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History of Saint Gabriel's Church and School

The history of Saint Gabriel's Church dates back to the 1850s. Below is an excerpt about the founding of the church, the convent and the rectory from the publication "Tour of Historic Donegal Hill: Hazleton's South Side," which was distributed by the Greater Hazleton Historical Society and prepared by Historical Society board members Charles McElwee III and Sue Farley.

Formation of St. Gabriel's

The first Mass said in Hazleton was celebrated in a log house that stood along the railroad between the city and Stockton. It was the home of James Mooney. At this point almost all the Catholics in the region were Irish laborers in the mines. Sunday school was taught in the old school house in Cranberry and also in Sugarloaf.

The 1850s marked a major influx of Irish immigrants from Donegal in the region. With the opening of mines throughout the Lehigh Coal Field, the Irish settled in Hazleton, Frenchtown, Stockton, and Cranberry. In 1850, 134 Irish babies were baptized. In 1860, the number increased to 220 in a single year.

During the 1850s, the mines in Beaver Meadows flooded, forcing the Irish families to find opportunities for work on the North Side. A general exodus headed no,th, and the patches of Ebervale, Harleigh, and Milnesville became towns. Hazleton in particular exploded in growth, necessitating the formation of a new parish. The immigrants initially settled in shanties located along Mine Street (at the present site of the parking garage behind the Markle building).

On September 16, 1855, Philadelphia Bishop John Neumann, now St. John Neumann, met with Father Michael Scanlon and a committee consisting of Anthony Brown, Con Kelly, Henry McCabe, James Mooney, John Gorman, Neil Brislin and Dennis McGinty to discuss building a 70 x 40 church. Ario Pardee, Hazleton's founding father, donated a plot of about eleven building lots on the west side of Wyoming Street. In the spring of 1856, Father Scanlon oversaw the building of St. Gabriel's on this plot and the church was finished that same year. It was a wooden structure situated at the corner of South Wyoming and Chapel Streets, near the present rectory. Cost of construction was $2,000. A rectory was built near the church and St. Gabriel's went from being a mission church of"Old St. Mary's" in Beaver Meadows to the '·mother church" of the region's Roman Catholics.

St. Gabriel's simple church was located near the Lehigh-Susquehanna turnpike, which was the main thoroughfare between Philadelphia and Berwick. At the time, the church's surroundings were wooded and not more than a half dozen homes stood south of Broad Street.

At this point, the Irish in nearby Frenchtown (now Beaver Brook) saw no point traveling to Hazleton, so they fom1ed their own mission church. Frenchtown was named after the few French speculators in the area, who assisted in donating the ground and helping in the erection of the church. Services continued to be held in Frenchtown for 50 years, until the church was abandoned and formed as St. Patrick's in McAdoo, then Pleasant Hill. 

Second St. Gabriel's Church

By 1866, St. Gabriel's church had become too small for the ever increasing congregation, and through Father Michael Filan, steps were taken to build an edifice more in keeping with the impo11ance of the parish. Plans were drawn for a very large church, but when the division of the diocese came in 1868, it was decided to reduce the dimensions, and the second St. Gabriel's

Upon completion in 1869, St. Gabriel's was considered the most complete and beautiful church in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The red brick church was built by William O'Malley, a builder, and designed by Edwin Forrest Durang, a prominent Philadelphia architect. Durang came from a well-known theatrical family in the city. He specialized in the design of Catholic churches in Philadelphia. Among his most notable works is the Church of the Gesu in Not1h Philadelphia, which closed in 1993. The church was reopened by the Archdiocese
as an independent school, the first Catholic school of its kind in Philadelphia.

It was Father Filan who also arranged to provide a cemetery for the congregation. Heretofore, burials took place at Beaver Meadow or Tamaqua. Now both St. Gabriel's and Frenchtown had their own burial grounds. The first body interred in St. Gabriel's cemetery was that of Mrs. Patrick Bonner in the year 1866. 

Once the church was completed, the parish turned its attention to the erection of a club house for parishioners (the original schoolhouse was raised for the brick school building completed in 1911 ). The first floor of the clubhouse was set apart for reading rooms and society quarters; the upper floor was fashioned over for an auditorium.

Seeing the need for a parochial school, Scranton Diocese Bishop O'Hara proposed that the pastor convert the clubhouse into a school building and invited the Sisters of Mercy from Pittsburgh and Buffalo to take charge. The Sisters of Mercy came to Hazleton in 1874, and the school was formed. Before a convent was built, the nuns lived in the residence of attorney Edward Gormley.

