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Old Saint Michael's Church - Elizabeth, PA

While visiting family in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania in December 2007 and again in July 2008, I finally decided to take photos of the Catholic Church attended while I was growing up, St. Michael's. While a new church was being built in the Summer of 1987, the little church on top of the hill was condemned.   The church was shuttered, and from my understanding no one was allowed to enter the building.  That's why in the photos you will see below, much of what was in the church that fateful 1987 day is still there.  I'm very fortunate that I decided to take these photos during that eight month time period.  In 2009, the church was razed.  All of the photos are at my flickr site.

Much of what is written below - is from my original entry about the old church.

On Christmas Eve 2007, I took a drive around my hometown, it started gloomy but lo and behold the sun came out later in the afternoon that day.  Started out by going into Elizabeth, specifically to the old St. Michael's Church.  Much of the area was already covered in the dirt and grime of winter, the soot of past ice and snows, the piles of leaves from empty homes a lifeless brown.

A lot of town is empty.  The old community library is gone, and all that is left is the Red Lion, more than enough pizza shops to feed the area four times over, and not much else.   Old businesses I remember are long gone many with empty storefronts showcasing whatever dusty old leftovers were there when they closed shop.

I headed up Bayard St. to the old church. I was baptized here, I had my first communion here, my family worked the old fair here.  The church was condemned in 1987.   Amazingly, everything has been left in place since that day.  There are still missilettes and song books just yellowed from 20 years of age.  A lot of the old ornamental items - or at least what I could see through a few doors - were there.  In some cases, the kneelers on the pews were still down.  What's different is the plaster is starting to fall off.

Someone, perhaps the current parish staff, or a resident of the neighborhood, or perhaps someone else, had put wreathes up at the old doors to the church - and a small manger scene at the church headstone - which still listed the mass schedule from 1987.  When they razed the church in 2009, it was discovered that the headstone shown above was actually in the shape of a cross.

Our parish was founded in 1851.  I can't remember when the old church was built.  I could have sworn that there was an old corner stone showing the year of construction, but I couldn't locate it. 

Nothing says Merry Christmas, than a wreath covering up a master lock padlock and chains shutting the doors of the old church shut.  I stood in the courtyard/school playground and remembered some memories of St. Michael's when growing up.

The cold of Christmas Eve in 1983 when it was 10 below zero.  I'm pretty sure we sat up in the balcony with the choir.  Parking on the neighborhood streets to walk to mass.  The church fair which really was a town festival and was more alive than any of the others at the new church since.  The lack of A/C and Father George skipping a homily when it was too hot - or if the Steelers were playing.  People standing down the sides during the holidays or during a special mass.  The choir in the balcony above the church.

I'm not overly religious of a person, and I don't go to mass as often as I should now.  But that old church still has a special part of my growing up. My younger brother was one of the last to be baptized there in the Summer of 1987.  Not that long after, the church was condemned and we had to go to Sisters of the Divine Redeemer (a nunnery) while the new church was being completed.

The closing of the old church didn't go without a fight.  I was only 10 then and the stories about the new church being built and those wanting to stay at the old church made the local news.  Today, I wonder if it was condemned just to put an end to the squabble over it.  The new church is big and most if not all of the community has moved on from that squabble 30 years ago.  However, there is still something missing about going to church within a small community versus what pretty much amounts to an open field bordering a subdivision out in Elizabeth Township.

From afar, the condition of the church would fool you.  It looks sound from a distance.  However, as you get closer and from the little glimpses you can see through the glass doors showing the crumbing walls and the yellowed hymnals and the rotting wood fascia and soffit and door trim, it's easy to see how what was then 20 years of neglect can wear down a once elegant yet simple church.

The saddest sight was the statue of St. Michael that stood above the entrance to the church.  An item which many hoped would have moved to the new church had started to deteriorate and fall apart.  I don't believe it was salvaged when the church was torn down.

In the years since I originally posted this story, a comment was made that in spite of all the random vandalism that can take in a small town like Elizabeth that for the 20 plus years that the church was still standing not one act was ever done to the church.

In the Summer of 2008, I again was home visiting and made another visit to the church.  A neighbor of the church was kind enough to direct me to an operating pane of a stained glass window that allowed me to look inside.  What I was able to see, specifically the beauty of the stained glass windows is something I am very thankful to have one last glimpse of.  Even the large fans - which were always running during the hot summer months - were still there.

