A skyline landmark in the southern section of the city, the steeples of St. Mary’s Catholic Church rise above Twelfth and Spruce streets.
Polish immigrants began arriving in Reading around 1850, seeking work and livelihood in the iron foundries here. The majority were from the area of Poland known as Poznan. Because Poznan was frequently under German control, most residents of the area spoke German as well as Polish. At that time, in the history of the Church in the United States, almost all parishes were based on a particular ethnic population. When these immigrants came to Reading, they naturally attached themselves to a parish, St. Paul’s, which served the needs of German-speaking Catholics because there was no Polish Church in Reading.
The pastor of St. Paul’s, Father and later Monsignor George Bornemann, actively sought out Polish-speaking priests to serve the needs of the Polish community. In 1878, Father Emil Kattein was assigned to St. Paul’s as an assistant to Fr. Bornemann. A native of Silesia, Fr. Kattein spoke German and some Polish. Determined to be a missionary, he studied with the Mill Hill Fathers in London, and was ordained there on March 19, 1876.
In 1882, Father Kattein was selected to be the founding pastor of the first Polish-speaking parish in Philadelphia, St. Laurentius (Lawrence). When Father Kattein left St. Paul’s, no Polish-speaking priest was assigned to take his place. The Polish community in Reading continued to expand, and the people had an increasingly strong desire to have a church of their own.
Between 1882 and 1888, no Polish-speaking priest was assigned to Reading. Fr. Bornemann continued to look after the needs of the Polish community. Fr. Kattein journeyed from Philadelphia himself on occasion to look in on his former flock, and sent other priests to preach to them and hear their Confessions. One of these priests was unknowingly beginning a virtual lifetime of service to the new parish, Fr. Adalbert Malusecki, who upon ordination in 1887 had become Fr. Kattein’s assistant.
In 1885, a committee was formed to commence the process of creating a Polish Catholic parish. A parcel of land at Spruce and Wunder streets was purchased for $900; a second lot at 12th and Spruce Streets was obtained the following year for $1,600. With the land secured, the Polish community began making plans to build a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In January, 1888, Fr. Victor M. Lebiecki was appointed assistant at St. Paul’s. Fr. Lebiecki was a native of Russian Poland who fled his native area after the 1863 uprising against Russia. He settled in Bavaria and learned to speak German. Originally ordained for the Diocese of Lublin, he served in Munich-Freising, Augsburg, and Malines before coming to the United States.
Father Lebiecki took on the task of establishing St. Mary’s Parish and its first church, which became the basement of the present church. Supposedly, there were 300 souls in Reading’s Polish community; however, only 180 of them were financially supportive of the proposed venture, which called for the immediate building of a church approximately the size of St. Paul’s. It quickly became apparent that the larger church would have to wait.
In 1888, the site at the Northwest corner of 12th and Spruce Streets was chosen, and the construction of the basement of the church was begun. Once the basement was dug and put under a roof, a cornerstone-laying ceremony was arranged. On Sunday, October 8, 1888, an assembly gathered around Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan of Philadelphia and the clergy present on the roof of the basement. The rough floor, which had been laid temporarily, was crowded by some 1,500 persons. As the corner-stone laying ceremony was nearing its end, the weight of the people proved too much and nearly 400 square feet of the flooring near the central portion had suddenly fallen, precipitating 300-400 people into the cellar. Many were injured, and one woman, Catherine Kluczewicz, was killed. This tragedy greatly affected Father Lebiecki and he left Reading in November, 1888.
The new parish welcomed the priest who would become its first resident pastor in November, 1888, when Fr. Mark Januszkiewicz arrived in the official capacity of assistant to Fr. Bornemann of St. Paul’s. Fr. Januszkiewicz was a native of Przemyśl, in southeastern Poland. He was born on March 11, 1852, and ordained for the Society of Jesus by Cardinal Dunajewski in Krakow on July 9, 1882. He served as a Jesuit in Vienna until March 1, 1888, from where he decided to come to the United States to work among the immigrants from his homeland. He would guide St. Mary’s through its first few difficult years of formation.
Fr. Januszkiewicz undertook the repairs to the basement church and the construction of a rectory to the right of the basement church. Upon its completion, he lived on the second floor, and gave over the use of the first floor as St. Mary’s first parish school. The teacher was the parish organist.
Below: First Rectory.