St. Gabriel's was always locally known as the Irish church due to the fact that the largest number of parishioners were in fact Irish or of Irish descent. However, the church itself was designated as a
territorial parish, established to serve the needs of all Catholics in the region. The concept of an "ethnic church" occurred due to the immigration of Eastern Europeans and Italians and their want for a church which reflected their culture and language. St. Gabriel's has always served the needs of the community. For example, John Leibner and Catherine Marchetti, a Tyrolese couple, were married on 5/7/1894; in September 1898, the first Slavonians and Polish couples, Willima Ulicks and Martina Kancucka, and Simeon Kubitski and Mary Witfifski, were married and on 4/1/1880. Antonio Gentilipco and Giovanna Palermo also exchanged their vows.

Father Jascovitch, the pioneer Slavish priest who established St. Joseph's parish was given a room in the rectory and the use of the school basement for church purposes until St. Joseph's was built. St. Joseph's became the first Slovak Roman Catholic church in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly every new immigrant worshiped at one time or another at St. Gabriel's; for example Holy Trinity German, which separated from the parish on 12/3/1887. St. Raphael's (Sacred Heart Shrine), St. Francis in West Hazleton, and St. John Bosco in Conyngham were all mission churches of St. Gabriel's. 

Present-Day St. Gabriel's Church (completed in 1927)

The present St. Gabriel's Church was designed to look like a I 3th Centu1y French Gothic Cathedral. Peter Sheridan, an architect who lived on South Laurel Street and worked in the Markle Building, was commissioned to design the new church. He carefully studied the cathedrals of France, interpreting and creating his homage to the beautiful structures of that period. The original church had succumbed to mine subsidence and the parish's only option was to demolish the red brick church. Sheridan, who designed many of the region's churches and schools, modeled St. Gabriel's on St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan.

Completed in 1927, the church, which is of steel-frame construction, is clad in a rock-faced pink granite ashlar from Seisholtzville, Berks County, and trimmed with Indiana limestone. The primary fayade is a symmetrical composition, with a central nave flanked by twin bell towers. The exterior sidewalls are also clad in Seisholtzville granite.

The stained glass windows in St. Gabriel's Church were designed by Franz Mayer studio, an architectural glass and mosaic firm based in Munich, Germany. The studio remains internationally renowned, its work found in civic spaces, galleries, and churches throughout the U.S. and Europe. The Rose Window above the choir loft was donated by the Michael Gallagher family, who owned a grocery store/bakery located on South Pine St., at that time. The other stained glass windows illustrate various New Testament scenes.

Mayer's Cathedral Glass windows were created using a "painterly" technique in which a variety of colors are blended within a single piece of stained glass. The "Munich School," as it was known, emphasized the depiction of realistic figures, painted in the German Baroque style on antique glass. Figures are set into elaborately decorated, architecturally detailed settings. The Mayer studio was particularly well-known for its depiction of saints dear to various national Catholic parishes, and it became a specialist in windows for these immigrant congregations. The sentimental scenes characteristic of Mayer windows were often regarded skeptically by contemporary critics, but the windows were well-received by parishes. Mayer operated a New York City to meet the needs of hundreds of American Catholic congregations seeking stained glass windows.

An elaborately pinnacled Gothic Revival marble altar centrally sits in the church. Renovations were made to the church as a result of the 1965 Second Vatican Council reforms (removal of original altar rail, a simple tabletop altar resting on portions of the original altar rail, etc.). The walls of the apse, originally unadorned, now bear three large murals depicting episodes from the life of Christ.

Sheridan also designed Our Lady of Grace Church on Vine Street ( 1927-29), Sts. Peter and Paul Byzantine Catholic Church in Beaver Meadows (1939), and St. Michael's Byzantine Catholic Church in McAdoo (1932). He was trained at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and later moved to Arlington, Virginia to work for the Bureau of Yards and Docks.

St. Gabriel's is one of three prominent religious buildings constructed in Hazleton during the mid­-1920s. The three structures demonstrate the prevalence of historic eclecticism in religious design during this period. For example, Chris Lutheran Church, designed by Philadelphia firm Thomas, Martin, and Kirkpatrick in 1925, is designed in the high-style English Gothic Revival manner, an example of a "Collegiate Gothic" building. The other example is the Agudas Israel synagogue, designed in 1923, which is a tapestry brick Classical Revival building with a full temple front.

St. Gabriel's Church was dedicated on December 8, 1927. The last major renovation to the church was completed in the early 2000s. The church was rededicated on July 24, 2003.

St. Gabriel's Convent

The first convent was a ten room, two-story frame building at the corner of Wyoming and Elm, the property of H.B. Conahan. The convent was finally built in 1881. On February 19, 1939, the convent was destroyed by fire. The sisters were relocated to the rectory and Msgr. Kane and the assistants moved to rooms in the Hotel Loughran until Attorney and Mrs. Cannon offered their home as a temporary rectory. Over $50,000 to rebuild the convent was raised within 10 days and the convent was dedicated on September 27, 1937.

