The Parish of St. Andrew in North Catasauqua was founded on its patronal feast, November 30, 1902, by the Most Reverend Patrick John Ryan, Archbishop of Philadelphia. The first event recorded at the new parish was the Baptism of Mary Benko on November 4 of that year. She was the infant daughter of Martin and Susanna Benko, formerly of Cirocke Dlhe, Zemplin, in the present-day Slovak Republic. The parish was established specifically for the needs of Slovak immigrants in upper Lehigh and Northampton Counties. Here they could worship God using hymns and prayers in their language, and hear the Word of God proclaimed and preached in Slovak as well.
The establishment of the parish was largely due to the efforts of one remarkable man. His name was Reverend William Heinen (who was later to be named a Monsignor). He was pastor of St. Joseph Church in East Mauch Chunk (the present-day Jim Thorpe) from 1894 until his death in 1910. Because of his energy and pastoral zeal, he has become known as the “Apostle to the Slovaks” in Eastern Pennsylvania. Fr. Heinen came into contact with Slovaks among his parishioners in his ministry in the Jim Thorpe area. Sensing a great need, Fr. Heinen took it upon himself to reach out to those early immigrants. With a partial knowledge of the Slovak people, he took it upon himself to learn their language. He was later to be assisted in this ministry by three men: Fathers Paul Lisicky, Joseph Kasparek and Francis Vlossak.
Slovaks began arriving in the Lehigh Valley area in the 1880s and 1890s. By the early part of the 20th Century, there were great numbers of these people throughout Eastern Pennsylvania in need of clergy who could speak their native tongue. Sts Cyril and Methodius Parish had been founded in Bethlehem as the first Slovak Catholic Parish in the Lehigh Valley. But the number of immigrants continued to grow, and more churches were needed for the growing number of Slovaks in what was then the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The original members of St. Andrew Parish had begun to band together in Slovak Fraternal Associations. At the time they were journeying all the way to Bethlehem to attend Mass. The numbers were increasing and the need was great.
In this regard, Fr. Heinen took the initiative. Sometime in 1902 he began to organize the people of St. Andrew’s. As mentioned, many of these people were associated with Slovak Fraternalists. Fr. Heinen and his assistant, Fr. Peter Schaaf, began celebrating the Sacraments with these people. According to the 1955 publication, “Slovak Catholic Parishes in the United States and Canada”, 64 men were listed as the original members of the new St. Andrew’s. It seems that they were members of the Slovak “Jednota” (the Union). From those original members at the time of its foundation in November of 1902, the new parish experienced a remarkably rapid growth in population.
For the first five months of its existence, Frs. Heinen and Schaaf took care of the new St. Andrew’s personally. These priests of present-day Jim Thorpe celebrated Sunday Mass, administered the Sacraments, and buried the dead. We can only imagine what this entailed in those days before the automobile, as they traveled back and forth from Mauch Chunk, while caring for their parishioners as well. Relief finally did come when Fr. Paul Lisicky arrived on the scene in March of 1903, shortly after his ordination to the priesthood. It was then that he took his place as the first pastor of St. Andrew’s.
In those early months, Mass and the Sacraments were celebrated in a place other than the present church building. The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1903, and work progressed rapidly. Those early days were really boom times at St. Andrew’s. There was a great wave of immigrants into the Lehigh Valley in the early part of the century. There were men seeking jobs in the steel mills, factories and cement mills that have become such a part of the landscape. Many people of the eastern Slovak area of Zemplin gravitated toward Catasauqua and Hokendauqua. Those of the northern Slovak area of Spis tended to settle in Egypt, Northampton and Cementon.
The boundaries of St. Andrew’s extended to Slovaks and Slovak-Americans in a wide area encompassing Seigfried (now Northampton), Fullerton, Ormrod, Hokendauqua, Coplay, Cementon, Bath, Egypt and even Fogelsville! Many original parishioners walked from those places. Since there was no Polish parish, many immigrants from Poland also attended the new parish. In the year 1903, the first full year of its existence, there were 71 Baptisms at the new St. Andrew’s. This was only the beginning; the new parish continued to grow.
By the year 1911, there were 28 weddings, 52 funerals, and 144 Baptisms. Fr. Lisicky was the only priest; he officiated at all of these. Some of St. Andrew’s older parishioners used to tell about catechism classes in those early days. With Confirmation and First Communion classes of one hundred or more children, religious education was a truly formidable task. The facilities at St. Andrew’s were never larger than they are today. We can only imagine how crowded it must have been.
On May 1, 1912, a change was to occur at St. Andrew’s. Fr. Paul Lisicky was asked to assume the position of pastor at St. Michael’s in Lansford. The newly appointed pastor at St. Andrew’s was an associate of Monsignor Heinen’s, Fr. Joseph Kasparek. Fr. Kasparek was not himself a Slovak. He was a native of the neighboring area of Moravia in the present-day Czech Republic. Until that time, Father had been pastor at St. Michael’s in Lansford, and there was responsible for the construction of the present-day church. (Frs. Kasparek and Lisicky exchanged roles.) Fr. Lisicky remained at St. Michael’s until his death in 1955. Fr. Kasparek remained at St. Andrew’s for the next nine years. He retired due to poor heath in December of 1921, and spent his retirement years in Reading.