In St. Mary’s first Baptismal Register, Fr. Januszkiewicz made this opening observation: “This Polish parish was opened by the Most Illustrious and Excellent Patrick John Ryan, Archbishop of Philadelphia, on April 28, 1889.” The first Baptism recorded took place on that day, when Fr. Januszkiewicz baptized Francis Casimir Przybylski, son of Casimir Victoria Ziolkowska, the godparents being Francis Gorecki and Frances Kornacka. The very first marriage recorded took place on May 13, 1889, when George Engel exchanged vows with Maryann Hajdu, in the presence of John Revak and Maryann Susko. In time, probably in April, 1889, Father Januszkiewicz was named the first pastor of St. Mary’s.
Below: Father Januszkiewicz and Altar Boys – About 1890.
In August, 1894, Father Januszkiewicz left St. Mary’s to become the pastor of the then-combined Polish parishes of McAdoo-Mahanoy City. The pastor there, Fr. Matthias Tarnowski, succeeded him in Reading. Fr. Tarnowski, was born in Galicia on February 22, 1863, and was ordained in Krakow on December 27, 1886. He came to the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 1893, and was pastor of St. Mary’s for a number of months in 1894-1895.
Fr. Tarnowski’s successor was the young and energetic Fr. Adalbert Malusecki. Although Fr. Malusecki was the new pastor of St. Mary’s in 1895, he was not new to its people; as has been mentioned, he was one of the priests that Fr. Kattein had sent to Reading back in 1887. He was familiar with the people and their needs. Fr. Malusecki was very well liked and quickly won the hearts of his parishioners and of the community of Reading as well. Fr. Malusecki was a native of Poland, born November 10, 1860, in Wadowice. He began studies for the Priesthood under the Salesian Fathers in Poland, but completed his course at St. Charles Seminary, Overbrook, and was ordained in Philadelphia’s Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul by Archbishop Ryan on May 29, 1887. He was the first priest of Polish descent ordained in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. His first assignment was as assistant to Fr. Kattein at St. Laurentius, Philadelphia. When Fr. Kattein died, Fr. Malusecki succeeded him as pastor there. He served at St. Laurentius until coming to St. Mary’s in 1895.
Below: Rev. Adalbert Malusecki.
Fr. Malusecki was of a gentle disposition and interested in many pursuits. He was widely read; each week he was to be seen on his way to the public library in search of another book to read. He was reputedly an excellent hypnotist, and even delved into spiritualism. In later years he took up painting and sculpturing. Always a gracious host, he was known for the frequent use of the words, “I love you,” in the course of conversation.
Concerned for the children of the parish, the new pastor made his first project the building of two classrooms in the basement of the church structure to relieve the overcrowding on the first floor of the rectory. Shortly after his arrival, Fr. Malusecki was able to secure the services of the Bernardine Sisters of St. Francis to teach in the parish school. These Sisters had recently (October, 1894) been brought to this country from Poland by Fr. Jakimowicz in Mount Carmel, but there was inadequate provision for them in Mount Carmel and they came to Reading to seek out Fr. Malusecki, who rented a house for them at 1210 Spruce Street. In 1898, however, the Sisters obtained through the help of Fr. Bornemann a property in what was then called Ridgewood; we now know it as Mount Alvernia in Millmont, a suburb of Reading, PA. On that property the Sisters established their American headquarters, where to this day they maintain their provincial home, Alvernia College. Unfortunately for St. Mary’s, when the Sisters moved to their new property in 1898, they gave up teaching at St. Mary’s, as it was too far to commute daily by horse and wagon. At that time, the instruction of the children in the parish school passed once again to lay instructors.
The basement church was becoming inadequate to meet the liturgical needs of the growing parish. In June, 1899, after ten years waiting for the completion of their church, Father Malusecki called a parish meeting, and with nearly all at the meeting in favor, it was decided to begin operations to finish the church. At this time, one hundred and twenty or more children of the parish attended school in the basement, but they had been dismissed for their summer vacation. The congregation had increased to 400 families.
