By Melissa Williams Schofield
Special to The Catholic Accent
Wilma Franko lives close to St. Peter Parish in Brownsville. But when the retired teacher asked one of her students what the Mass times were at St. James Parish in Maxwell, she found a time that suited her, and she never quit going.
That was 35 years ago.
"St. James Parish was like you were in someone’s living room. I liked it so much, I took my sister," said Franko, who was baptized, received her first holy Communion and was confirmed at St. Peter Parish.
Now, she is back at St. Peter Parish, which was designated as the successor parish when St. James Parish was closed in October.
Franko was a lector and member of pastoral and regional councils, and she helped count the collections after Mass.
"The people there were so friendly and outgoing. The people welcomed us. There’s no one who put on airs. They were just good, common people," said Franko, who retired in 1996 as a French teacher from Brownsville Area High School.
She was asked by Father James F. Petrovsky, former pastor, to lector.
"He said that since I was in front of the classroom, it shouldn’t be a problem. I told him at least I knew what I was talking about there," she said.
"I tried it, and I liked it," said Franko, who was then asked by Father Vincent J. Gigliotti, pastor of St. Peter Parish, Brownsville, to lector.
If she lectored at her new parish, perhaps the parishioners of St. James Parish would feel more at home, she said.
And though the parish where she spent many hours has closed, her faith is as strong as it has ever been.
"I can’t be anything but a Catholic," Franko said. "Being a parishioner at St. James were some of the best years of my life, as far as my faith."
Father Petrovsky said he knew others like Franko, who liked the parish and the church building.
But with St. James Parish, it wasn’t really a matter of if, but when, it would close, he said.
"We saw the writing on the wall. I tried to tell parishioners in small doses without actually telling them. At the last Mass, I talked about the greater church and the parishioners being the church and the building, rather than the building itself. It’s not the building, it’s the people. It was a gradual preparation. When it came, there weren’t too many people who were surprised," Father Petrovsky said.
He said he kept reiterating to parishioners that their faith will carry them through.
Father Petrovsky said the church was never located in Maxwell, but in a tiny coal mining community known as Dutch Hill, near La Belle in Luzerne Township, Fayette County. The community did not have a Roman Catholic church until St. James was built in June 1936. Prior to that, Catholics crossed the Monongahela River to worship at St. Michael Archangel Parish in Fredericktown in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
As the mining industry continued to thrive, more Catholics moved to La Belle. Approximately 140 families from a variety of ethnic groups attended the Fayette County parish.
Father Petrovsky told parishioners that the church is always with them.
"Wherever you go, you are the church."