Tears accompany closing of St. Paulinus Church in Clairton
For the past 20 years, Isabel Lauterbach has volunteered her time to help clean St. Paulinus Church in Clairton, but she took extra care with last week’s cleaning.
That’s because it would be the last time she would dust and polish the church she has attended for more than 60 years.
St. Paulinus, a stone church that was hand-built by parishioners and community members in 1937, was closed on Sunday after a final Mass was held.
“A lot of people walked out in tears. A lot of people were taking pictures,” said Vince Gori, another longtime parishioner. He said between 300 and 400 people attended the final Mass.
Miss Lauterbach said although she was saddened by the closing, she understands the need for it as the congregation has continuously decreased over the years.
“There’s really nothing in this area for the young people, and they’ve had to move out,” Miss Lauterbach said. “I’m just glad there is still a church in Clairton to go to.”
Miss Lauterbach was referring to St. Clare of Assisi Church — the former St. Joseph Church — located across town.
Since the merged St. Clare of Assisi parish was formed in 1994, it kept two church buildings open — St. Paulinus and St. Joseph. Following the decision to close St. Paulinus, the Diocese of Pittsburgh last month renamed St. Joseph, St. Clare of Assisi Church.
Tight finances and a shrinking congregation in recent years prompted the parish to consider the closing. A parish committee decided after a long and detailed study that it made sense to close St. Paulinus, said the parish pastor, the Rev. Rich Zelik.
St. Paulinus, which sits on a hill overlooking the Monongahela River and U.S. Steel Corp.’s Clairton Works, is 30 years older than St. Joseph Church.
The parish committee determined that more money would be needed to maintain and upgrade St. Paulinus because of the building’s age and condition. It has no restrooms or air conditioning and is in need of roof repairs.
St. Paulinus Parish didn’t have enough money for a professional architect or builder in 1935 when the bishop gave it permission to build a church.
The Rev. Joseph L. Lonergan, pastor at the time, announced that the parishioners would build the church themselves.
The church was constructed with stone from the “nearby New England Hollow,” according to the church history.
The building committee studied the architecture of many European churches to come up with a design. “The works of Medieval craftsmen were copied in several instances,” church history indicates. That includes the bell tower, which was modeled after the towers of the walled city of Carcassonne, France, and the ciborium, a wooden canopy over the altar, which was said to be made of the wood from abandoned riverboats and decorated with designs copied from a cathedral in Sicily.
The church history said that “men and boys” made the ciborium, the altar railing, candleholders, sanctuary and sacristy.”
The women of the parish stained the church’s pews and are also credited with embroidering the altar linens and making the vestments for the altar boys.
The church was blessed on Sept. 6, 1937, which was Labor Day. The building was renovated in 1976 to accommodate changes in the liturgy.
Father Zelik said no decision has been made about religious items in the church.
He would like to see a nonprofit group operate the building as a community center. Mr. Gori hopes to get an historic designation for it.
Angeline Benedetti, who joined St. Paulinus in 1950, didn’t take the closing as easily as Miss Lauterbach.
“When it was announced in church one Sunday that it would close, I had to get up and leave because I was so upset. I still feel real sad about it. It’s such a beautiful church,” said Mrs. Benedetti, of Jefferson Hills.
Masses were held each Sunday at both sites during the first years after the merger created St. Clare of Assisi parish.
But in recent years, Masses were held at each church for six months of the year — during the summer months at St. Joseph because it has air conditioning and during cooler months at St. Paulinus.
Mrs. Benedetti said the church holds decades of memories for her. Her late husband, Elio, attended the church for his entire life, and his father, Alfred, helped to build it.
All of her five children were baptized and received their First Holy Communion there, and four were married in the church.
The St. Paulinus closing follows by one week the closing of Sacred Heart and St. Peter churches of the St. Martin de Porres Parish in McKeesport.
Those churches were closed with prayer services and a march between the buildings by parishioners, carrying banners that celebrated the ethnic heritage of each church, said the Rev. Tom Sparacino, pastor.
As with St. Paulinus, the closings were prompted by an aging and dwindling congregation.
“It was a day that was filled with so many mixed emotions. It was filled with sweet sorrow,” Father Sparacino said. “People are still hurting and will continue to hurt. But the reality is, we need to join around the altar as one.”
First published on October 4, 2007 at 6:19 am
Mary Niederberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1512.