The new church, Gothic in design, cost $40,000, and was completed in 1900. On Sunday, June 24, 1900, a ceremony was held to dedicate the completed St. Mary’s Catholic Church. It was a great event in the history of the parish. Many members of other congregations were in attendance. Shortly after 10 o’clock, Rev. Father Malusecki went to the Franklin street train station to receive the visiting clergy and societies, and then the doors to the edifice were thrown open, admitting an anxious crowd. About 10:30 the Reading societies reached the station, and in a few minutes the train arrived bearing the Philadelphia and Manayunk delegation. Archbishop Ryan came at the same time. A line of parade was then formed and the procession marched down Franklin to 5th, to Penn, to 13th, and Perkiomen Avenue, countermarch to 12th, to the church. Upon arrival at the church, the clergy, including the Archbishop and his attendants, entered the parish house. A procession was then formed and, led by two acolytes and followed by the altar boys, the ecclesiastics entered the main door of the church and passed up the center aisle to the sanctuary. The litany of the saints was chanted in Latin. Upon its completion Archbishop Ryan made a tour of the church blessing the walls, etc., and upon their return to the sanctuary, a solemn high mass was celebrated, with Rev. Father Kasparek, formerly pastor of the Slavish Church, Oakbrook, as celebrant.
Below: St. Mary’s circa 1904.
On Sunday, October 2, 1904, the corner-stone was laid for a 12-room parochial school behind St. Mary’s Church in what is now the rear parking lot behind the church. Monsignor Falconio, the papal delegate and the highest Roman Catholic dignitary in the United States, officiated at cornerstone laying ceremony. His presence was due to the inability of Archbishop Ryan to be present and to the personal solicitation of Fathers Malusecki. Monsignor Falconio, assisted by the other priests, read the service and the silver trowel and a silver tray were brought forth. Father Caruzzo held the tray, on which he had placed a small amount of mortar. Monsignor Falconio then took the trowel, blessed it and then, using the tool, threw two trowelfuls on the base on which the stone was to rest. Master Mason Adolph Eichner, under the direction of Stonemason Daniel Miller, placed the stone in position and the stone was then blessed.
Below: First St. Mary’s School (1904).
The new parochial school building cost $18,000. The original plans were drawn by Architect P. A. Walsh, of Philadelphia, who also designed St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s Church. The plans were slightly modified by Architect Leh, of Bethlehem, in order to reduce the cost of the building. The building front was on Wunder St. and extended out to Spruce. Besides the three floors, the basement was fitted out as a residence for the Janitor. There were eight school rooms on the first and second floors. The third floor was used as a hall and meeting place for societies, of which there were about half a dozen in St. Mary’s at the time. The roof was of slate, supplied with a large ventilator, and the cornice and trimmings were of galvanized iron.
Fortunately, Fr. Malusecki was able to secure the services of the Felician Sisters of Buffalo, New York. The Felician Sisters, later supplied by another province in Lodi, New Jersey, taught at St. Mary’s until 1978. The Sisters lived at 316 South 12th Street, which later became the home of Clara Kowalski. Fr. Malusecki knew that the situation could not remain that way, and so, in 1908, he had a new rectory built at the corner of 12th and Spruce streets; the original rectory became the Sisters’ convent.
Below: Second Rectory.
Below: The Felician Era.
Just as he was caring for the living, Fr. Malusecki was also concerned about the deceased members of his flock. To that end, he spent $4,000 in 1912 to acquire a parcel of land in the 18th Ward to serve as a parish cemetery. This cemetery is located on New Holland Road just off Lancaster Avenue.
There is no mention whatever of the celebration of the parish’s Silver Jubilee, which would have occurred in 1913.
For the most part, Fr. Malusecki served St. Mary’s alone in his early years. He had an assistant for a few months in 1900, Fr. Benedict Tomiak, later known as the founder of St. Mary’s Orphanage in Ambler. But there were few priests to be had as helpers; most of the early assistants were themselves immigrants looking for something better and not quite sure where to find it. They served the parish a few months, and moved on of their own will or by the archbishop’s. It was not until Fr. John Mickun arrived in October, 1912, that Fr. Malusecki regularly had an assistant. It was not until 1921 that the archdiocese assigned two assistant pastors to St. Mary’s. In 1934, a third assistant was assigned.
Because of the growth of St. Mary’s, in 1914 a second Polish parish was founded in Reading’s 18th Ward, meant for those Polish people living west of the Schuylkill River. This parish was organized by Fr. Peter Kucharski, who was serving as chaplain at Mount Alvernia. The Polish people who lived in Millmont began making their needs felt by seeking Fr. Kucharski out at the convent chapel. Luckily, a church was available immediately for this new parish of St. Anthony of Padua in the 500 block of Summit Avenue. Originally built by the Ukrainian Catholic community of Reading, it had later been the first place of worship for SS. Cyril & Methodius Slovak parish. In 1914, it was standing empty. Earlier, St. Mary’s numbers were decreased when the Slovaks of Reading formed their own parish in 1895 and the Lithuanians of Reading did the same in 1913.