Designed by New York City architect Anthony Depace, the Gothic Revival building reflects the size and prosperity of the church. The convent is Hazleton's only example of a religious building designed specifically to accommodate an intricate program, which combined music instruction classrooms, a chapel, and private living quarters for the sisters of the convent.

St. Gabriel's Rectory

The present rectory, designed in the Colonial Revival style, was completed and dedicated in 1908. The first rectory was moved to South Church Street to serve as the rectory of the newly established Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. The building's scale and detailing is that of a large private club designed for frequent entertaining. The interior features a large open stairhall, ringed by rooms, and rising to an art glass skylight.

St. Gabriel's School

(The excerpt below is taken from St. Gabriel's House booklet)

By the 1870's, as the numbers of Catholics increased throughout the region, schools were established to accommodate the growing number of young people. Hazleton ushered in the era of parochial education in 1874. During the summer of that year, Bishop William O'Hara, head of the newly created Diocese of Scranton, and Father Thomas O'Hara, pastor of Saint Gabriel's, invited the Sisters of Mercy to Hazleton to open a school at Saint Gabriel's parish.

In September of 1874, five Sisters arrived from Buffalo, New York, and prepared for the opening of the school Previously used by parishioners, a
clubhouse on Wyoming and Birch served as the first school. Saint Gabriel's school bells rang for the first time on Monday, October 5th, 1874. With some 350 children registered, Saint Gabriel's began its illustrious 117-}rear history of parochial education. In addition to serving the children of the parish, the school enabled the Sisters to extend educational opportunities throughout southern Luzerne County. A night school was established for men and boys employed in the anthracite coal mines.

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century parochial education continued to expand both in Hazleton and throughout the Scranton Diocese. More schools were established, enrollments rose, and potential pupils became increasingly more diverse. Saint Gabriel's school expanded to become the first, and only Catholic parish high school in Hazleton. Its first class of five students graduated in June 1900.

As the number of students throughout the Diocese increased, new school buildings were constructed. Saint Gabriel's new school was completed in 1912. Designed by prominent Philadelphia architect Francis Ballinger, it was but one example of the "modern" schools built during that era.

By 1914, the Pennsylvania Department of Education rated Saint Gabriel's as a first class high school. Enrollment grew to seventy-four in 1920, and one hundred ninety-seven in 1930. The continued growth forced the scheduling of double sessions.

By the late l 940's, the Diocese began a process of centralizing Catholic high schools. Diocesan leaders saw centralization as essential for a high quality,
competitive program. 'With only sixty or seventy students enrolled, many of the older parish schools could not afford necessities such as modem science laboratories, large libraries., and specialized faculty. Most of the traditional parish high schools, founded in earlier eras, survived the diocese's initial trust towards centralization. One of the enduring parish high school's was Saint Gabriel's.

Despite a continuing decline in enrollment, plans to construct a new wing were completed in 1950. The three-story addition was completed in 1951 at a cost of approximately $300,000. Saint Gabriel's was considered one of the best-equipped high schools in the diocese. During this time period, high school graduating classes averaged forty-five students, peaking at close to one hundred in the 1960's. That decade was also a high water mark for Saint Gabriel's athletic program. The school won consecutive state basketball championships in 1966 and 1967 under Coach Richard "Digger" Phelps, who would go on to become a legend at Notre Dame.

It was the best of times at Saint Gabriel's. It was also the beginning of the end. Throughout the Diocese, the number of nuns available to teach diminished. The need to employ lay faculty increased. So did the cost of providing a Catholic education. As time went on, the demands of lay faculty in terms of salary and benefits expanded, and costs skyrocketed. The need for better programs and facilities increased costs even more. In response, many of the parochial schools re-established or initiated tuition charge. 

By the late 1960's, the enrollment of Saint Gabriel's High School dropped below one hundred students. As part of a diocesan-wide program to provide central high school facilities, Bishop Hafey High School was formed. Built for students from Saint Gabriel's, Freeland's St. Ann's, and the surrounding area, Bishop Hafey High School was scheduled to open in September of 1970. Construction delays prevented that. But the delays couldn't prevent the inevitable. In 1 972 the doors on Saint Gabriel's High School dosed for the final time.

Saint Gabriel's elementary school continued to operate until June I 2, 1991. With enrollment in eight grades dropping from 247 in 1971 to six grades of 148 in 1991, the diocese decided to merge Saint Gabriel's with Monsignor Molino Catholic Elementary School. The result of the merger was Holy Spirit Academy. The final chapter in the history of Saint Gabriel's school had been written.