‘It’s a minor miracle’: Parishioners purchase historic church from Pennsylvania diocese  — By: Catholic News Agency

The exterior of St. Joseph’s in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. / Credit: Paula Kydoniefs

CNA Staff, Mar 23, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

A group of parishioners in the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, is celebrating this month after acquiring a historic church from the diocese and preserving it as a chapel and place of worship.

The Society of St. Joseph of Bethlehem (SSJB) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, announced earlier this month that the society had purchased St. Joseph’s Church, which opened more than a century ago, from the Allentown Diocese.

“The desire to preserve the church by former parishioners has been steadfast since the church was closed in 2008,” the society’s board said in a letter announcing the purchase. “It has taken time and energy over the years to enter into an agreement with the Diocese of Allentown.”

On its Facebook page, the SSJB says its mission is “to restore and preserve St. Joseph’s Church as a sacred place of worship and a testament to the history and cultural heritage” of the area.

Lina Tavarez, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said the parish ”was closed in 2008 because of a merger of several local parishes.”

“It hosted only one regular Mass per year — on the feast day of St. Joseph — and was available for funerals for former parishioners,” she said.

The Mass of the solemnity of St. Joseph at St. Joseph’s Parish in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Credit: Susan Vitez

Paula Kydoniefs, the president of the board of directors of SSJB, told CNA that the group was established “solely for the purpose of buying this church, taking care of it, and sponsoring events.” The church, historically attended by the local Slovenian/Windish community, had its cornerstone laid in 1914 and fully opened in 1917.

Kydoniefs explained that the decision to purchase the property originated several years ago, during a period when the diocese was in the process of merging local parishes.

“In 2008 they were consolidating, and this was one of five churches that was being closed as a parish,” she said. “St. Joseph’s parishioners fought that and appealed it and ended up taking it to the Vatican.”

The Vatican eventually ordered that the parish remain open for use, Kydoniefs said. In 2011 then-Bishop John Barres “gave the parish the ability to have an annual Mass and have funerals of former parishioners.”

The cornerstone at St. Joseph’s Parish in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Credit: Dimitri Kydoniefs

The church was used “only occasionally” in this capacity, Tavarez told CNA. In 2023 the diocese moved again to sell the church.

“We went back to the diocese,” Kydoniefs said. “It’s a minor miracle. It was last-minute.”

“They had already announced they were going to sell it. They could have just told us no,” she said. “But, credit to them, they said: ‘If you can come up with $175,000 quickly, you can purchase it.’”

Kydoniefs said “several minor miracles and maybe major miracles” followed, with a benefactor — the James Stocklas Family Trust — quickly coming forward to donate “the whole $175,000.”

“Financially we’re independent, and we’re totally responsible for the care and upkeep and maintenance of the church,” Kyondiefs said.

“According to canon law, it’s a chapel,” she said. “It’s still a Catholic church, it’s still affiliated with the diocese in that way. The diocese has the jurisdiction over what public worship services we can do there.” 

“They’ve told us that we must have two Masses a year, one on the feast day of St. Joseph [March 19] and one on Oct. 28, the anniversary of the consecration of the church,” she added. 

Presently the church is not suited for occupancy, Kydoniefs said, with inspectors finding several code deficiencies in need of updating. Regulators did work with the community to develop a stopgap mitigation plan that allowed the church to celebrate St. Joseph’s feast day on March 19. 

The church “does need a lot of work,” she admitted, but she said the SSJB is prepared to see the building restored and utilized for regular community and religious events “at least monthly.” 

“We’ve got a lot of ideas,” she said. “We really want to see this church being used again.” 

In a letter issued upon the church’s reopening, meanwhile, the SSJB wrote that “as heartbreaking as it was a year ago, to hear that our cherished St. Joseph’s Church was to be permanently closed and sold on the open market, we now experience the opposite — hearts filled with joy and thanksgiving!”

“To the St. Joseph’s Church community,” the letter said, “welcome home!”

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