St. Mary’s was not finished growing, and that growth continued to be reflected in the school enrollment. With the increase in both students and teachers (all Sisters in those days), Fr. Malusecki had no choice but to build both a second school and another convent; a plot of ground operated for many years as a stone quarry by McQuade Brothers, large enough for the planned new buildings, running along the East side of South 12th Street from Spruce to Muhlenberg, was purchased for $12,000.
The new convent at 325 South Twelfth Street was completed at a cost of $58,000 in 1925. The new home of the Felician Sisters, about a dozen in number, was solemnly blessed, on Wednesday, April 22th, by Bishop Michael J. Crane, D., D., of Philadelphia. Blue stone formed the foundation, while the walls of the structure were of red brick set in the same color mortar and faced with cast stone trim and surmounted with a decorative slate roof. William Gaul, of Reading, was the contractor, and Louis Giele, of New York City, the architect. The building is three stories high, the dimensions being 64.6 feet long and 40 feet wide. On the first floor was a chapel, a refectory, a kitchen, a parlor and an office. On each of the second and third floors were 12 rooms for the sisters. In the basement were laundry and store rooms.
Below: Felician Convent.
In 1926, the old convent, at 236 S. 12th Street, became for a while a day nursery/kindergarten conducted by the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Brzozow, Poland. This was the first foundation of these Sisters in the United States, and they remained at St. Mary’s until 1938, when they withdrew. They had been at St. Mary’s for twelve years, and were much respected for the much they did for so little (10 cents per child per day). The Sisters also taught music, dancing, embroidery, hand-crafts, sewing. Upon their departure, the building at 236 S. 12th Street was converted into apartments, which provided additional revenue for the parish until the 1960s.
In 1927, the 12-room school that was connected to the back of the church had become too crowded with over 900 pupils, so work began on the construction of a $175,000 combination high school and recreational center at southeast corner of Twelfth and Spruce streets, diagonally across from the church. The new school building, of brick and limestone, was two stories high, with a lower floor, and 55 by 147 feet. The building, designed by Frank V. Nickels, Philadelphia architect, conformed in appearance with the new convent for the Felician Sisters of the parish, located on South Twelfth Street, near Muhlenberg. It included 13 classrooms, an office, a gallery with four rest rooms, a kitchen, boiler room and coal bins, a large billiard and bowling hall, an auditorium with a large seating capacity, and a gymnasium. The gymnasium was located in the basement, where showers and lockers were also provided.
Below: School and Auditorium.
On Independence Day, Thursday, July 4, 1928, the corner-stone was laid for the new school and recreational center. Rt. Rev. Michael J. Crane, auxiliary bishop of the Philadelphia Catholic archdiocese, officiated at cornerstone laying ceremony. The building was dedicated to Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Polish leader and patriot, who came to this country with Gen. Lafayette a French man, and other foreign officers, to help George Washington during the stirring times of the Revolutionary War. His name is inscribed above the double entrance to the structure.
The new school was home to the higher grades, eventually including 9th and 10th, and for a few months in 1938, 11th. The Felician Sisters conducted a commercial high school, and some thought was given to a full four-year high school, but evidently the interest was not there for such a venture in the years prior to World War II. The 10th grade was phased out sometime in the 1940’s, and the 9th grade in the 1950’s. In the days prior to the existence of Holy Name High School, the classrooms of St. Mary’s “new” school became the Freshman Annex for Central Catholic High School. Unfortunately, the Great Depression struck in 1929, and the costs of building the Parish Halls and School Annex proved a heavy burden on the parish that would not be lifted until 1950.
When Father Malusecki was not building during his years at St. Mary’s, he was probably baptizing. In 1889, the first year of St. Mary’s existence, there were 50 baptisms. In 1895, the first year of Father Malusecki’s tenure, there were 95 baptisms and the following year there 112. By 1906, the number of baptisms was 237 and in 1910 baptisms rose to 321. The greatest number of baptisms (325) took place in 1917. Baptisms remained in excess of 200 per year until 1926. During Father Malusecki’s 42 years at St. Mary’s, he baptized over 8,500 infants.
In his early years at St. Mary’s, Father Malusecki labored alone. Starting in 1900, a number of assistants were assigned to St. Mary’s for periods of a few months to several years. One of these assistants (10/1911 – 6/1912), Father John Mickun, later returned to St. Mary’s as pastor in 1938. Because of the numbers of immigrants, baptisms, and school students, in 1914 those families living west of the Schuylkill River were detached from St. Mary’s to form St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Millmont. Earlier, St. Mary’s numbers were decreased when the Slovaks of Reading formed their own parish in 1895 and the Lithuanians of Reading did the same in 1913.
