In the late 1880’s a group of German-speaking residents from New Castle, Pennsylvania, petitioned the Diocese of Pittsburgh to establish a German-ethnic Catholic Church in their city. After a brief period of study the diocese dispatched the Reverend Francis J. Eger (1863-1936), ordained just two years prior, to New Castle in mid-1888 to found a new parish and church. Eger, a twenty-three-year-old Pennsylvanian from Cambria County, was full of zeal and wasted no time in getting things off the ground. A small congregation, many coming from the St. Mary’s Catholic Church, was founded as the St. Joseph Catholic Church in August 1888.
An existing church building, the old First Methodist Church on South Jefferson Street (at intersection with Lawrence Street), was acquired for $4,800 and renovated into a Catholic house of worship. The historic structure had actually served as the county court house for a few years after the formation of Lawrence County in 1849. Meanwhile, the initial services were held in a rented building and the first mass was celebrated on Sunday, August 26, 1888.
The renovations to the old church were soon completed and a dedication service led by the Reverend Eger was held on Sunday, December 16, 1888. The church, a historic structure built back in 1838, was unfortunately lost to a fire on Monday, April 25, 1892. Eger labored to hold the congregation together while he led fundraising efforts to finance a new building. His efforts were quickly rewarded and a new St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was dedicated at the same location on Sunday, June 11, 1893.
A parochial school was also opened in early 1889 with about fifty pupils. Classes were held in Fleckenstein Building on the Diamond in downtown New Castle until they were moved to the new church in 1893. Beginning in 1890 the school was taught by the Sisters of Divine Providence until the program was closed down in about 1919. The school was later reopened in 1927 and served by the Sisters of St. Francis of Millvale – who also served as staff members at the St. Francis Hospital in New Castle.
In August 1908 the Reverend Eger played a major role in the establishment of the St. Michael Catholic Church, a congregation formed for the Slovak immigrants on the South Side on New Castle. His efforts helped lead to the opening of a new St. Michael Church on Moravia Street in early 1911.
Eger skillfully guided St. Joseph’s congregation for twenty-three years, until he was transferred to a new assignment in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in December 1911. The loss of Eger was met with sadness by the congregation. The New Castle News of Monday, December 18, 1911, reported, “Much regret is caused all over the city and vicinity by the announcement that Father F. J. Eger, who for 23 years has been pastor of St. Joseph’s church, is to leave this week to assume charge of St. Joseph’s congregation at Braddock, Pa. The announcement was made by Rev. Father Eger at the services yesterday, and occasions the deepest sorrow in his parish, as well as to others… Not only among those of the Catholic faith, but universally, he is held in highest regard and esteem. His broad sympathies, unfailing charity, and his devotion to his work have been the admiration of all who have known him.”
The well accomplished Eger was succeeded by the Reverends Alphonse M. Yoachum from 1911-1924, Aloysius J. Weisenberger from 1924-1930, and Joseph A. Doerr from 1930-1940. The church was extensively remodeled under Doerr in the summer of 1936 and then re-dedicated during a special service held on Sunday, September 13, 1936. An article that appeared in the New Castle News a day earlier reads, “The repairs and remodeling have added much to the appearance of the historic old church and the cost runs into many thousands of dollars. The interior has been re-decorated, several rooms have been added to the church, the main stairway has been re-located so that it now opens directly onto Jefferson street, new carpets have been laid in the sanctuary and the front of the church has been veneered with brick. To every practical purpose, St. Joseph’s church is new.”
The congregation received some sad news a few months later. The New Castle News of Tuesday, November 10, 1936, divulged, “Hundreds of local residents today mourn the passing of one of New Castle’s fathers of the Catholic religion. A career spent in organizing St. Joseph’s church and helping to form three other similar institutions, and a lifetime spent in administering to the poor and needy came to an end with the death of the Rev. F. Joseph Eger, aged 73, who died on Monday evening at 9 o’clock, in St. Francis hospital, Pittsburgh, following a serious operation he underwent on November 2. During the 23 years in which he was pastor of St. Joseph’s church here, Rev. Eger cultivated a host of friends who held him in high esteem… Fr. Eger helped to organize St. Vitus, St. Michael’s and the Madonna churches here; their first pastors lived with Fr. Eger in St. Joseph’s rectory as his neighbor priests. He also was with Dr. J. Michael Popp, who promoted the establishment of the New Castle hospital. In 1911, he was transferred from the local church to St. Joseph’s in Braddock, where he remained until his death.”
