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One coal region church became a battleground

Published August 21. 2010 09:00AM


The local church often became the first place of refuge for many new immigrants who populated the region in the late 1800s and early 20th century.

Coal region residents were used to town rivalries and ethnic tension but those were nothing like the power struggle that developed within the walls of St. George's Greek Catholic Church, Minersville, in 1910. The case ended up going all the way to the state Supreme Court where the final ruling defined the authority of the local church board, pastor and bishop's office.

At the center of the controversy was the Rev. Andrew Kaminsky, who arrived at St. George's after pastoring St. Vladimir Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Scranton. The Minersville congregation had between 600-700 males and 250 females, the majority coming from outlying townships.

From the beginning, the priest and his church board were at odds. Kaminsky felt that it was the intent of the trustees to control the money and remove him. He said some of the leaders were not even worshippers at the church but only got to the church in time to "seize the collections."

Kaminsky said it was his responsibility to report to the bishop all moneys received and the expenditures, but that the trustees were "withholding information to enable him to do so."

When the trustees took all management and budgetary duties out of the priest's hands, the bishop's office asked the court for an injunction to restrain the board of trustees from interfering with the finances.

In its Aug. 1, 1910, edition, the Tamaqua Courier said in a headline that Kaminsky claimed the trustees treated him "like a janitor" and "collected the money and spent it to suit themselves." The priest testified that besides controlling the collections taken inside during services, some men also took up collections outside the door of the church. He said they had taken "absolute charge" and assumed "absolute usurpation of his authority."

The situation further deteriorated when the bishop's secretary (chancellor) came to say mass at the fractured parish. At the same time of the service, some of the trustees and parishioners meeting in the basement reportedly made such a noise that "it prevented the chancellor from administering the sacrament."

One of the trustees, Jacob Gambal, reportedly made threats during that meeting. Later, the group meeting downstairs denied disrupting the service, or that Gambal's remarks were threatening. They said that the members who were at the meeting were "righteously indignant" because at the mass upstairs, the bishop's secretary (chancellor) had called them thieves.

Tensions ramped up even more when the chancellor excommunicated Gambal and two other trustees, each of whom had access to the church. Along with controlling the finances, they were also accused of taking away several books of worship and vestments so that Kaminsky was unable to officiate at services.

The turmoil took a toll on parish life. Some left the church while others stopped contributing, which left the church near bankruptcy, according to the priest.

When the case went to the Supreme Court, Gambal's defense team presented their case. A big part of it hinged on the authority of the priest. They felt that Kaminsky's appointment by the bishop was subject to the approval of the congregation and that at a regularly called meeting on May 7, 1911, his appointment was rejected.

They admitted that the Greek Catholic Church had the Pope of Rome as its supreme head but that the discipline, rules and regulations of the church were not the same as those of the Roman Catholic Church, but "distinctive in themselves."

When Kaminsky refused to surrender the collections he "had illegally taken," he was told to vacate the premises to make room for a successor. The trustees also denied that the church was facing bankruptcy, and that the bishop's secretary (chancellor) had the authority to excommunicate.

In its ruling the Supreme Court sided with Kaminsky and the church overseers in the bishop's office.

On the defendants' right to remove the priest, it ruled that there was no evidence that the congregation voted as a whole and that since it was "the illegal action of a minority without notice" Kaminsky's removal as priest was not legal. The court said Kaminsky should retain his position and that the defendants - the trustees - "be restrained perpetually from interfering with his office."

As for the finances, the moneys were found to be "necessary for the maintenance, control and ownership of the property and for the proper enjoyment and use of the congregation. The court ruled that the trustees could no longer manage the church property.

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