Father Malusecki was preparing to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his ordination when he died on May 11, 1937 – three weeks short of the anniversary date. The grand tribute that was to be given him in life was given in death instead. His body lay in state for three days while thousands, both Catholic and non-Catholic, paid their respects. It was estimated that two thousand souls packed the church for his funeral Mass while eight thousand stood outside. When the funeral Mass was over, the entire crowd processed to the parish cemetery accompanied by a band playing dirges. His body was laid to rest in the Pastor’s Plot in St. Mary’s Cemetery. Rose Greenberg, who served Father Malusecki as housekeeper during all the years of his local chant, followed him in death exactly three weeks later.
Below: Father Malusecki.
When Father Malusecki took charge of the local parish in 1894, the membership consisted of only 150 families. In 1937 there were 1,100 families on the roll, with between 6,000 and 7,000 attending services. Heavy debts which hung over the parish when he first came were wiped out.
Rev. Malusecki’s successor was the Rev. Joseph Gazdzik. He was ordained in St Charles Seminary by Bishop Edmond F. Prendergast, then auxiliary bishop of the Philadelphia Diocese. He was born in Rymanow, Poland, in 1892. He was serving as pastor of St. Stanislaus Parish in Philadelphia when he was appointed to St. Mary’s. Father Joseph Grazdzik then became pastor of St. Mary’s. Unfortunately for him, Father Grazdzik had to fill the shoes of an energetic and well-liked predecessor and he had a difficult time doing so. Shy and sickly, he was not well-received at St. Mary’s. In March of 1938, he was transferred to St. Casimir Parish, Shenandoah, as pastor, and the pastor there, Father John Mickun, a one-time assistant at St. Mary’s, was appointed pastor of St. Mary’s.
Fr. Mickun’s first project upon his arrival at St. Mary’s was to undertake preparations for the celebration of the parish’s Golden Jubilee. The church needed to be painted and freshened. The parishioners responded admirably to the cause, and the church underwent an interior painting and saw its first chandeliers installed.
The painting of the church in 1938 was done by Henry Niemczynski and Sons of Flushing, Long Island. The statues and wooden altars were repainted as well as the Stations of the Cross. The Gothic pulpit was cut down, repainted, and moved behind the altar rail. They also repainted the four murals in the front and rear of the side aisles, and added the seven murals of St. John the Baptist, St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr, St. Andrew Bobola, the Immaculate Conception, St. Casimir, St. Stanislaus Kostka, and St. Adalbert in the arches around the main altar. These murals, with the exception of the Immaculate Conception, which was painted out in the 1963 renovation, still adorn the church. Below these murals are the Coats of Arms of various Polish cities.
On Sunday, November 20, 1938 St. Mary’s observed its Golden Jubilee with an 11:00 AM Mass celebrated by Msgr. J. Carroll McCormick, at that time Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, in the presence of Bishop Hugh L. Lamb, then the Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia. Assisting were Fathers Francis Palecki, Ladislaus Sarama, and Joseph Zmijewski (later to become the Administrator of St. Mary’s in 1942. The Sermon was preached by Father Julian Muraczewski, Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Clifton Heights, NJ. That evening, at 7:00 PM, a banquet was served in the parish hall; the toastmaster was Father John Lorenc.
Below: St. Mary’s as it looked before 1938.
Below: St. Mary’s as it looked before 1938.
Below: St. Mary’s after the 1938 remodeling.
Father Mickun, a determined and astute administrator, could not be content until St. Mary’s debt was liquidated. At the time of his arrival at St. Mary’s, Fr. Mickun found a debt of almost $247,000. To this end, he and his assistants labored; each month the four priests of the parish went from home to home collecting dues past and present. On January 29, 1950, the parish celebrated the burning of the mortgage at a banquet in the parish hall in the presence of Bishop Ignatius Krause, an old friend of Father Mickun’s, who had been a missionary in China.
At the same time Fr. Mickun observed his fortieth anniversary of ordination. Father Mickun was also devoted to the enlargement and care of the parish cemetery. He purchased additional acreage for the cemetery in 1941 and 1944, doubling the cemetery in size and providing a new entrance on New Holland Road. He had erected a Veteran’s Monument in 1946 and made provision for the burial of veterans in a special plot adjacent to the monument. He erected a wall around most of the cemetery’s perimeter. All through the grass-cutting season, Father Mickun could be found at the cemetery making sure the grass-cutters worked as he wished them to work.
