The First Church
An air of excitement obviously filled the air. Formal application was made to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for a charter for the church, and architectural plans for a permanent church were also being drawn up. A charter was granted on September 17, 1917, the congregation officially being called “St. Peter and St. Paul Greek Catholic Union Church of South Bethlehem, PA”. This name though out of date today, highlights the parish’s Eastern (Greek Rite) heritage as well as the fact that it is a church under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome. It is still used on all formal legal documents for the parish. Full title to the new parish land also came in short order. That happened on November 14, 1917, when the land was fully paid for. The price of the land was $1,500.00.
Already in the spring of that same year the architectural documents for the new church were fully in order. What was called for was a truly monumental edifice, in fact, one similar to St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Lansford, Pennsylvania, a true centerpiece of Byzantine architecture. Parishioner dreams, however, were totally unrealistic, for the cost of such an edifice lay well beyond their financial reach. Confronted with stark reality, the parishioners had to make a decision. It was deemed best to accept the idea of having a temporary place of worship. Only a basement church was to be built, but one with massive stone walls capable of supporting a more monumental church, the real dream of the church founders. The cost of this project was $8,600.00. Money for this, of course, had to be borrowed, and a loan was subsequently acquired from the E.P. Wilbur Trust Company. Surety for this loan was issued by the ever-generous Slovak, George Slafkosky, who, it must not be forgotten, was a non-parishioner. The church was blessed by the Reverend Michael Andrejovich, although the exact date is not known.
The Silver Jubilee Book of the Parish lists every donor who donated toward the construction of this first church and the rectory which was to be built in 1924. The average gift in both cases was $25.00. This book also lists the 29 charter members of the church. It is interesting that only men are listed. For historical purposes, it behooves us to repeat these here: Michael Yasko, George Ragan, John Roka, John Turanica, Phillip Pritka, Dimitro Alesksa, John Bittner, Peter Czap, Mitro Molesa, George Kereczman, George Manik, Dimitrij Volhay, George Pekar, Michael Skrip, Michael Svajko, Olexa Valyko, Michael Gurej, Frank Swadeba, Vasil Skubenics, Mike Bandurics, John Andrus, Andro Lipka, Mike Rice, and Mikula Ivancho. Pastors of the parish have subsequently commented on why the parish had such a history of relatively poor giving to the church. One can, for example, read the observations of the Reverend Vladimir Firczak in the Ruby Jubilee Book or the newspaper comments in the Bethlehem Globe Times on October 14, 1967, of his brother, the Reverend Paul Firczak, on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the parish. What they pointed to was the system of tax support provided to the churches in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The free-will offerings of the people, therefore, could be quite meager as they were intended to covert only immediate church expenses like the cost of candles, incense, and the like. Unfortunately on the American continent, the fact that there was no tradition of sacrificial giving to the Church on the part of the faithful seriously deterred the development of the Byzantine Catholic Church in America.
The construction costs entailed by the basement church expended all parish funds. Nothing was available for the interior outfitting of the church. Providentially, the parish membership included a skilled carpenter, Vasil Firczak. He was to craft the necessary altars, candlesticks, and cross needed for worship. An Allentown lumber mill was able to provide the rudimentary pews at the minimal cost of $18.00 each. Andrew Roka of the parish availed himself of his brother’s horse and wagon to transport the pews to Bethlehem. In short order, donors were found for other necessary items: altar linens, vestments, chalice, liturgikon, gospel book, etc. The church even had a small bell tower. The first bell for this was a generous gift of another Slovak friend of the parish, George Zbojovsky.