St. Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish History
1. Early “Kit-han-ne” History (Pre 1669-1758)
2. Sugar Creek Settlement (Pre 1803-43)
3. Kittanning Firsts: Catholic Mass, Catholic Church, Catholic School (1847-1911)
4. New Convent, Rectory, School and Church (1951-70)
5. New Parish Hall; Creation of The Divine Redeemer School (1981-1999)
Early “Kit-han-ne” history (Pre 1669-1758)
The earliest known inhabitants of this area were the Seneca, Shawnee and Delaware (or Lenape) Indian tribes. The Allegheny River which flows through the town was known originally to the Delaware Indians as “Ch-He-Hu” which translates as “beautiful.” As the area was settled, the Indians referred to it as, “Kit-han-ne” which translates as “village at the great river,” and their village was named Attique. Their name for the region has only been slightly modified to its current name, Kittanning.
The French explorer Sieur de La Salle, along with three priests of the Sulpician community, and some Franciscans journeyed through the area around “Kit-han-ne” in the years 1669-70. They were probably the first Europeans to travel through this area.
In 1727, French explorers and traders traveled into the Indian town of “Kit-han-ne” from Canada to trade with the Delaware Indians. The late Father Joseph Peter Bonnecamps celebrated the first known Mass for the area just a few miles north of “Kit-han-ne” in August 1749. The late Father Bonnecamps accompanied a French expedition down the Allegheny in an effort to take formal possession of the territory for the French.
On Sept. 8, 1756, Lieutenant Colonel John Armstrong of the British Army (of whom the county is name) marched into “Kit-han-ne.” After a savage fight Lt. Col. Armstrong routed the Delaware Indians, and a few French, and acquired the town for the English.
When the town came under English rule in 1758, anti-Catholic laws prohibited Catholics from voting and purchasing property. The town remained under these anti-Catholic laws until the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War gave religious freedom to practice one’s faith without persecution.
Sugar Creek settlement (Pre 1803-43)
The first Catholics of what is now Southwestern Pennsylvania were without priests and churches. Missionary priests passed irregularly through the region, and their occasional visits helped the early settlers keep their faith. One of the first missionary priests for the people of this area was the Father (Prince) Dimitri Gallitzin.
Father Gallitzin traveled from Russia specifically to become a missionary priest in the new world and was ordained by the late Archbishop John Carroll of the Diocese of Baltimore. Father Gallitzin was the second priest ordained in the United States and Archbishop John Carroll appointed him as a missionary priest for this entire surrounding area.
The town, Sugar Creek, 12 miles west of Kittanning, was one of the original English settlements. In 1803, the late Father Helbron visited Sugar Creek and baptized 51 people in one day. In 1805, the late Father Richard Phelan became the first parish priest of Sugar Creek, and St. Patrick Church was erected in 1806 (this log cabin church still stands and is still used today).
Father Phelan later became the fourth Bishop of Pittsburgh (1889-1904). The St. Patrick Parish included the community of Kittanning.
In 1811, the late Bishop Egan of the Diocese of Philadelphia visited Sugar Creek. His visit marked the first visit by a bishop to this area. He traveled to Sugar Creek to confer the sacrament of confirmation upon the faithful. During this time period, there were only three priests in western Pennsylvania, and only 13 priests in the entire Diocese of Philadelphia.
The parish at Sugar Creek remained in the Diocese of Philadelphia until 1843, when it then became part of the newly created Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Kittanning Firsts: Catholic Mass, Catholic church, Catholic school, (1847-1911)
The first Catholic Mass offered in the town of Kittanning was celebrated by the late Father Cody in 1847. This Mass was celebrated in the home of Col. William Sirwell, which was located in the northeast corner of Jacob and Jefferson streets.
Col. Sirwell continued to be a benefactor of visiting priests as he offered his home as a sanctuary for visiting priests and also for the celebration of the Mass.
From 1847-48, a steel rolling mill was built in Kittanning, and the completion of the Allegheny Valley Railroad connected Kittanning with Pittsburgh. Population growth of the Kittanning area paralleled the industrial growth, and by 1851 there were 21 Catholic families in Kittanning.
Mass was celebrated from 1847-51 in the old academy, the old court house and the homes of Henry Rush and Col. Sirwell. The parish of St. Mary iin Kittanning was established in 1851 from St. Mary Parish in Freeport.
Because of the growing Catholic community, it became necessary to build a permanent church structure and the first church building became a reality in 1853. The site of the original church is in the same location the current church was erected.
At this time, visits by priests from Freeport, Sugar Creek, Butler, Brady’s Bend and the Diocese of Erie were very irregular. Mass was seldom held more than once every two to three months. In 1858, Father Phelan was appointed to Freeport and he began officiating Mass in Kittanning with the late Father Hickey one Sunday per month.
The late Father John O. G. Scanlon became the first resident pastor, and Bishop Michael Domenec of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, dedicated the first St. Mary church building Oct. 23, 1864. With an increase in the number of Catholics in the community came the first priest ordained from the parish, the late Father A. A. Lambing Aug. 4, 1869.