Reverend Doerr departed in January 1940 for a new assignment in Pittsburgh, and the Reverend Peter A. Schirra, the assistant pastor, took over for the time being. The Reverend Francis A. Streiff soon arrived and served as pastor from 1941-1948, followed by the Reverend Cornelius H. Becker from 1948-1956.
The congregation continued to grow under the Reverend Becker and in the early 1950’s it was decided to build a new church, school, convent, and rectory at a different location. In May 1955 ground was broken at a recently acquired property along South Cascade Street. The parochial school was the first building erected and was dedicated on Sunday, December 11, 1955. In early 1956 the Reverend Anthony Wehrle (1909-1969), a Pittsburgh native who attended St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, took over as pastor and guided the congregation through the remainder of the relocation project.
Work slowly progressed at the new site and a convent and rectory were opened in early 1958. It was soon decided to close the old church on South Jefferson Street and relocate services to the new parochial school – pending the eventual opening of a new church. The last service at the old church was held on Labor Day, Sunday, September 1, 1958. The downtown property was soon sold to Joseph’s Market and after the church was demolished the site was converted into a parking lot.
Work on the new church began in September 1960. The $400,000 structure, with a sanctuary that could seat 900 people, was to be renamed as the St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church. The contemporary-looking building was designed by Pittsburgh-based architect Kenneth Roos, the brother of the Reverend Jules Roos – who was assistant pastor of the church from 1956-1961. The collection of buildings at #111 Cascade Street started to form a neat little campus by this time. The new church was dedicated during a special service held in April 1962.
The New Castle News of Saturday, April 14, 1962, reported, “Dedicatory services for the new $350,000 St, Joseph Church, Cascade St., were held at 11 a.m. today at the new church. Bishop John J. Wright of the Pittsburgh diocese led the ceremony. He was assisted by the church pastor, Rev. Anthony Wehrle, and other visiting priests of the city and area… The new facility will provide ample room for those of the Catholic faith in the east side area. Reassignment of Catholic boundaries already has been carried out, designating which families the St. Joseph parish embraces.”
The Reverend Wehrle continued to serve the congregation until health issues forced him into the hospital in September 1969. He briefly returned to the church in late November, but unfortunately he passed away in a Pittsburgh hospital on Thursday, December 11, 1969. He was just sixty years old. The beloved pastor, a popular fixture at the parochial school, was memorialized in a funeral service held at the church on Monday, December 15. The Very Reverend Vincent M. Leonard, the Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1969-1983, presided over the service.
Wehrle was succeeded by the Reverend Edward H. Cole, who had previously served as pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Bessemer from 1963-1967 and St. Agatha Catholic Church in Ellwood City from 1967-1970. Cole led a congregation, like so many others, that faced serious challenges beginning in the early 1970’s. Due to financial restraints and dwindling attendance the parochial school was closed down for good in August 1971. The school building was re-dedicated in May 1972 as a parish hall in honor of the late Reverend Wehrle. The convent was also converted into the St. Joseph Residence, a church-run home for elderly women that opened in June 1973. The new assisted living facility, led by head nurse Mary Shaffer, would soon house about twenty-five senior citizens from throughout the region. It was one of several such facilities opened by the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Edward Cole served as pastor until he passed away at the age of sixty-eight on Thursday, March 1, 1984. A memorial service was held at the church on Monday, March 5, 1984, and was presided over by the Most Reverend Anthony Bevilacqua, the Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1983-1988. Cole was subsequently buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery in the Penn Hills section of Pittsburgh. The Reverend Norbert J. Campbell, ordained in 1960, was dispatched to take over as pastor. It was under his pastorate that the congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary with a ceremony held on Sunday, October 16, 1988.
Campbell led the congregation for the next fifteen years until he departed in January 1999. The Reverend Robert J. Schweitzer, who had been preaching to prison inmates for the diocese, was dispatched to take over in January 1999. He faithfully served the parish until forced to retire due to serious health concerns in July 2010. His death in Pittsburgh a month later, on Wednesday, August 25, 2010, was a severe shock to the congregation. A memorial service, led by the Very Reverend Philip N. Farrell, was held at St. Joseph’s on Sunday, August 29, 2010, and several additional services were held in Pittsburgh over the next two days. He was laid to rest in Christ Our Redeemer Cemetery in Ross Township.
