When many of our ancestors found their way to American shores over a century ago, the coal industry was the jobs magnet that drew them to this region of the state.

The new immigrants formed ethnic communities, injecting their own identities into local towns. The building that became central to that identity was the neighborhood church. That old saying that towns had a church on every corner was especially true throughout the coal region.

With the decline of our mining industry after World War II, many sought work in other areas. This steady exodus left more empty pews in those churches that were once the landmarks that gave the neighborhoods their identity.

Last weekend, we learned that SS. Peter and Paul Church and the Church of St. Jerome will be combined under one minister. These two Catholic churches are a big part of Tamaqua history. St. Jerome's, comprising many Irish and Italian congregants, has served the Tamaqua area for 181 years while SS. Peter and Paul's, a Lithuanian Catholic Church, has served the area for 103 years.

Although both buildings are expected to remain open, there is no timetable for the future. The merger will officially take place on July 1.

Given the fact that many of the ethnic neighborhoods are disappearing, church closings and realignments are not a surprise.

Robin Lovin, Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University and former Perkins School of Theology dean, says the older congregations are finding themselves in the midst of generational transition. People who grow up outside of the church and those who switch churches don't have that brand loyalty of the earlier generations. He says if people find an attractive church in a different denomination than the one in which they grew up, they're likely to join.

"A congregation that really wants to stay the same will eventually die," Lovin says. "The same people will continue to do the things they've done until they die, and then the congregation will die."

The days of our ancestors, when everyone knew each other by name and the social and educational heartbeat of a community revolved around the church, have either gone or are rapidly disappearing. The sad reality is that our communities are changing but the older congregations just don't have the numbers to sustain their futures.

By Jim Zbick

editor@tnonline.com