Remains of 3 Tamaqua priests disinterred, relocated
Workers Joel Farber, left, and Dan Farber, of Newkirk, begin excavation on West Broad Street in Tamaqua at the grave site of the Rev. Henry W. Baker early Thursday. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
The Rev. Henry W. Baker
The graves of the Revs. M.A. Ryan and Joseph Bridgman, also located on the former St. Jerome’s Church terrace, West Broad Street, will be opened and the remains reinterred at St. Jerome’s Cemetery on Jerome Street. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
The St. Jerome Church grave site of the Rev. Henry W. Baker has been a highly visible tribute on West Broad Street in Tamaqua for 92 years. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
St. Jerome’s Church closed its doors in 2018 after serving the community at that location for nearly 160 years. The church traces its Tamaqua roots to 1833. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
The body of a celebrated man of religion, whose life was honored by the largest funeral in the history of Tamaqua, is quietly being exhumed and moved.
On Thursday, workers began digging for and removing the remains of the Rev. Henry W. Baker and two other priests buried on the terrace of former St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church, West Broad Street.
The remains will be reinterred at a cemetery site at Jerome and Catawissa streets, Tamaqua.
Matt Kerr, communications director of the Diocese of Allentown, said such moves happen on occasion.
“It is not unusual when priests are interred on the grounds of a church that is no longer used for worship, that the remains are moved to a more permanent resting place. This has happened at several closed churches in the diocese, and that is what is scheduled to happen at the former St. Jerome’s. The remains will be moved to St. Jerome’s Cemetery.”
Baker’s 15 years of service to the second-largest Catholic parish in Schuylkill County are legendary.
Starting in 1912, he went on to guide a faltering church through the rigors of World War I, infusing new life into congregants and restoring vitality to a struggling faith family.
Under his guidance, the parish rebuilt their church and then constructed a large, three-story school, dedicated in front of 10,000 people, by Cardinal Dennis Dougherty on May 30, 1921, according to parish records.
“My dream of 10 years has come true,” Baker said at the time, calling it “the happiest day of my life,” according to an account in the church’s 150th anniversary hardcover published in 1984.
St. Jerome’s High School was launched in 1922. The first graduation was held on June 14, 1927, featuring a class of six.
But Baker didn’t live to see the big day. He died on May 8, at 5 a.m. His two sisters, Mrs. Joseph Murray and Rosalie Baker, were at his bedside.
Before his death, he made his wishes known.
When someone suggested building a large mausoleum in Philadelphia in his honor, Baker said: “I, myself, prefer to stay in Tamaqua among my people.”
Baker, 59, was buried in front of the church he loved, in accordance with his wishes.
His tribute attracted thousands, believed to be the largest concourse of people ever to attend a funeral in the Schuylkill County town.
Baker has been a presence at the church, in life and death, for more than 106 years. True to his desire, he never left his beloved church and school. But the church and school left him.
In 2014, St. Jerome and SS. Peter and Paul churches combined into one parish, St. John XXIII, with two churches.
However, the fiscal handwriting was on the wall, and St. Jerome’s closed its doors four years later after serving the town for 160 years. All services were moved to 307 Pine St.
As for the school building, it closed at the end of the 2018 school year.
St. Jerome Regional School relocated to Hometown, where the Allentown Diocese purchased the 35,000-square-foot former Rush Elementary from the Tamaqua Area School District for $1.2 million.
Church and school gone, Baker’s body lay at the east side of the front steps of the abandoned church building, the resting place overgrown with grass.
On the west side lay two other priests. The Rev. M.A. Ryan was a town resident and parish son who died of apoplexy, or stroke, in 1881, at age 37 while serving in Mahanoy City.
Also buried there is the Rev. Joseph J. Bridgman, former St. Jerome’s church pastor. He, too, died in 1881, age 47. He suffered lung hemorrhages related to a near suffocation from inhaled gas due to an open coal heat register while serving earlier in Girardville.
Operating the excavator, contractor Dan Farber said he’s unsure what he’ll find with the dig, especially with the two 1881 graves. They’re 138 years old, but Farber said he’s well-prepared for any scenario.
In fact, in another exhumation recently, he said, he uncovered an unusual burial vault made entirely of slate.
“You never know how they did it back then,” Farber said.