His replacement was Fr. Emeric Kucharic, who was to remain as the third pastor of St. Andrew’s for the next 27 years – until 1948. In his day, Fr. Kucharic became known as a powerful orator, a preacher in the Slovak language. He was often called upon to preach in various Slovak parishes.
In the early days of Fr. Kucharic’s pastorate, two events were to take place that dramatically reshaped the face of the parish. The first occurred in 1922 with the foundation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish (Assumption BVM) in Northampton. The other was the creation of Holy Trinity Parish in Egypt in the year 1928. The creation of those two parishes helped to reduce the overcrowded condition at St. Andrew’s by drastically reducing the parish population. It also changed the profile of the parish. By the year 1931 there were only 22 Baptisms at St. Andrew’s.
For his first 18 years as pastor, Fr. Kucharic was the only priest at St. Andrew’s. In the year 1939 this was to change – a tradition that was to last twelve years was begun. An assistant pastor was appointed by Cardinal Dougherty. This first curate was none other than the Reverend Joseph Birosh, who was later to become pastor of the parish. This was his first assignment as a newly-ordained priest. Fr. Birosh was to remain at St. Andrew’s for seven years. He was later succeeded by Reverend Paul Mihal (1946), and then by the Reverend John Ovecka (1949). Fr. Ovecka remained until 1951 as the last assistant pastor St. Andrew’s ever saw. Fr. Kucharic himself was to leave St. Andrew’s in the year 1948. Upon his death in 1963 he was buried in the St. Andrew Parish Cemetery.
Fr. Kucharic was succeeded at St. Andrew’s by the Reverend Frederick Gasparovic, who served from 1948 to 1966. These years are remembered as a time of wonderful activity at St. Andrew’s. The Parish was truly the center of its people’s social lives as well as their spiritual lives. Affectionately remembered as “Fr. Fred”, Fr. Gasparovic remained at St. Andrew’s for 18 years, until his death in 1966. Fr. Fred is buried next to Fr. Kucharic in the St. Andrew Parish Cemetery.
Shortly after Fr. Gasparovic’s death in January of 1966, the Reverend Joseph Birosh returned as pastor of St. Andrew Parish. At the time, Fr. Birosh was the assistant pastor at Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Northampton. He was now to remain at St. Andrew Parish as its pastor for the next 23 years. In his final years, when Fr. Birosh’s health of declining, he was joined by his brother, Reverend Stephen Birosh. “Fr. Dick” was a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who had retired from active ministry. Although he was never officially assigned to St. Andrew Parish, Fr. Dick came to help his brother, Fr. Joe. He was with him until his death in June of 1989 and remained at the parish for a few months afterward.
Sadly, those years were a time of declining parish population at St. Andrew’s. In 1966, there were 22 infants Baptized into the faith. By 1989, the number of Baptisms had declined to just five. Slowly, the demographics of the parish had been changing. Increasingly, St. Andrew’s had become a parish with a larger elderly and retired population, while there were fewer younger families.
Following the death of Fr. Birosh, Bishop Thomas Welsh, Bishop of Allentown, had to take these statistics into account. Accordingly, the Bishop appointed the Reverend Michael Stone as administrator of St. Andrew’s. Fr. Stone was also pastor of Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Northampton, where he resided. Because of the weekend Mass schedule for both parishes, Fr. Stone sought the assistance of the Barnabite Fathers, who reside in Bethlehem Township, and who continue to be a familiar presence to this day.
For the first time since those early days of the Mauch Chunk mission, St. Andrew’s was not to have a resident pastor. Fr. Stone was officially appointed as pastor of St. Andrew’s and Blessed Virgin Mary in March, 1992. Ironically, history had come full circle. Again, the people of North Catasauqua, Northampton, Hokendauqua and Cementon were to share a common pastor. He was to be the pastor of two parishes.
In April, 1992, Fr. Stone was asked to assume the duty of pastor at St. Ambrose Parish in Schuylkill Haven. His successor was the Reverend Stephen Radocha, who was to remain pastor of the two parishes for the next ten years. Fr. Radocha’s pastorate was a time of renewal and renovation. New activities were initiated and the church building itself was refurbished and restored.
In June of 2002, Bishop Edward Cullen, Bishop of Allentown, appointed Fr. Radocha as pastor of the newly-built church of St. Jane Frances de Chantal in Palmer Township near Easton. The Reverend William Baker, pastor of St. Lawrence in North Catasauqua, was appointed pastor of St. Andrew’s as well. Since the two churches are only blocks away from one another, this really represents a melding of Catholics from the same neighborhoods, who share one common faith. Under Fr. Baker’s leadership, St. Andrew and St. Lawrence form one people in two “sister” parishes.
The above history is provided thanks to Reverend Stephen Radocha.