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How fires — brought two Catholic Churches in Lilly, Pa. very close

… Mount Carmel was a “potential tragedy”

Part 1

In the early days of Catholicism in Western Pa. — and elsewhere in the USA — the churches of the parishes were built around ethnicities. That is why communities in the area where I grew up, like Portage, had five Catholic Churches.

All different ethnicities.

And why Lilly, a much smaller community, had two.

And why Johnstown, a larger city at the time, featured five large Catholic churches within a few blocks on one another in the West End of the city.

The positive aspect of this is that those who immigrated to this country were able to retain some of their memories and families from their home countries by erecting monuments in their honor.

The negative part of it, though, was that while the Roman Catholic churches were all under the umbrella of the Vatican in Rome, the parishes in the communities were somewhat distant and isolated from one another in many ways.

That occurred in Lilly, too, my hometown. St. Brigid’s was the Irish/Italian/German/Western European church, while Our Lady of Mount Carmel was the Polish/Slovak/Hungarian/Eastern European church.

Each was a special place for the members, and those who were immigrants had a particular place in which to worship God and to remember their homelands.

In my younger years when I attended mass at Mount Carmel, the priest would give his sermon in Polish first, and then follow by giving it in English.

As a result of the different cultures, the people always had a little disconnect with the other churches, despite their similar overall religious affiliation.

The 1960s and 1970s

In the late 1960s, Mount Carmel suffered damage from a fire that could have been much worse than it was.

In the early 1970s, St. Brigid’s suffered a devastating fire that destroyed all of the church except for the front of it, which remains today.

Now, the two are joined as one, Our Lady of the Alleghenies, but the fires that came earlier brought together the two in a unique way.

First, the fire at Mount Carmel. The second post will have to do with the fire at St. Brigid’s.

I remember this well.

History of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

According to histories provided in “The Legacy of Prince Gallitzin: A history of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese,” some background of Mt. Carmel is made clear,

At Lilly, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish was organized after the turn of the century for immigrant Polish families who moved to this Cambria County community. Charter members first attended services in St. Brigid Church until an increased census led a building committee, composed of Joseph Mocadlo, Adam Szczur, Joseph Majewski and Peter Jedrzejewski, to collect funds for the purchase of a property owned by the late John Leahey as a construction site for their own parish.

In March, 1909, the Rev. Bleslaus Dutkiewicz conducted services for the Polish community in Old Rainey Hall, and served as pastor until the following March when the Rev. Anthony M. Habrowski replaced him. In November of the same year, the Rev. John Pilz became rector and under his administration, a rectory was constructed and work on the new church was started.

Once the church was completed, a church hall was built adjacent to the rectory to serve as a day school. During the pastorate of Fr. Pilz, religion and Polish were taught by lay teachers and later replaced by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

“The Legacy of Prince Gallitzin. A History of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese”

After Father Pilz, Father Habrowski became pastor until Father Stephen Lewczyk became pastor from 1927 until 1951.

Then Father B.J. Worsa became rector and served until 1957 when he moved to Sacred Heart in Portage.

At that point, Father Anthony Czeslawski became pastor and served Mt. Carmel until his passing in 1994, which effectively ended the parish because the bishop decided that he did not have a priest to take over as pastor.

Which was sad — and brought a controversial end to a wonderful story.

Tuesday, June 18, 1968

At this time, I had just finished my sophomore year at Penn State and had just started a summer job with Bethlehem Steel in Johnstown, working as a chairman in what was called the Ten Yard — now is a Sheetz.

I was playing basketball on our beloved court a short distance from the new Mt. Carmel Church. The church had been completed and the old one was being torn down by a contractor.

According to the Altoona Mirror,

Damage has been estimated unofficially at $15,000 in a fire which hit the new Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Lilly last evening.

Sparks from a fire in the adjacent ruins of the old church are believed to have set the roof of the new structure ablaze.

Chalmer Claar, Jr., first captain of the Lilly Volunteer Fire Co., said the old church was being demolished by a contractor who was reportedly burning some of the debris.

A shift in the wind sent sparks onto the roof of the new $150,000 brick church.

The fire burned through the roof in some areas and all the windows on one side of the edifice were knocked out. In addition, there was considerable smoke damage and some water damage to the interior of the church.

The fire in the new structure was noticed shortly after 4:30 p.m. and Lilly volunteers were called. They in turn summoned help from the volunteer companies of Portage, Cresson and Cassandra.

Fr. Anthony Czeslawski, who has been pastor of the parish since 1957, was out of town.

“The Legacy of Prince Gallitzin. A History of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese”

I remember that day well

This fire is clear in my mind because a group of us were playing basketball and shooting around that afternoon. What happened occurred because of a shift in wind, and a baffling misunderstanding of how old the wood was in the old church.

The contractor for the demolition was using a backhoe and three workers to do it, and that almost proved to be very costly.

The new church was a nice brick building that was constructed between the old church and the rectory. Work started in August 1966, and by October of the following year, the church was dedicated. The parishioners were so happy, and it was a beautiful building — and still is.

The old church remained there, but they finally decided to just demolish it and use the area for an entranceway or egress and parking.

As we were playing on the court, the skies darkened and the wind whipped up. The contractor was burning the wood from the church, and suddenly when the wind started, the flames moved toward the new church, hitting the front roof that was nearest to Route 53.

We sprinted up there, though by then, the fire whistle was ringing, and they quickly came and doused the flames.

The hosts

However, the inside of the church was filled with smoke. As I was standing near the rectory, one of the long-time parishioners rushed up to me and asked where my brother, Father Jim Conrad, was at that time.

He wanted Father to remove the hosts and tabernacle from the church. At that time, the smoke was dense, and worries were that it would spread to the rest of the church.

Also, despite this being after Vatican II, the reality of people touching the host — which was strictly forbidden previously — had been lifted, but the old-timers had difficulty adjusting to that. They still took the host directly from the priest, and many continued to do so for many years.

I had no idea where my brother was, but we went into the rectory and I called St. Aloysius in Cresson, where he was an assistant pastor. However, there was no answer.

I checked with my mother to see if he was at home, but he was not.

Therefore, I told the parishioner that in an emergency, anyone could remove the hosts. However, again, this was considered to be absolutely wrong for a layman.

What I never knew

To this day, I am not certain how the chalice and hosts got to the Mount Carmel rectory, but they did. Perhaps my brother eventually showed, but that is the part of the story that is still fuzzy.

What I did know is that the parish was very fortunate that this did not result in a tragedy. Burning a flammable old wooden building like that was not a great way to remove the


Fortunately, however, this part of the story had a positive ending.

The next part, though, did not, but it resulted in the breaking down of barriers between the two churches that was very positive.

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