Grass roots group forms to preserve St. George Church
Fearing the worst for the future of the Allentown Catholic church long known as St. George (now St. John Vianney), a group of local parishioners have formed a preservation group in an effort to prevent its closing.
The new nonprofit group, named St. George Church Preservation Society (SGCPS) has only one mission – to keep the 100-year-old church operational through fundraising and raising awareness for its significance in the community.
At a parish assembly earlier this year, Diocese of Pittsburgh officials explained why closing St. John Vianney Parish and church may be unavoidable.
Many factors are being considered in this decision, including declining revenue, mass attendance and parish registration. The parish is also suffering from significant financial woes with a debt of more than $3 million.
SGCPS, led by Robert Kress, presented their plan to save St. John Vianney church at a meeting on Sept. 10 in the community room of Caliguiri Plaza in Allentown. The meeting had a turnout of more than 20 residents, most of which were parishioners at the church.
"We formed the St. George Church Preservation Society six weeks ago," Mr. Kress said at the start of the meeting. "Our plan strictly involves saving the church itself, not the parish."
Mr. Kress explained if the parish is eventually closed, the church can be included in the territory of one of the surrounding parishes and can have many uses, including weddings, funerals and special masses.
Amid rumors the church will be demolished if it is closed, SGCPS sprang into action. Mr. Kress invited all registered parishioners at the meeting to sign a letter to Bishop Zubik, which outlined their plan to save the church.
"We want to enter a cooperative agreement with whoever is responsible for the church after the parish closes," Mr. Kress said. "We are willing to fundraise and support the upkeep of the church."
If the church is to remain open, SGCPS is offering to pay for the utility bills and repairs that are needed due to the deterioration and neglect St. John Vianney church has suffered from over the years. According to Mr. Kress, SGCPS also plans to restore the hall beneath the church so that local food banks can use it for storage.
If Bishop Zubik does not agree with their efforts, Mr. Kress said they are "prepared to take it all the way to the Vatican."
If no agreement is reached through the letter to Bishop Zubik, SGCPS will turn to the appeal process through the Vatican to reverse the decision to close the church.
SGCPS and those attending the meeting worked together to brainstorm ways to save the church and reach out to the community to make their cause known.
"We are reaching out to parishioners, former parishioners, alumni and their families and friends as well," Mr. Kress said. "We are also looking to the German ethnic community. The church was built by German immigrants and there are so many German companies in the area who we can reach out to as well."
One woman in the crowd suggested reaching out to the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation to see if the church could eventually become a designated historic landmark so it could receive preservation grants.
"I've come into the technology age because of my kids, but some people still like reading something in the mail," another woman said. "I think a letter in the mail with bullet points about what our society stands for along with our website and email will help because we're dealing with a lot of people who aren't tech-savvy."
It will take a collaborative effort to save St. John Vianney church and everyone at the meeting was in agreement the church is a focal point in the neighborhood and a tribute to the heritage of the parishioners that is worth preserving.
"This church has been in the community for over a hundred years...Folks gave from modest means and made great sacrifices to have this church," Mr. Kress said when asked why the church is key part of the community. "It is a sacred space that needs to be preserved and not just torn down because of a lessening of Catholics in the area."
To learn more about SGCPS's mission, visit stgeorgepreservationsociety.org.