Since I’ve been spending the last week or two in Fayette County, I started noticing something that seemed unusual to me – a disproportional amount of Orthodox and other Eastern European churches, especially from Uniontown west to the Monongahela River Valley. While it’s not unusual for Eastern European churches to exist anywhere in the U.S., it did seem odd too see so many of these churches in an area with a lower population. Of course, anyone local probably knew this already.
Anyway, I figured that these churches had to be related to some sort of immigration influx. Not surprisingly, that notion was right! When I was able to visit the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at PSU-Fayette, I asked Elaine DeFrank, a historian and a museum curator, about the reason behind the high number of these churches in a small, more rural area. DeFrank attributed the Slavic, Greek and other Eastern European immigration wave to the Connelsville Coalfield (which is discussed in-depth at the C&CHC). Basically, when the mines and associated industries ran low on labor, especially due to strikes, those industries would seek newly-arrived immigrants from larger cities on the coast. In this case, the beginning of an organized labor movement in the Connellsville Coalfield was generally about the same time as the wave of Eastern European immigration from the 1880s to early 1920s, thus explaining the high Eastern European population in the area.
And it wasn’t just the mines themselves, industries up and down the Mon River Valley also pulled Eastern European workers, and really, the number of these churches is much, much higher than the most of Appalachia from as far south as Fairmont, W.Va., to as far north as Pittsburgh. Yet, it appears that the Eastern European immigrants never moved that far from the Mon River. The limited research I’ve done seemed like the churches are more concentrated in Greene, Fayette and Washington counties, contained in an area west of Chestnut Ridge and east of I-79, but usually not straying too far from the Mon River.
It’s also important to note that although this concentration of Orthodox and other Eastern churches is unusual on a national scale, in Pennsylvania, it’s not quite as unique. In fact, there are other pockets of these churches (and remnants of Eastern European culture) in east-central Pennsylvania and especially in Northeast Pennsylvania. In fact, Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre) is the only county in the state where the majority of residents do not identify as having either African-American, German or Irish ancestry, and is the only county in America where the majority of residents report their ancestry as Polish, according to the 2000 Census.
Most of these churches are really architecturally beautiful, and they do tend to stand out more than other churches in America. And still more interesting is the number of denominations of these churches – Byzantine Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Orthodox Church in America…the list goes on. I guess this diversity also says a lot about that set of Eastern European immigrants who all seemed to want to maintain connections with their home nations, despite being thrown into the American melting pot.
I’m pretty sure most of these churches still have active congregations, considering that they appear on various Orthodox denomination websites, and the properties seem decently-maintained. A few of these churches are also right along the National Road, including the three I’ve included in this post. I would really like to keep exploring the history of each of these congregations, so that’s another potential project for the future…