The church was razed in 2009, but not before parishioners could have one final look at the building. My parents purchased one of the old pews from the church as a donation and it sits in their home today.

I was married in October 2011 in what is my new home of Raleigh, North Carolina. The church we were married Fairmont United Methodist Church reminded me a lot of my old church.  Though in a much larger town than Elizabeth, it is within a neighborhood where sometimes you had to park on the street and walk to get there.  It has the steps to the entrance and even has the upstairs balcony.  It's funny how on some of your most special days a small piece of home can find you.


Anonymous said…
Yes, Adam I grew up in Forward Township (EF Class of '81) and was a member of Saint Michael's parish. My father's family was from Bunola and they grew up in the church before me, often having to hitch a ride or walk to Elizabeth. I was at Penn St. when the church was condemned and don't remember much about the fight. However, a few years ago I returned for a visit to Elizabeth and was saddened at the condition of the church. I do not understand why nothing was removed from the church for use in the new building or another parish. At the very least maybe the stuff could have been sold to raise money for charity.
An interesting story was told to me by my aunt. She used to help clean the church and one Saturday was helping to prepare for a wedding. she went home for a short time and returned to find the building padlocked. Apparently the bride and groom had to find a new venue on very short notice. I believe the story based on what I could see through the windows.
Anonymous said…
It's so sad - the church is gone now. Town Hill doesn't look right without that church sitting there - even from across the river coming down Large Hill. They quietly demolished it in October - alot of people didn't even know it was being torn down until they came by and saw half of the building gone. I had to pull my car over and just stare... It really broke my heart - I had my 1st Communion and Confirmation there (EF class of '87). My mom died in 1986, but I remember her and I going to midnight mass for Christmas in 1976, we sat in the little side addition closest to the school (I was 7 and kept running to the door watching the sky asking her where Santa was :). I miss that church almost as much as I miss her. I went to St. Michael's School too, and it was closed except for CCD (my daughter goes there for that now) this year, so I can't help but wonder how long it will be until it falls victim to the wreckingball too...
Anonymous said…
Wow... was this a great and nostalgic post. I too grew up and St. Michael's was a major part of my life. I went from 2nd grade through 8th grade (got out in 1964) and graduated from Divine Redeemer in 1968... I was married in that church in 1973. I remember so many good things about the community and St. Michaels.

I drove past in May of 2008 and saw pretty much the same as the picture that you took... I returned again to Elizabeth this year and almost cried when I discovered that they had taken the church down...

