Spotlight: Potential owner details plans for future of former St. Michael church in Lansford
The former St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church, which later became known as St. Katharine Drexel, is being sold to an area man whose goal is to preserve the structure. Read about his plans for the decommissioned church in Lansford on the Spotlight page. AMY MILLER/TIMES NEWS
The interior of St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church is vast, but the beauty that was the church remains in the architecture. AMY MILLER/TIMES NEWS
The organ of the church remains in the choir loft. The buyer says that he plans to restore the piece. Water damage from the bell tower, which had been a problem for years, is seen on the right side of the choir loft. AMY MILLER/TIMES NEWS
Thomas Bartholomew of Slatington, left, and the Rev. Allen Hoffa, pastor of St. Joseph Parish of the Panther Valley in Summit Hill, speak about what has been done to prepare the church social hall for winter.
The former St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Lansford, which later became known as St. Katharine Drexel, is getting a second chance at life.
The Cathedral of the Coal Region, the nickname for the Gothic-style church that overlooks the valley, is currently under an agreement of sale between St. Joseph Parish of the Panther Valley and Thomas Bartholomew of Slatington. The terms of the sale, including the purchase price, were not announced at this time by either party.
“It’s a beautiful church,” Bartholomew said during a recent tour of the structure. “The woodwork is beautiful, the ironwork. It is just beautiful architecture.”
His plans include, first and foremost, historic preservation of the building to allow the structure to stand watch over Lansford for decades to come. Long-term goals, Bartholomew said, include possibly creating a performing arts center that would showcase the beauty still inside.
“What I’m really concerned about is the historic preservation of what we have here now,” Bartholomew said, pointing out various architectural features of the 108-year-old church such as the woodwork and gold ceiling of the apse and the symmetry and ornate details in the ceiling of the nave and transepts.
“The acoustics in here really are amazing.”
“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” the Rev. Allen Hoffa, pastor of St. Joseph, said of the pending sale. “No one took joy in the church having to be closed, and yet when those things happen, and we see that happening all over the world, there have been many people who have come up with creative ideas to preserve the facade and add to the community life.
“When Tom first approached and spoke about his background, which he is modest at times with the gifts that God has blessed him with … I knew there was a talent there, and so it has been a great joy working with him.”
Bartholomew, who has over 25 years of experience in organ restoration and design and who has a passion for preservation, first found out about the building in an article in the Times News earlier this year, and it immediately piqued his interest.
“I asked if I could participate in the initial showing of the church, and as there was no other interest, I thought I would take it and see if I could do something with it myself,” he said.
After discussing the possibility with Hoffa, sharing his background in both the historic preservation world and his own beliefs, as well as his vision moving forward, the pair agreed Bartholomew was the perfect person to write the building’s next chapter.
Details are still being finalized before closing can occur, but Hoffa has allowed Bartholomew and Bruce Markovich, town historian and borough councilman, to go into the building to secure the doors, clean up the mildew and prepare the structure for winter.
“It never reached the mold stage,” Bartholomew said, when asked about the condition of the rooms he was cleaning. The majority of the issue is in the social hall level, which has had water issues in the past due to a stream running underneath the church and was grimy from decades of use. “It was just mildew so it’s been cleaning.”
He added that because the church was maintained since it was closed three years ago, the deterioration wasn’t as bad as it could have been if the building was left to the elements as many feared it had been.
Bartholomew and Hoffa both stressed that no work, including electrical wiring, has been done in the building since cleaning began a few weeks ago.
The lights inside that many have seen at night are lamps Bartholomew purchased.
Next spring, Bartholomew plans to fix the flashing around the tower and any problems on the roof, which has been a source of damage in the choir loft area for several years; as well as install new clear panel windows and find alternative heating sources for the massive structure.
After that, preservation work can continue, but there is no active timeline on when he hopes to finish the project.
“It will depend on how much things cost and the funding that is available,” he said.
“We are not going to be altering the structure in any way. The structure, the lighting fixtures, woodwork, bells and the organ — all that remains. None of the structural items will be removed (outside of what was already removed following canon law.)”
Hoffa explained that canon law mandates that anything of a religious nature — stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes or having a saint on them, the altar, pews, etc. — be removed once a church is decommissioned.
He noted that there has been great success in finding new homes for many of the religious items.
The altars and crucifix that hung above the main altar have been reinstalled in St. Joseph Church. The Stations of The Cross have been installed in a church in Indiana; many of the larger statues went to a church in Louisiana, and the pews have been installed in a church in Hellertown.
“We’re grateful that Father Hoffa and the people that decommissioned the church did not come in here and rip and tear,” Markovich said. “I have been in other churches that have been decommissioned and they have been destroyed. They took a lot of care here and they didn’t destroy anything or do any damage more than what they needed to. I’m very grateful for that.”
Markovich said moving forward, the historical society will work with Bartholomew to find grants that are available for preservation and plan to work to build a historical display of the church that can one day be showcased in the building for visitors and the community.
“I don’t think outside of it being able to be used as a church that you can’t ask for a better relationship and outcome,” Hoffa said. “The biggest thing that everyone takes a sigh of relief from is that the church doesn’t have to be razed. That is something that no one wanted to happen. Thank God through Tom’s interest and willingness that will not happen here in Lansford.”
“I look forward to the day down the road, hopefully not too far down, when the church is freshly painted,” Bartholomew said, “and the community and members can come and hear a beautiful concert here and enjoy the building and its history in a whole new way.”
About the building
The stone church that became St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Slovak Church was constructed in 1908 after the original wooden church was destroyed by fire.
According to various historical pieces on the construction, the cornerstone for the new 60-foot by 150-foot church was laid on Memorial Day 1908 by the Most Rev. Edmond Prendergast, Bishop of Philadelphia and designed by architect A.W. Leh at a cost of $15,000.
Over the next three years, the church building rose to tower above the town, built of Gouverner, New York State gray dolomite marble. It was dedicated to the parish by Prendergast on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 30, 1911.
The structure stretches from Abbott to Water streets with the transept measuring 84 feet and the steeple measuring 169 feet tall with 7½ foot timepieces by the E. Howard Clock Co.
Within the tower are three bells — a 3,000-pound bell christened St. Michael, a 1,500-pound bell christened St. Stephen and a 750-pound bell christened St. George.