Schweitzer was succeeded as pastor by Steven Palsa from 2010-2011 and Viktor J. Molka Jr. from 2011-2012. In July 2012, in a remarkable move, the Diocese of Pittsburgh named Frank J. Almade pastor of all four remaining Catholic parishes in New Castle: St. Vitus, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Joseph the Worker, and Mary, Mother of Hope. He had already been serving the congregations of St. Vitus and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Churches for about a year, but it was believed to be the first time a priest within the diocese oversaw four parishes at once. Almade, a 1974 graduate of Duquesne University, attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland, and was ordained in 1978.
Almade was officially installed into these positions by the Most Reverend David A. Zubik, the Bishop of Pittsburgh since 2007, over the course of two weekends in September 2012. Almade would be assisted by two parochial vicars or assistant pastors, and also by the Reverend Frank Erdeljac – who retired and was living in West Pittsburg. Despite the unusual arrangement all four parishes remained separate and independent entities.
In the early summer of 2013, the parish hall, the former St. Joseph the Worker Parochial School, came back to life as the home to all city-wide kindergarten students. The New Castle School Board began renting the building (for almost $2,700 a month) while renovations were made to what became the Harry W. Lockley Early Learning Center. The pupils transferred back to the new school when it opened in January 2014.
In October 2012 the church began a year-long celebration in honor of its upcoming 125th anniversary. Part of the celebration included over 200 former pupils attending a reunion for the St. Joseph’s Parochial School on Saturday, July 27, 2013. The various events culminated with a special mass, led by Bishop Zubik on Sunday, October 13, 2013. The proud congregation along Cascade Street is still going strong today.
St. Joseph’s, led by the Reverend Frances J. Eger, was founded as a German ethnic parish in August 1888. The congregation bought and renovated an existing church, the First Methodist Episcopal Church at the intersection of South Jefferson and Lawrence Streets, and reopened it as a Catholic house of worship in December 1888. That building, built in 1838, burned down in April 1892 and a new church (pictured above) was built and opened at the same location in June 1893. (c1908) Full Size
When the original church was lost to a fire on April 25, 1892, a new church (shown above) was built and opened at the same location – at the intersection of South Jefferson and Lawrence Streets – fourteen months later. This church was abandoned in September 1958 as the congregation began celebrating mass at the new parochial school on Cascade Street. (c1908) Full Size
The Reverend Frances J. Eger, born in 1863 in Cambria County and ordained in 1886, was sent to New Castle in August 1888 to direct the affairs of the new St. Joseph Church. When the original church was lost to a fire he held the congregation together and led the effort to fund and erect a new house of worship. He faithfully served the congregation until he departed for a new assignment in 1911. (c1900)
A class of the St. Joseph’s Catholic School, with the Reverend Francis J. Eger in center of photo. The parochial school was opened by Eger back in 1899 but was closed in 1919. It was later reopened in 1927 and headed up by the Sisters of St. Francis of Millvale – who also served on the staff of St. Francis Hospital. (c1907) Full Size
The interior of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church c1908, which predominately served the local German-speaking Catholics for many years. In June 1954 the decision was made to build a new church, rectory, parochial school, and convent and a new location on South Cascade Street was purchased. Construction took place in phases and the church, redesignated to serve the new St. Joseph The Worker Parish, was dedicated in April 1962. The old church and rectory on Jefferson Street was torn down and the property was sold. (c1908) Full Size
A pin from 1938 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the St. Joseph Church in New Castle. I believe the inset photo is of the Reverend Joseph A. Doerr, who served as pastor from 1930-1940.
The old church and rectory, located on the northeast corner of the intersection of South Jefferson and Lawrence Streets, was torn down sometime after the new church opened along South Cascade Street in April 1962. The property was soon sold and today the site is home to a parking lot across from the Cascade Galleria (old Towne Mall). (c1907) Full Size
A groundbreaking ceremony for the new St. Joseph’s Church was held on Sunday, September 18, 1960. The Reverend Wehrle is seen on left turning over the first shovelful of dirt. He was assisted by the Reverend Jules Roos, the assistant pastor from 1956-1961, and Sister Mary Renita, who served about 25 years as teacher/principal of the parochial school until reassigned in 1962. (Sep 1960) Full Size
The entrance sign for the St. Joseph the Worker Church complex along South Cascade Street. (Aug 2012)
The St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church was dedicated by the distinguished Bishop John J. Wright of Pittsburgh in April 1962. (Aug 2012)
In June 1954 diocese officials approved the reorganization of the parish and a move to a new location on South Cascade Street. A parochial school, rectory, and convent were built at the new site prior to the start of construction on the St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church beginning in September 1960. (Aug 2012) Full Size