A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Great Fire

Back in 1853, the folk who lived atop German Hill had desired to build their own church rather than climb down the cliffs, cross the river, and climb the hill on the other side to attend St. Bernard's.  Too many Irish there, anyway.  So they built a church atop German Hill: white-washed brick with a steeple in front.  The church was dedicated by the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, Rev. John Neumann, who was one of two saints associated with the parish.  (The other was Dorothy Day, who established a Catholic Workers farm on Morgan's Hill.)  
But by 1885, the old white-washed brick church was too small for the German congregation.  During the funeral of Fr. John B. Frisch, the seventh pastor, people had knelt in the grass outside all day, in the pouring rain.  Though perhaps this was as much a tribute to the greatness of the man as to the smallness of the building.   A new church was built on the same site. 

This was the life's work of Fr. James Regnery, 13th pastor of St. Joseph.  He found the church nearly in ruins, the school inadequate and the sisters’ residence in poor condition.  Also, he was confronted by a debt of $11,000 – and this was in 1885 gold dollars!  “Being fitted by nature and grace as a genius of finance,” Fr. Regnery was equal to the task and liquidated the debt, refurbished the convent to provide bright and cheery quarters for the sisters, and then turned his attention to the church building.
The Second Church
The new church was in the same general style as the first, and indeed of most churches in the U.S: a simple box with a steeple in the front center.  It was a red brick structure and measured 60 feet front by 142 feet deep.  The steeple was 140 feet high and was surmounted by a 12-foot copper cross.  The west end of the building was used as a school by the Sisters of St. Francis.  In the basement of the church was a spacious chapel and “amusement hall.”  In the steeple were mounted three large bells. 

ON APRIL 15, 1894, Archbishop Patrick John Ryan blessed the new church, which t
he Easton Daily Express called “one of one of the finest, if not the finest, churches of God in the Lehigh Valley” and in the History of Northampton County, we read, “It was the admiration of Easton, and young and old speak enthusiastically of its interior beauty and impressiveness.”  The interior, in the somewhat overwrought style of the times looked like this:
Interior of the Second Church

All of which leads up to
This Day In History. 


ON THE EVENING OF March 10, 1911, a fire of unknown origin broke out in the ceiling over the sanctuary shortly after the close of Lenten services.  The conflagration spread and was soon out of control.  The firemen fought the blaze all night, but soon realized that they could not save the church and concentrated on the rectory and other neighborhood buildings.  The flames were visible for miles around, due to the church’s prominent position atop the Heights.  Francis Flynn, then 11 years old, remembered watching the conflagration from the edge of Mt. Lebanon in Phillipsburg NJ.  The late Helen Schwar, of St. Joseph Street, a young girl at the time, remembered getting a cinder in her eye.  When it was over, very little was left: a ciborium, a few statues, and the copper baptismal bowl.  The Easton Daily Express reported: 

High Wind and Lack of Water Gave the Flames Full Swing.
Sisters' Home and School Burned and Rectory Seriously Damaged.
Blessed Sacrament Removed as Flames Raged;
Church Sure to be Reconstructed Without Delay.
St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, which yesterday stood majestically on the brow of German Hill, South Side, overlooking the Lehigh and Delaware Valleys, a monument to the life work of Rev. James Regnery, the pastor, and the untiring labors of his faithful followers, is today in ruins, swept by a fire that broke out at 8:30 last evening and which burned until daylight this morning.  The parochial school and the sisters' home, which stood on St. Joseph St., west of the church structure and connected with it, were also destroyed, and the roof and the upper story of the rectory, to the south [sic] of the church, were burned.  The loss, so far as money can repay it, will amount to about $200,000; insurance about $65,000.  The origin of the fire is unknown.
St. Joseph's congregation, made homeless in a night, will worship tomorrow in the Porter school house on Wilkes-Barre St., near Philadelphia Rd.  Masses will be celebrated by Fr. Regnery at 8 and 10 o'clock.  When members of the School Board were approached this morning for permission to use the Porter building for services there was objection on the part of some members, but the sentiment in favor of allowing the Catholics to occupy the building temporarily was so overwhelming that the objections were brushed aside.

Ruins of the Second Church
Fr. Regnery, broken in spirit, was reassigned to Philadelphia, where he died a few years later.  The parishioners and the new pastor, Fr. Albert Korves, set to work immediately and the cornerstone was laid for a third church building.  This was a double-turreted building of Stockton granite, with German-made stained glass windows portraying the life of St. Joseph.  
The Third Church
The cornerstone of the Third Church was laid on June 27, 1915 and on November 10, Fr. James Regnery died in Philadelphia.  He had been depressed and broken in health ever since his life’s work had been destroyed in a few fiery hours.  Shortly after his transfer to St. Elizabeth’s in Philadelphia, word reached Easton that his health was failing.  Many of his former parishioners visited him there, but they saw little hope that he would ever regain his former good health.  He had only words of praise for the people of St. Joseph’s and support for his successor.  Who knew better than he the stresses of building a new church?  It would have been a fine thing if he had lived to see the dedication of the Third Church, but it was not to be.  Fr. Korves announced the death at Mass the next morning and prayers were said for his soul.

The body of Fr. Regnery was brought back to where his heart had always remained and he was buried in the cemetery beside the church. 

The new church was dedicated in 1918, lacking only her stained glass windows, which had languished in Munich due to the war.  They would be installed in 1920.  Finally, in 1927, two more bells were added to the bell tower, making a peal of three: St. Agatha, Our Lady of Angels, and the big bell: St. Joseph, Protector, which sound C, G, and E. 

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