From the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia they came, but as far as Johnstowners were concerned, these unskilled laborers for Cambria’s mills and coal mines were un-washed ‘‘Hungarians.’’ They were given the hardest, most dangerous jobs, paid a pittance and relegated to the suburb closest to the mill: Cambria City.
So Cam-bria City became the immigrants’ self-contained new world. They packed into small, wood-framed houses, gardened and raised livestock in postage-stamp sized yards, shopped with what little money they had in neighborhood stores and worshipped in neighborhood churches.
And the church was central in their lives. God gave them the faith to endure their existence. Their children were educated in church schools. What social lives they enjoyed were spent with their own kind at church functions and church-related clubs.
The important role that religion played in these immigrants’ lives can be seen today. In a neighborhood only three blocks wide and 10 blocks long, there still are nine churches — all of them founded by ethnic groups and built between 1901 and 1922.
These churches were built by men who worked 84 hours a week at the mill (while earning less than $10 a week), and by women who raised families and earned extra money by caring for boarders in homes with about 700 square feet of living space.
The churches of Cambria City are the embodiment of our region — and monuments to the faith, hard work and resolve that helped to make our nation a world power.
Now at least four of these churches are threatened. Because of dwindling numbers, finances and the lack of priests, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown plans to merge the parishes of Im-maculate Conception, Ss. Casimir & Emerich, St. Col-umba, St. Rochus and St. Stephen. Four of the five churches will close.
Parishioners are pleading with their bishop to reconsider.
Many churches have been ‘‘retired’’ yet remain in limited use — often maintained and operated by some sort of nonprofit entity incorporated for that purpose. They open for special worship services, weddings, re-enactments and other events.
Cambria City’s concentration of churches poses both challenges and opportunities. Some sort of association, embracing all of the stakeholders, should be formed to work with the diocese or assume ownership of the properties if necessary, and a managed endowment should be established for the churches’ perpetual care.
Business planning could devise strategies for the preservation and limited reuse of these churches. Might there be a market for packaged ethnic weddings? Would visitors pay for guided tours given by costumed docents? Could special ethnic weekends draw crowds?
Out-buildings could be sold or rented.
Perhaps the diocese or a religious order could organize an annual processional observance such as on the Feast of Corpus Christi, featuring stops at all of the churches.
It won’t be easy to save these churches, but it can be done — if we share our fathers’ faith and willingness to work.
Write to Dave Hurst through www.hurstmediaworks.com.