishioners was held in 1892, in the old Lansford Opera House on West Bertsch Street. The first two church structures built by the congregation were at the corner of Walnut and Water streets. The current edifice was built on East Bertsch Street and was dedicated in 1911 by the Most Reverend Soter Ortinsky, first Greek Catholic bishop in the United States.
Since the inception of the parish, the members of St. John's Church have striven to faithfully worship God while simultaneously sharing their Byzantine Catholic traditions through active community outreach and service projects throughout the area. St. John's has always been a hub of activity: For many years, parishioners hosted events such as an annual ball in the Lansford Opera House, which featured polkas and other traditional styles of dance. Members also regularly staged plays and concerts featuring the talents of the award-winning parish choir. During the Christmas season, the "Bethlehem Carolers" from the parish spread Christmas cheer throughout the Valley communities. The annual St. John's picnics drew hundreds for good music, food, and games. The parish has also become famous throughout the region and beyond for its pierogies, which are prepared by volunteers.
The parish of St. John the Baptist has remained a beacon of the Christian faith in the Panther Valley for so many years largely due to the spirited leadership of the many pastors who have served the church. Most notable is the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Gabriel Martyak, who served the church from 1895 until his death in 1934. From 1916 to 1924, Msgr. Martyak served as the Apostolic Administrator of the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church in the United States, making St. John's the administrative seat of the American Church. Msgr. Martyak was succeeded in 1934 by the Rev. Michael Morris who was the first American born pastor of St. John's. Father Morris and his wife Pani Anna served the church tirelessly until his death in 1969. In the 1970s, during the pastorate of the Rev. Emil Sopoliga, St. John's expanded its community outreach through the broadcast of Sunday and Holyday Divine Liturgies on AM 1410 WLSH, Lansford. Father Sopoliga was also instrumental in arranging for the visit of Yankee legend Yogi Berra to Lansford in 1975 for the dedication of the new Little League complex at the east end of town.
Over the years, the parish family has marked many historic milestones. In 1972, the parishioners commemorated the 80th anniversary of the church. In 1977, the members celebrated the 85th anniversary of the parish. More recently, the members celebrated the restoration and rededication of the magnificent church interior as well as the 110th anniversary of the parish in June 2001.
The parishioners are looking forward to the celebration of the 125th Anniversary of the parish in 2017. Although this event is another five years in the future, the members are already undertaking many necessary projects to improve the physical plant of the church. This includes the restoration of the golden domes and other improvements that are needed in order to maintain the beauty of the stately temple, which has become an important landmark. The parishioners have also begun working with their new pastor, Father Vasyl Chepelskyy, who arrived in March with his wife Pani Maria and daughter Victoria, on a program of increased community outreach.
Father Vasyl and the parishioners would like to extend a warm welcome to anyone who may be in search of a spiritual home and is interested in learning more about the faith, liturgy, and spirituality of the Byzantine Catholic Church. All former parishioners are also cordially invited to return for either just a visit or to stay and worship on a regular basis.
Over the next several months, activities will be held at the church to give the community the opportunity to come and see St. John's. The first of these events will be an informal open house that will include tours of the church. Information sessions on the history, faith, and spirituality of the Byzantine Catholic Church will be offered. Dates for these events will be announced once plans are finalized.
All are welcome and invited to worship at the regularly scheduled weekend Divine Liturgies which are Saturday evenings at 4 p.m. and Sunday mornings at 8:30 a.m. For more information, call St. John the Baptist Rectory at (570)645-2640. The parish has also begun the construction of a Facebook page at SaintJohntheBaptistByzantineCatholicChurch.