Saturday, July 24, 2004

Visiting Centralia

Where I’ve been recently
Upstate/central Pennsylvania
Took a relaxing drive to the tiny town of Centralia (more below), through 'God's country' of winding roads, green wooded hills and little coal-mining villages with wonderful Victorian architecture. If you want to feel good specifically about the Byzantine Rite, and can't make a паломничество to Russia, this is the area to travel through - Frackville, for example, has as the church in its high street a towering gold onion-domed Russian Orthodox church, dedicated to the Ascension. (Complete with Vespers Saturday night as is their custom.) It also has a fine Ukrainian Catholic church dedicated to St Michael and, two blocks over, St John's Polish National Catholic Church (an 1890s immigrant schism), a low-profile 1960s building that looks like an attempt by innately conservative people to copy the Novus Ordo to be 'with it' but without the hand of liberal bureaucratic oppression over them.

The little village of St Clair, southeast of Frackville, is as dense with churches as the city of York, England! Several RC ones - probably one for each ethnic group as well as the default-Irish one (get there at the right hour and you can say the Angelus - no, they don't ring it - saying each Hail Mary in front of a different church!) - and a slew of Byzantine ones on both sides of the fence. The landmark one, the tallest and prettiest (you can see it from Highway 61 just west of town), is Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church, almost as nice on the inside too - a trio of onion domes and three-bar Russian crosses which the old-time immigrants weren't afraid of using. Over the door is the very properly Byzantine and Slavonic Благословен грядый во имя Господне (Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord). (It looks a lot like SS. Peter & Paul Russian Orthodox Church, in Centralia until the 1980s.) The Ruthenian church at the other end of town, St Mary's, has what I call a 'spite cross' on its steeple, with the bottom bar straightened out to distance themselves from their religious and cultural heritage. (Part of the mistaken notion of latinization - bastardize your rite because you think it's 'less Catholic'.)

Holy Trinity and St Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church (at right — more below) in Centralia (a beautiful landmark on a hill on the north side of town) were the best churches of the trip.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and not too hot.

The only smoke I saw in Centralia was coming from behind the yellow house (one of about eight scattered houses left on a grid of mostly empty streets - a Twilight Zonish aspect) as it appeared the guy who lived here was having a cook-out on a grill! (He also flew the Polish flag - nice touch.)

Fine little houses (the brick buttresses holding some of them up are cool too - they originally were rowhouses), neat as two pins - there's definitely pride of place there.

The veterans' memorial with the bell is in great shape. A man was mowing the grass around it on a little tractor. Here is another shot of the memorial and the townsfolk as they were in 1992.

It really is like a park! (I understand that once or twice a year a bear runs through.)

The fire seems pretty well contained - just a swath of grey, dead fallen trees by St Ignatius Cemetery and the cracked part of old Highway 61, like a scar marking the south side of town. I didn't go onto the cracked road - well marked off by white 'Underground Mine Fire' warning signs with red letters - but did drive by the fire spot once. There are actually three houses practically next to it.

St Mary's cornerstone is in Ukrainian, partly obscured: ___ька гр. католицька церков в Центрели. ро. 1911 (___ Greek Catholic Church in Centralia, in the year 1911). The obscured word is probably Руська: Rusyn or Ruthenian, sometimes translated as Russian.

It looks like it's the village church but it really isn't: Centralia was historically Irish and RC (and a meeting place of the 19th-century early labour union/terrorists the Molly Maguires); its parish church, St Ignatius, was closed and torn down in the 1990s.

What struck me was the empty streets and steps leading nowhere that were on the hill on my way up to the church, as far as possible away from the fire!

What the hell was the government thinking in the 1980s, scaring those people away and tearing down their homes? Sad.

From an interview online:
According to Lamar [Mervine, aged 88, the mayor of Centralia], $1.5 billion worth of coal lies buried beneath Centralia. The families currently living in town own the mineral rights. If the land were cleared of homes, the state could sell these rights to a major coal company. Hence the government exaggerated the danger in the 1980s, declared eminent domain, relocated a thousand people, and destroyed empty houses to prevent anyone from returning. “If there’s no more people in town here, I don’t know who’s going to stop them,” Lamar concluded.

As he spoke, his wife Lana climbed down the stairs into the living room. “The government don’t give a damn,” she chimed in. “They’re no good themselves. I don’t care who hears me.” She settled into an easy chair. “The fire isn’t under the whole town, like they make it seem. Oh, they like to tell lies. They think that they can scare people out. We don’t scare easy. We’re just a bunch of dumb Dutchmen — we don’t know enough to be scared. You get so sick of it after a while, you know. Pestering and pestering for nothing. They’re nuts. They tell you those fumes are bad for you and all that junk. We don’t stand up there and breathe that stuff.”
Went as far as Aristes to the north (a town smaller than St Clair) and coming back down the hill got a good view of Centralia, including the patch where the fire is or at least used to be.

Hang tough, Mayor Mervine and co. - you've got a good thing.

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