Father Mickun had the honor of dedicating the three-manual Mohler pipe organ which the parish purchased around the time of his arrival. Word has it that the organ, which still graces liturgies at St. Mary’s, was originally the RCA Victor recording organ.
He also baptized Leo S. Stajkowski, who would grow up in the parish and be appointed pastor of his home parish on Oct. 2, 1984.
In February, 1961, announcement was made of the division of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The counties of Berks, Carbon, Lehigh, Northampton, and Schuylkill were severed from the Archdiocese to form the new Diocese of Allentown. Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Krol was named to Philadelphia, and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McShea of Philadelphia was named first Bishop of Allentown.
On November 1, 1961, Fr. Mickun, on his 76th birthday, left St. Mary’s and settled in retirement in Miami, Florida. He retained the title of Pastor until he died on December 20, 1968, in Miami. He was buried on the grounds of the Marian Fathers in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a community of priests whom he had befriended and supported in life.
Father Joseph A Zmijewski, D.D., late in 1961, was appointed administrator of St. Mary’s Parish to replace the retired pastor Father John Mickun. When Father Zmijewski arrived, he was immediately faced with the task of raising $100,000 for Bishop McShea’s campaign to raise $7.5 million to build the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, as well as Holy Name, Marian, and Bethlehem Catholic High Schools. St. Mary’s pledged $180,000 toward the campaign, leading all the parishes of Berks County and all the Polish parishes of the diocese.
Father Zmijewski could not rest as the Diamond Jubilee of St. Mary’s in 1963 was fast approaching. In preparation for the jubilee, he began planning extensive renovations to the church. Initial phase of the work consisted of rebuilding the two steeples. Outside woodwork, windows and doors were renewed and a new illuminated statue of the Virgin Mary as placed at the top of the church.
Inside, the sanctuary floor was lowered and reinforced with iron beams and concrete to support marble altars. A mosaic of the Patroness was placed at the focal point of the renovated sanctuary. Multi-colored marble statues were placed on the side altars. The interior was repainted. New chandeliers in a modern style replaced the Gothic lantern chandeliers installed in 1938. New pews and confessionals, in a light finish, were installed. The new pews provided for two rows of pews replacing the old four rows across. In addition, the new pews were much more comfortable than the old pews. Improvements were also made to the electrical and sound systems.
New religious items installed for the jubilee include a pulpit, Sedalia, Stations of the Cross, confessionals, baptistery with a marble baptismal font, holy water fonts, and memorial board. New terrazo floors were put down in the interior and an enclosed exit stairway was constructed at the Spruce street side of the building.
Below: Interior of Church during Renovations.
Below: Interior of Church after 1963 Renovations.
The Diamond Jubilee was celebrated on October 20, 1963. Bishop McShea was not present because he was in Rome attending the Second Vatican Council. The Rev. Anthony Ziemba, a native son of the parish, now pastor of St. Ladislaus Church, Philadelphia, celebrated the Mass. He was assisted by Fathers Julian Zagorski, Francis Urbanowicz, Joseph Daniel, and John Basinski – all former assistant pastors. The sermon was preached by Father Jerome Staniszewski, O.F.M., who prior to the Jubilee preached a mission in the parish. Some 900 persons later attended a banquet evening in the Rajah Ballroom at which Msgr. Peter J. Kiekotka of Chester gave the address.
In 1966, Father Zmijewski’s health began to fail. At times, Fr. Zmijewski continued to function while in great pain. He underwent numerous hospitalizations, and on September 28, 1968, he died. In his place, Bishop McShea assigned Fr. John J. Duminiak as administrator of St. Mary’s, effective October 23, 1968. Fr. Mickun was still technically the pastor of the parish, living in retirement in Florida. Fr. Duminiak was a native of Philadelphia, born in 1933 and ordained in Allentown in 1960. At the time of his appointment, Fr. Duminiak was serving as assistant pastor of the Cathedral parish in Allentown, PA. On December 20, 1968, Fr. Mickun died, and on March 27, 1969, Fr. Duminiak was formally appointed pastor of the parish.
When Father Duminiak’s health failed, Father Marion Paskowicz was assigned as administrator of St. Mary’s. Father Marion Paskowicz was assigned to St. Mary’s as an assistant to Father Duminiak on September 2, 1969. On September 1, 1971, he was named administrator of the parish in the absence of the convalescing Father Duminiak. On June 11, 1973, Father Duminiak resigned as pastor of St. Mary’s. Father Paskowicz remained as administrator until he was named pastor on June 17, 1975.
