Lasting faith

The Rev. Vincent Cieslewicz Jr. pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church since 2005, welcomes communicants to the church.


SMETHPORT — This year marks the 150th anniversary of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church in Smethport.

The church, a continuation of the old mission in the former settlement of Instanter, near Clermont, was founded on Feb. 19, 1868, less than three years after the close of the Civil War.

During the early decades of the nineteenth century, Catholic Irish immigrants, including the Reilly and Tracy families, settled in what are the areas of Irish Hollow and Daly Brook and soon realized the need for a church. Prior to the establishment of the Erie Catholic Diocese, the area's Catholics were served from priests from Pittsburgh and later, Philadelphia. In 1842, Father Berthy rode from Pittsburgh and held the first services in the James Daly home. "At that time it wasn't uncommon the clergy to travel from town to town for the faithful," said the Rev. Vincent Cieslewicz, pastor at St. Elizabeth since 2005.

Also that year, a resident priest was sent to St. Marys Church in Sartwell, and Smethport became a mission of that parish, the oldest in the Erie Diocese. It dates back to 1844.

Before 1850, John Keating, a leading landowner in this region, donated property on which a small church was to be built by people of the community. As time passed, the congregation grew and a larger church was needed.

Smethport was chosen as the new site. St. Elizabeth was founded with land donated by Dr. William Keating, John Keating's grandson. As recorded in the 1890 edition of History of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter Counties, “the proposition to build was received with favor, and a subscription book opened. With contributions from the congregation and other citizens, the building fund soon amounted to $4,624.48."

Both the church and rectory were wooden structures, fitting in with the accepted building materials of the day.

The church was named in honor of William Keating's daughter, Elizabeth. Keating also requested that four Masses be said annually for the Keating family. The church was dedicated April 25, 1874, by Bishop Tobias Mullin, assisted by the reverends Patterson, Kinsella and Richard Flood, the first pastor assigned to the church.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-31), the king's daughter, is the parish's patron saint. She is the patron saint of charities, brides, bakers, monastic orders, hoboes and nursing homes.

Though she was born into a life of luxury and privilege, she lived a life of simplicity, generosity and great faith, devoting her years and financial resources to improving the lives of the sick and poor.

At an early age, she married Ludwig, a German who was a soldier and diplomat for German Emperor Frederick II. While Ludwig was away on missions, Elizabeth distributed alms throughout her husband's territory.

He was very supportive of his wife's charitable activities, allowing her to give away much more than customary to the poor, suffering and institutions that cared for them, as well as religious groups she admired.

Her feast day is Nov. 17.

In keeping with Elizabeth's spirit of giving, the church hosts an annual Community Dinner, a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, that is open to the community without charge.

On Dec. 23, 1904, a fire that was discovered at about 11 p.m. and raged throughout that night and the early hours of the next day, destroying the church and rectory.

Local newspapers carried articles — they didn't always agree about the hour — about the tragedy and its aftermath. The McKean County Democrat wrote, "Christmas Eve of 1904 was a fatal night for the St. Elizabeth's. A fire broke out shortly after midnight, and the church and rectory were completely destroyed."

A later article in the same paper stated "At about 11 p. m., flames were discovered issuing from St. Elizabeth Church and an alarm was immediately turned in. The firemen responded promptly, and when they reached the scene, the interior of the building was a mass of flames, and hope of saving the church was futile.

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"Work was then centered on the parsonage and with two streams at play it looked as if the firemen would save the building and undoubtedly would had not the burning steeple fallen toward the parsonage and so near that under the extreme heat, the firemen could not work before it was afire."

The article in The Democrat continued, "While much valuable property was saved, still greater portions of the church and household goods were burned. The chalice, vestments, candlesticks and some linens were all that were rescued from the burned church. In saving the brass candlesticks, Chief of Police M. J. Welch was badly burned on the right hand."

An overheated furnace was listed as the cause of the fire.

The fire, occurring just prior to Christmas, made it seem that the Mass in commemorating Christ's birth might be cancelled. However, according to news articles, the management of the Lyceum Theatre generously offered their large building at King and Mechanic streets and services were held there at 10:30 Christmas morning.

The July 12, 1906, edition of The Democrat reported that the damage involved "a loss of close to $20,000, on which there was only light insurance. Subsequently, the congregation sustained another great loss in the death of their pastor, Rev. Cosgrove, whose death was undoubtedly hastened by the fire that had wrought such havoc with the church property."

Also from the same edition of the newspaper, "The congregation never lost courage, and in time the bishop sent to the parish Father J. F. Dugan, a tireless worker, who at once began the seemingly herculean task of providing a church and parochial residence.

"Father Dugan closely supervised the work at every stage, being on the ground early and late. The two buildings, it is estimated, will cost at least $25,000, of this amount Fr. Dugan informs the writer that he has in hand and in pledges about $12,000, leaving a balance of about $13,000 yet to be raised. Judging, however, from the work that Fr. Dugan has already performed, The Democrat has no misgivings of his ability to secure ample funds to complete the buildings, which will certainly be an ornament to Smethport."

The community rallied to help the congregation. Almost a year after the fire, The Democrat wrote, "Being left without a home, the congregation made arrangements with the Swedish Lutheran Church where services were held for some months."

Additionally, other area churches sponsored dinners and social events, and it became a community project to rebuild the church.

Excavation for the new church started on April 1906. The cornerstone was laid into place several months later in July. From the McKean County Miner on July 12, 1906, it is recorded: "The corner stone was placed in its position at the front of the building near the southwest corner, by the celebrant. The reverend gentleman performed this ceremony with a trowel made especially for the occasion. The blade was made of aluminum and the handle of sterling silver. On the blade was engraved picture of the church and the inscription: 'St. Elizabeth's Church, Rev. J. F. Dugan, Pastor, July 10, 1906.'

"The stone bore the inscription: 'St. Elizabeth's Church 1906.'

"Within a few days a sealed brass box containing records, newspapers, etc., will be placed in the stone."

In the 1930s, improvements were made in the church basement area, but by the 1950s, there was a real need to increase that space for religious instruction and social events, so again the basement was totally remodeled. Early in the 2000s, the church purchased land next door to the east of the church and added a ramp and handicapped entrance and parking lot.

Almost five years ago, ground was broken for a new parish hall that would be connected to the accessible entrance and parking lot. This hall is completely accessible and provides a gathering space, kitchen and restrooms. This new hall was dedicated on April 2004, exactly 107 years after the first Mass was held in the church built in 1907.

The congregation observed this anniversary at the church picnic on Saturday, July 14, at Hamlin Lake Park. Ann Buchholz baked the anniversary cake and members were given complimentary drinking glasses with a picture of the church.

With the recent realignment of churches in the Erie Catholic Diocese, St. Elizabeth and St. Joseph Church in Mount Jewett are now the St. Elizabeth Parish.

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