Thanks so much for the memories.
KATHY M said…
I too belonged to St Michaels and went to school there from 1st thru 5th grade (1962-1966). Lay teachers were just starting to be used instead of nuns. I remember Sr Agnes in 2nd grade. She was a mean one. I remember Sr Georgine in 3rd grade who was so nice. I remember when President Kennedy was shot and the whole school prayed for him. My best friend's (Melanie) mother used to clean the school and we used to run wild when the nuns weren't there. Even peeked into the boys bathrooms. Scandolous. All 3 of my brothers and myself were bapitized, made our first confession and Holy Communion there. Yes, it was a good family church and very sad it is no longer there. Puts a lump in my throat...
PM said…
I attended the school in second & third grades, celebrated First Communion there. Although I now live in VA, every time I came back to visit relatives, I would swing by the (by then abandoned) church. Heartbreaking! As I child I especially loved the statue of St. Michael, and I could not help crying when I saw its condition. When I was back home this summer, I was shocked to see that the church had been torn down. Does anyone know if the statue was rescued or was it tossed aside in a landfill?
Anonymous said…
Shadowslands haunted places website has a paragraph about this chruch.
Anonymous said…
I was baptized, had my first Holy Communion at the Old St. Michaels (had my Confirmation and got married in the new church). It makes me wonder how or why it closed soo suddenly, without notice, due to safety issues. But when it came down to tearing it down slew of people were able to go through it to rip the pews up and more to come in and buy them with no regards to was kinda frer-for-all. I miss the old building and the family-ness that was connected to the old St. Michaels, the new is nice but not nearly the same close family feel that made me love going to church. A little side note - of all the abandoned building that got/get vandelized in Elizabeth... St. Michael's Church was NEVER TOUCHED in the decades it sat empty and abandoned.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for sharing those pictures of the Old St Michaels Church. I attended the school when the church shut down, and was too young to understand what was going on. People were protesting outside the doors, Mass was being held in the cafeteria of the school. I moved away shortly after, but i moved back here in 2008. It was sad to watch the old church come down, but i was able to get 4 bricks from the church (not wo getting a little hell from the construction workers!) and i used them in the corners of a walkway i made. Those bricks are a nice memory to have n to hold.
Anonymous said…
Looking for a phone number for St. Michael's church I came across this site and was interested in the comments. I was a member for over 20 years, made my first communion, confirmation, and married in this church, sang in the junior choir and 8 years at the school. I too had Sister Agnes in second grade and Sister Georgine in third. I know who Melanie is but I am sorry to say I can't remember who Kathy M is. I think I know but not sure. I watched the demolition every week as I still go to Elizabeth to care for my elderly mother. I wish I knew what was going on with the wall and sidewalk on the Fifth Street side. I was surprised by these photos to see the rotted condition of the interior as I remember the masses and Forty Hours services. It was a wonderful hometown church in its day.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the pictures! I went to St. Michaels School for a few years until we moved. I was in Sister Agnes's second grade the year that President Kennedy was assassinated. Sister Agnes could be cruel but she was sometimes very nice. I remember that she was particularly mean to the CCDS kids who came in to practice for First Communion. I was one of the shortest kids in second grade and was seated next to the priest in pictures. I thought at the time that he smelled like alcohol so bad and I would try to hold my breath sitting there for pictures!
Anonymous said…
The wedding was relocated to the Divine Redeemer. And it was beautiful!
Few families in town don't have memories of the former church.
The dispute caused by the closing/relocation made the news. A sad black mark on the history of the church, the congregation, and the town itself.
The new church is beautiful. And has BLESSED many with memories...some happy, some sad.
Ruth Warady Elkins said…
I had to attended St. Michael's School, I also had Sister Agnes in the second grade. I was in her class when Sr.Caroline knocked on the door and said, Mrs. Warady (she was my Mom) just called and President Kennedy has been shot! Immediately we all knelt and prayed. I attended the school until fifth when I transferred to Central elementary. I made my First Holy Communion and buried both of my parents there. I used to love coming home from at night on Large hill and look over and see the church lite up at night. The Divine Redeemer was a beautiful church too.
Veloyce said…
My daughter's grandparents were married there in 1951. Sadly, both are gone now. Does anyone know what happened to the old church records? Were they moved to the new church?
Anonymous said…
There was never an organist/music director like Mrs. Ruhl. She was awesome!
Dave Lasowecky Lane said…
The old St Michaels was a huge part of my family. My Grandparents were married there in 1919 and had their funeral services there in the 1970's. All of my aunts, uncles and cousins went to church there. My sister and I attended the St Michaels grade school during the late 1950's. We had a small fire in our house during that time. The fire was quickly extinguished by my dad, but it scared my sister badly and she held on to those scary moments for some time. That was the year that Sister Agnes was her teacher. When Sister Agnes learned of the fire, she made a point of teasing my sister about it. Every time that she walked past my sister, she would whisper Fire.. Fire.. Fire is going to get you. My sister came home in tears daily. My mother talked to the priest about it in hopes that he would put a stop to Sister Agnes's behavior. But it only got worse. So my mom pulled us out of St Michaels after my 3rd grade and we went to public school. I graduated from Thomas Jefferson in 1968. Sister Agnes sure was a bad apple. But my other memories of the church were good. The old pipe organ up in the balcony was awesome. I don't remember alot about the church services, as the whole mass was in Latin at that time. I didn't understand a word of it.
Anonymous said…
My mom's family lived in Elizabeth and Forward Township. Today I saw a post about a building that was part of St Michael's---a building of the convent and that it was haunted. Does anybody have historical information about the haunting of that building on 5th Avenue?
Anonymous said…
I grew up in Elizabeth on Walkers Heights and walked to St. Michael's every Sunday Morning. We went to Saturday School because we didn't have the St. Michael's school yet. We went to summer school every year for 2 weeks. Boy did we moan about that. Every summer the church had a huge fair. It was a very close parish. I attended the 100 year celebration and still have that mass card. I made my communion, confirmation and got married there in 1964. I was on the committee to save the church but we see how that turned out. Those windows were works of art. I sure hope they were saved. I still am in touch with a few of my friends from St. Michaels. I am burying my son soon from St. Jocham? and Ann's. And someday I will be there for a blessing and internment. I cannot think of anything more comforting.

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