May 17, 2011
Book Review: Framing Faith by Sarah Piccini and Ivana Pavelka
by Fred Warren
The anthracite coal-mining towns of northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1800′s and early 1900′s were a portrait of immigrant America in microcosm. Refugees from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and eastern Europe fled poverty, war, and persecution in their native countries and dreamed of a better life in the United States. They found a reality of backbreaking, dangerous work in a land that was often less welcoming of newcomers than it aspired to be. The immigrants drew together in close-knit communities bonded by common culture and faith, and one of the first things these communities always did was build a church.
Framing Faith is a remarkable book that tells the story of Catholic immigrants to northeastern Pennsylvania in words and pictures, through their houses of worship. Sarah Piccini begins with a brisk history of Scranton and the greater Lackawanna Valley region, and then sets off on a tour of ten historical Catholic churches founded by immigrants, covering congregations from all the major ethnic groups and providing a brief but engaging outline of their founding and growth. Her narrative is accompanied by beautiful images from Ivana Pavelka and her photography students. The project was conducted with the cooperation and financial suppport of the ARTS Engage! program, Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit (NEIU 19) and the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority.
My religious upbringing was in plain, functional church buildings, so the sweeping murals, ornate statuary, and brilliant stained glass of these churches was a treat for my eyes. It was even more impressive to read how the immigrant congregations financed their buildings with sacrificial offerings and sweat equity, the coal miners digging out the basements with picks and shovels in the evening after a long day of labor in the mines. In addition to their primary role as a beacon of faith and a rally point for ethnic minorities, these churches provided important social services, often spreading out into campuses that provided additional ministries such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages.
There are many inspiring tales here of courageous, patient leadership in the face of adversity. The coal that fed their communities posed a unique hazard to these churches–most of the buildings in Framing Faith suffered damage at some time when one or more of the mining tunnels that honeycombed the ground beneath them collapsed. They were rebuilt, remodeled, and refurbished as time progressed and the fashions of local culture and religious practice changed, but to greater or lesser degrees they all maintained ties to their original founding with key elements of their original architecture, interior decorations, and congregational heirlooms passed down through the generations.
Each of these churches closed its doors in recent years, not from disuse, but as part of a series of consolidations into larger parishes in order to better manage costs and clerical manpower. Framing Faith performs a noble service in preserving the beauty and rich heritage of these sacred places for future generations.
For a taste of Ms. Pavelka’s beautiful photography, check out the video trailer for Framing Faith. You can also find more information about the book and its authors at the Framing Faith website, where there are links to purchase the book in paperback or a variety of electronic formats. Framing Faith is published by Tribute Books.