Fifteen years later: Saint Michael’s crumbles as my heart breaks
An interviewer sat with aging steelworkers as they told stories of labor unions and the days when steel was great. They discussed the decline of the steel industry, how this changed their lives, their towns, their families. There were pictures, many of once familiar places that no longer exist. In one scene, a rusted structure was demolished. As I watched it collapse, I began to sob. I thought, “My husband is going to think I’m losing my mind.” Wiping away the tears, I was struck by the feeling that I needed to see my home before it, too, no longer existed. My father died in April 1999, and my mother was becoming sicker.
I visited old Saint Michael’s Church on Fifth Street in Elizabeth, which I attended until it was unexpectedly closed due to “structural problems” on September 20, 1987. I was shocked that after fifteen years the altar was still covered with embroidered white cloth, with flowers at the foot. A microphone awaited a lector. Angels stood at the foot of the Blessed Virgin, and beneath the white-clothed Infant of Prague were expired votive candles. I thought for a moment that the church had been converted to a chapel. However, looking closely, I noticed thick gray dust covering the pews, and chunks of fallen plaster littering the floor. A dead sparrow lay moldering beside a red vinyl covered kneeler.
I reached down and tried the door before realizing that it was not only locked but chained with a heavy, rusted chain and padlock.
I walked around the building and peered into the sacristy, where the processional crucifix was propped against the wall. Next to the Baptismal font stood the Paschal Candle, bowed from the heat of over a dozen summers. The life size crucified Christ I had looked on so many times as a child still hung over the altar, awaiting a congregation which would never come. Saint Michael the Protector stood crumbling, the guardian of an empty church, as paint peeled from the window frames.
I was haunted by the scene. Soon after September 11, I had a gruesome nightmare of being inside with my husband, trying to capture serpents which had invaded the sanctuary. I dreamed of slipping one of the altar candles into my pocket. Perhaps I am searching for spiritual enlightenment, I think to myself. It has been years since I consistently attended Mass, after the closure of Saint Michael’s.
In Spring 2002 I returned again, this time with a camera. I thought, While I was in the Army, I traveled and photographed the medieval churches of Europe, including the Vatican. How odd to be standing as a visitor now to my own past, desperately snapping photographs through the dirty glass of locked, chained doors, hoping to capture the images before they faded away.
I took as many pictures as I could. Sadly, the back door to the church was closed, so I could not photograph the beautiful Stations of the Cross, or capture the sunlight streaming through the century old stained glass windows which seemed to make the saints come to life. I wondered whether birds had nested in the pipes of the organ. A woman living by the church saw me with my camera and called to me. She handed me a small blue book. Stamped on the cover in gold lettering was “1851-1951 Centennial Jubilee: Saint Michael’s Parish, Elizabeth Pennsylvania, Founded September 28, 1851.” Inside was a written history and photographs dating back to 1907.
I am troubled as I consider the fate of Saint Michael’s. Where I now reside, in Dona Ana, New Mexico, a very poor, primarily Hispanic community, Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria, another Catholic church founded in 1850, stands restored. Community volunteers and parishioners donated time and money, and a work program for at risk youth employed teens who had dropped out of high school for the reconstruction. These teens gained work experience and learned trade skills. Although a new, modern church stands nearby, the restored church is now a wedding chapel. I am certain that Pittsburgh possesses the community resources to undertake a similar project.
Perhaps this urge to rediscover, connect, and preserve is a sign of my age. Perhaps the slow decay of Saint Michael’s is a personal metaphor, of that grief in my heart at the death of my father, the illness of my mother, and the appearance of strands of silver in my own hair. After all, I recently found myself counting trees from my childhood which have been cut down and the number of Elizabeth businesses which have closed — Favro’s Furniture, Apfelthaler’s Shoes, Marracini’s. I know that I am not alone.
I can only hope that someone will preserve Saint Michael’s, which carries over 150 years of history, before it crumbles and is lost forever. The time for the preservation is now.