Concerned about the lack of parking in the vicinity of the church, Father Paskowicz razed the original rectory at 236 South 12th Street to provide additional parking. Prior to this, the only available parking was on the street and the parking lot adjacent to the convent. In 1977, to provide additional off-street parking, Father Paskowicz also razed the first St. Mary School behind the church (now the rear parking lot).
Below: Demolition of Original St. Mary’s School.
The number of families in the parish decreased with the result that fewer children attended St. Mary’s School. The classrooms over St. Mary’s Hall were sufficient to handle the reduced number of students. The classrooms over the hall were greatly needed when the building was built in 1928. In those days, St. Mary’s School enrollment was close to 1,000 pupils and the new school housed the upper grades. Once the parish no longer provided the 9th and 10th grades in its elementary complex, the classrooms above St. Mary’s Hall served for a number of years as the Freshman Annex of Central Catholic High School. The Felician Sisters, who served the parish since 1904, withdrew in 1978. Father Paskowicz was able to secure the services of the Bernardine Sisters to take their place (the same community that had conducted the parish school from 1894 to 1898).
Father Paskowicz then razed the 1908 Gothic Rectory and rebuilt it in Colonial style in the same location. The new rectory, the demolition of the old rectory and the old school, the rebuilding of the back wall of the church, and the building of a new sacristy to join the rectory to the church cost $383,000.
Below: Demolition of St. Mary’s Rectory, Northwest Corner of 12th and Spruce Streets.
Below: New St. Mary’s Rectory, Northwest Corner of 12th and Spruce Streets.
Father Paskowicz undertook several projects to beautify the church with marble and stained glass, installed new Stations of the Cross, and made provision in the church basement for a weekday Mass Chapel to save on fuel costs in the heating season and to bring the weekday congregation closer to the altar. This weekday chapel, honoring St. Joseph, was dedicated by Msgr. Bronislaus Sienkiewicz, a former assistant at St. Mary’s.
Father Paskowicz was anxious to preserve the Polish traditions of the parish as a means of preserving the parish. To this end, “Gorzkie Zale” was revived and Polish was used more in the liturgy. But the parish was no longer the parish it had been. The language of the vast majority of parishioners was English and for an ever-increasing number, English was their only language. And much worse, the unstoppable move to the suburbs had begun and during Father Paskowicz’s tenure, the membership of the parish fell to 2,001 souls from 4,085.
In May of 1984, Father Paskowicz requested sick leave from Bishop Thomas Welsh, the successor of Bishop McShea, founding Bishop of Allentown. Father Paskowicz is still officially on sick leave. On May 24, 1984, Father Leonard S. Merook was appointed pastor of St. Mary’s. Sadly on September 1, 1984, Father Merook died very suddenly in his suite in the rectory. Father Merook was buried in the parish cemetery next to Father Malusecki.
Father Merook was succeeded as pastor by Father Leo S. Stajkowski on October 2, 1984. Father Stajkowski was no stranger to St. Mary’s as he was born to parents who were parishioners of St. Mary’s. Since his arrival as pastor, Father Stajkowski has seen to the installation of a new water system at the parish cemetery, replacing the original rusted pipes and adding new spigots on both the old and new sections of the cemetery. He replaced the sections of cemetery fencing and resolved the erosion problems resulting from the city’s widening of Upland Avenue. He replaced the original wooden doors of the hall/school auditorium with bronzed aluminum doors, repaired the roofs of the hall/school and convent, repointed and waterproofed the church, hall/school, and convent, soundproofed rectory offices to increase privacy, and added a powder room on the first floor of the convent for the sisters. More importantly, he had the privilege of preparing the parish for the parish Centennial.
To prepare for the Centennial, the pews were refurbished, new kneelers and hymnal racks installed on the backs of the pews, and new ventilators were installed in the church’s stained glass windows. Rooms were built at the back of the church for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for proper liturgical entry on Sundays and Holy Days, and for parents with infants. The church was closed for services from January to March of 1988 and the liturgies were observed in the upper auditorium of the hall/school, while the church was completely repainted by the Ritterbeck Family, professional church painters from Gouldsboro, PA. Casablanca fans and new chandeliers (the latter the gift of four parishioners) were installed, the sanctuary was slightly enlarged and carpeted, new bronze candlesticks and vases purchased, the tabernacle restored to match the new bronze ware, a crucified Christ the Priest installed to the left of the altar of sacrifice and opposite the tabernacle, and the Sacred Heart rebuilt and re-installed in the old altar boy’s sacristy while the smaller Agnus Dei window from the sacristy was installed in its place. The Mohler organ was rebuilt over a period of three years for $40,000.
