The former Sacred Heart church, built as America celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, has been on West High Street in Nesquehoning for 123 years.
But now the building, closed in July 2008 when the Allentown Diocese merged it with two other churches to create St. Francis of Assisi parish, is to be torn down so the parish can sell the land.
St. Francis pastor Anthony J. Drouncheck announced the demolitions plans at a service on Sunday.
His parishioners were not surprised.
"They knew it was coming, although there are a few who are upset, because they have lost everything – the chapel, school, convent, rectory, and now the church," he said.
The decision, although painful to make, was the right one, Drouncheck said.
"Just looking at the building itself and the condition it was in. There were problems there with water and mold. We've had it on the market for a little while, but no bites," he said.
Drouncheck is writing to Bishop John O. Barres for the approval needed to demolish the building.
Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said only that "The Diocese will be working with the pastor on his plans regarding the Sacred Heart church building."
In addition to obtaining the Bishop's permission, the former church must be inspected for asbestos and contractors hired before the demolition can begin. Whatever salvageable material is being sold. The religious items have long since been removed. The stained glass is being sold by a Philadelphia online auction house
The Bishop is "most likely" to grant approval for the demolition, Drouncheck said.
"It's just a shame that its come to this," he said. "Congregations are getting small, there are fewer priests, and the consolidations had to happen. Then you're left with these buildings, and there's not a big market for churches."
But Drouncheck is incorporating some elements of Sacred Heart into St. Francis. He wants to use bricks from the former church in the handicapped access ramp parishioners want to build at St. Francis. The congregation also has brought shrubs from Sacred Heart – "They are in the prayer garden," Drouncheck said – and its bell.
"At least the church is going on, and we do have a place to worship here in Nesquehoning," he said.
The red brick church was spiritual home to generations of families, among them the Homchas of Nesquehoning. Marge and Steve Homcha joined the church in 1974; their children, twins Brent and Brittany and daughter Christine, were baptized in Sacred Heart's Lake Hauto chapel, which has since closed.
The family is saddened by, but accepts, the church's closure and the planned razing.
Brent, now 20 and a mechanical engineering student at Penn State University, earned his Eagle Scout badge by renovating the church's exterior.
"We repainted the whole foundation, repainted some of the doors, rebuilt the handicapped access ramp and put new carpet on it, ripped out old dead shrubs and tree stumps and replanted shrubs, and put down new mulch and decorative stones. It took us just over a year, from Sept. 2005 to June 2006," he said.
Homcha and his helpers put 282 hours of work into the project.
"It's sad that this happened," he said of the closure and planned demolition, "but I understand the financial responsibilities of the church."
Sacred Heart must be razed and the land sold to help support the new, combined parish.
"It was the oldest church, with the most repairs needed. The way I look at it, the work I and others did helped it stay open" as long it did. "It hurts me that they are demolishing it, but it's understandable; I know it has to be done," he said.
Steve Homcha, too, understands the decision to raze the building.
"It's like having three homes – you can live in any one. For the size of the town and the population, to maintain and heat (all three churches), it's not something you can continue to do," he said. "We're very happy to have one church that remains in Nesquehoning. Certainly there is sadness, but it will always keep a very special place in our hearts. The church is acting very responsibly with what they are doing."
Homcha is grateful his town has not ended up like Coaldale, in neighboring Schuylkill County, where all the churches were closed and merged to create St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Lansford.
"It's sad to see (Sacred Heart) go, but you know it has to happen," he said. "There is a happy ending after you get past the momentary sadness: We'll still have St. Francis in Nesquehoning."
According to the diocese, Sacred Heart was originally established in 1839 as St. Patrick parish. St. Patrick Church was located on West Catawissa and Mill Streets, but was torn down in 1889. The site became a parish cemetery.
Sacred Heart Church was built on West High Street in 1887. Under Father Paul Welkie, it was completely renovated in 1975, including excavating the basement for use as a social hall. In July 2008, during the tenure of the Rev. Clifton Bishop, the diocese merged Sacred Heart with Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Immaculate Conception to form St. Francis of Assisi parish.
Since then, the church has stood empty.