'It was a piece of our history'

130-year-old church torn down after fire damage

November 15, 2019 Cranberry Local News

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An excavator from Massarelli Demolition tears down St. Matthias Catholic Church in Evans City on Thursday. The closed church caught fire earlier this year causing significant damage to the structure.

EVANS CITY — As the roof of St. Matthias Catholic Church came down Thursday, so too did a pillar of the borough.

But former parishioners say its history, memory and sacredness will long endure.

“The building itself was not my faith, but it's a sacred place,” said Rita Beitch, a member since the early 1980s. “The sacredness is preserved. Nobody can come in and make it a bar, an apartment building. It will always be sacred to me.”

The church, named after the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot following his betrayal of Jesus, had been a mainstay in the borough since 1889, when it was founded as a Methodist Episcopal church. Other than 10 years in the 1920s and 1930s, St. Matthias held services drawing members from Evans City and beyond.

St. Matthias suffered extensive fire damage the night before a Mass honoring its May 30 anniversary. Despite stopping regular Mass in October 2018, the service was one of two the Evans City church planned to hold annually, the other celebrating the saint's feast day on May 14.

“This was the center of our community,” Beitch said. “It was a big part of our lives.”

Rita Schoeffel, a longtime member of the church, said the congregation splintered after the merger — members moved to three churches in addition to St. Gregory, she said — and that had already hurt the community.

“If the church had burned while the congregation was active, it probably would've been easier on the people than having it closed,” she said.

Following the fire, the church, once the white building atop the hill with a tall cross between its eaves, was charred.

“I didn't want it to be an eyesore standing there,” Schoeffel added.

Other parishioners said the church had a decisive end, something they felt was merciful.

“When the fire happened, to me, it was kind of like, 'Well, this patient's been in hospice and he's finally died.' And today's more like the burial,” said congregation member Paul Foster. “There's a finality to it.”

Dorothy Spithaler, a member of St. Matthias since 1955, said the church, after its congregation had been transferred and its internal contents removed, no longer had the purpose of a house of worship.

“It wasn't a church anymore,” she said. “It was just a building.”

Sister Patricia Myers and a handful of former St. Matthias Catholic Church parishioners came out to watch their former church being dismantled Thursday. The building suffered extensive damage from a fire in the spring.

Regardless, former churchgoers said St. Matthias will be in their memories.

“To see it go, and so many of the things I remember, that's always a little bit heartbreaking,” Schoeffel said.

Lee Dyer, borough council president, said he knew the community would feel a loss when the demolition permit came across his desk after the fire.

“It was a piece of our history,” Dyer said. “It was another place in Evans City where people would go to, and several things have left us or are leaving us.”

That history stretches beyond its role as a religious gathering. Its upper hall, behind the church, served as a meeting place for several organizations, such as the Boy Scouts. Following the fire, the Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous and senior citizens have met at the church's Ritzert Hall, across Route 68.

Even as the church merged into other parishes and the building was burned, parishioners say it was a tender moment watching its remains be carried off in trailers.

“You sit there and watch,” Spithaler said. “There's nothing you could do about it.”

But, Schoeffel added, the church's legacy will touch the borough long after the building has gone. Evans City, she said, will learn to live without its parish — or the building which once held it — even if it takes time.

“I think it's one of those situations where it takes you time to recover from it, but life is all about changes and if you don't move with the change, then you get lost,” she said. “I think we're a group of people who will move along.”

St. Matthias Church History

Despite its Catholic clergy in recent years, St. Matthias Church began in 1889 as a Methodist Episcopal church, Rita Schoeffel, a longtime parishioner and former president of the Evans City Historical Society, said.

That congregation held church services in the building until 1929, when the congregation no longer could financially support the church. So, one Sunday morning, churchgoers packed into the building, began their service, and marched down the hill to Westminster Presbyterian Church, where they joined that congregation.

Between 1929 and 1938, St. Matthias was home to a heating contractor, who used the building as a storage facility. But, in 1938, a reverend from St. Gregory Church in Zelienople purchased the building as a mission.

On May 30, 1939, St. Matthias Church was dedicated as a mission of St. Gregory, holding Mass as a mission until after World War II. Afterward, Father Bailey, who served as a chaplain in the war, was assigned to the church. In the late 1940s, St. Matthias officially became its own parish.

“From there on, we just continued to grow,” Schoeffel said.

In the 1950s, Father Bailey built the church's upper hall behind the building “with a lot of help.” That hall was home to meetings of various groups until the May 2019 fire.

In the 1990s, the church's congregation grew to include about 250 families. But, by 2017, the church merged again with St. Gregory and, in October 2018, ceased weekly Mass.

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Alex J. Weidenhof

Alex J. Weidenhof