In the Centennial year, Father Stajkowski also directed repairs to the basement chapel, replacing the bulging Masonite walls with drywall, painting and recarpeting the chapel, installing matching pews to those in the church, rebuilding the sacristy, adding new pew screens and kneelers and hymnal racks. A new ceiling was also installed in the chapel, new fire and burglar alarms added in the church and rectory, and the church was rewired.
In the Centennial year, Father Stajkowski arranged for an English-language mission and a Polish-language triduum to help celebrate this milestone in St. Mary’s history. He conducted a visitation of the parish to ascertain the membership of the parish and the needs of the parishioners.
St. Mary’s Centennial was observed with a Mass of Thanksgiving at 3:30 PM on Sunday, October 16, 1988, offered by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh. Concelebrating were Msgrs. John Baruch, James Treston, Joseph Smith, John Campbell, and Edward Musial, and Fathers Raymond Slezak, Robert Tobolski MSC, David Kohut OFM, Anthony Ziemba, Ladislaus Dudek, Lawrence Bukaty, Frederick Przydzial, Roman Tarka, Donald Cieniewicz, and Loe Stajkowski. Msgr. Francis Urbanowicz was present in the sanctuary, and Father William Baver acted as masters of ceremonies. A Dinner/Dance at Riveredge followed, with Msgr. Francis Urbanowicz giving the main address. Bishop Welsh also spoke.
Below: St. Mary’s Centennial Celebration – Touch or Click Images to Enlarge
Below: Father Leo Stajkowski with former Pennsylvania state Senator Michael O’Pake.
Since the Centennial, Father Stajkowski did much to restore the Polish heritage of the parish. Recently, the parish membership has been augmented by an influx of Polish immigrants. As a result, St. Mary’s now offers a Polish-language Mass once a month to meet the needs of these recent immigrants.
As the number of school students declined over the intervening years, the Bernardine Sisters withdrew from St. Mary’s School in 1991 to be replaced by lay teachers. With the departure of the Bernardines, the convent stood empty for a period and in 1995 became a home for unwed mothers called Mary’s Shelter. Eventually, the number of students became so low that it was no longer financially viable to operate the parish school.
In 2003, St. Mary’s School at 12th and Spruce streets, closed. Enrollment had dropped 45 percent since 1998. In its last year, St. Mary’s had only 76 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. At its peak, in the 1920s and 1930’s, the school had nearly 1,000 students. Father Stajkowski arranged for a St. Mary’s parish rate that enables school children from the parish to attend the Catholic school of their choice from the schools operated by other parishes in Reading and surrounding communities.
In 2009, Father Stajkowski, was given a dinner at Schmeck’s Villa by church staff and parishioners in celebration of his 25 years as pastor of St. Mary Parish.
St. Mary’s 125th Anniversary was observed with a Mass of Thanksgiving at 11 AM on Sunday, October 27, 2013, offered by Msgr. Alfred A. Schlert, Vicar General of the Allentown Diocese. Concelebrating were Msgr. Leo Stajkowski, pastor of St. Mary’s and the Rev. David J. Kozak, associate pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Church, Reading. A celebration was held afterward at the Reading Country Club.
Father Stajkowski retired on July 20, 2015 after refurbishing the bathrooms in the church, repainting the church, replacing the roof on the church hall/school, installing air conditioning in the church, and replacing oil heat with gas heat. These improvements were financed by the generous contributions of several wealthy parishioners and by contributions from many parishioners in addition to the Mass contributions.
Father Stajkowski was a fervent supporter of the Church Magisterium and faithfully guided and instructed the parishioners in the Truths of the Church. Due to a diocese wide shortage of priests, Father Stajkowski was replaced by an administrator, Msgr. Edward Domin, of St. Catharine of Sienna Parish.
In October, 2016, Mary’s Shelter relocated to 736 Upland Ave. On December 28, 2016, St. Clare of Assisi House signed the lease for the old convent. St. Clare of Assisi House provides transitional residential services and life skills training for non-violent women.
Beautiful photographs of Reading’s Catholic churches with their altar rails and sanctuaries intact.