Father Lambing celebrated his first Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Mary Parish Aug. 15 of the same year. By 1896, the congregation had increased to 65 families.
In 1906, the late Father L. A. Carroll along with the Sisters of St. Joseph from Baden, Pa., established the former St. Mary Parochial School for the Catholic community of Kittanning, which was the first parochial school in the history of Kittanning. The school was dedicated Sept. 2, 1907, by the late Archbishop John Francis Regis Canevin, bishop of Pittsburgh, who was attended by a number of Catholic clergy from the Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses.
Per the Kittanning Daily Times,
“The trains north and south brought their quotas of visiting admirers, and
when the solemn high Mass began at 10:15 o’clock in St. Mary’s church
every available inch of space from the altar to the door, and from the door
to the curb and around Water and High Streets was utilized by some one
anxious to participate in the service.”
The late Sister M. Alphonsus was appointed director of the school which opened with 135 enrolled students. In addition, the late Sisters M. Victoria, M. Seraphine, Agnes Marie and Elizabeth Coleman were the first instructors at the school.
These pioneering Sisters of St. Joseph, were instrumental in the establishing the foundation of Catholic education in Kittanning, primarily as educators at St. Mary School. Their valued ministry to our church has evolved over the years into many different roles, and they continue to serve the needs of our parish.
Because the Catholic community was flourishing, Father Carroll proposed to build a new church in 1911 to accommodate the increasing needs. This proposal was not carried out due to various circumstances.
New convent, rectory, school and church (1951-1970)
In 1951, the Catholic parish of St. Mary became part of the newly created Diocese of Greensburg. The first pastor for the parish, as part of the new diocese, was the late Father Francis X. Foley. He launched a building program that resulted in a new convent in 1953, which housed seven sisters (directly next to the church on North Water Street), a new rectory in 1955 (across West High Street, from the church) and a new school in 1960 (behind the church on North Jefferson Street).
Father Foley began plans for a new church structure in 1961 and demolition of the original St. Mary church began July 2, 1962. Father Foley died Oct. 3 of the same year. The church building was then completed under the guidance of the late Msgr. Charles B. Guth with the assistance of Francis ‘Smiley’ Benson.
The cornerstone for the new church was set Aug. 18, 1963. Until the new church was ready for use, the parishioners attended Sunday Mass at the Kittanning Junior High School auditorium.
The first Mass was celebrated in the new church building Palm Sunday, March 22, 1964. On Aug. 16, 1964, the late Bishop William G. Connare, bishop of Greensburg, blessed and dedicated St. Mary Church to divine worship as “St. Mary, Queen of the Americas Church.”
Father Foley had chose this title because of the similarity of the Marian apparition to native Aztec, Juan Diego in 1531, and the fact that Kittanning is built on a Native American Settlement. At this time, the altars were blessed.
Permanently embedded in the main altar are the relics of the bones of St. Gaudentius (Bishop of Brescia A.D. 410), and St. Aurelius (Bishop of Carthage A.D. 429). The side altar contains the relics of the bones of St. Perpetuus (Bishop of Tours A.D. 494), and St. Reparata (virgin and martyr of Caesarea). After the blessing, Bishop Connare announced that the church would be the official shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the diocese.
The church was consecrated Oct. 11, 1970, by Bishop Connare. It was the third church in the diocese to be consecrated, the first two being the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Greensburg, and St. Vincent Basilica, Latrobe. With the building of the new church, the parish was rededicated not only as St. Mary, but also under the title and patronage of one of her apparitions, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In 1970 when Bishop Connare was preparing to consecrate the church, he wrote a letter in which he said,
“As you and your people well know, your church is dedicated to our Blessed Mother
under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe. No designation of any church is more American. The discovery of the continent by Columbus was still vivid and fresh when she chose to visit this continent in the hallowed spot of Guadalupe. We are grateful to you and your people for providing the diocese with this memorial to this blessed experience, which brought our Blessed Mother to us so long ago.”
From its establishment in 1851, the parish grew from 21 families to 765 in 1970.
New parish hall, creation of The Divine Redeemer School (1981-1999)
With a strong history of sacrifice and perseverance to build and preserve the church community spiritually, educationally and financially, in 1981 the parish began serious planning to enhance the parish community socially with a new parish hall. A building committee was formed and careful planning took place that involved representatives of the diocese, school, religious organizations and membership.
After approval from Bishop Connare, the committee started a fundraising campaign in November 1983. Groundbreaking for the hall took place in September 1984. By the end of the summer of 1985, St. Mary Parish hall was completed. The multi-purpose facility that served the 1,060 families of the parish at that time continues to be an important gathering place for the parish community and The Divine Redeemer School.
The 1996-97 school year was the last year that St. Mary School operated. The Sisters of St. Joseph from Baden sustained and taught at the school until its closing. The pre-school remained open through the 1999 school year. At that time, the decision was made to close the preschool partly due to the illness of one of the long time beloved instructors Sister Rita.
Sister Rita and her twin sister, Sister Marion, taught preschool at St. Mary School for nearly 10 years. After the closure of the school, many of the former St. Mary School students (pre-kindergarten through sixth grade) then joined the former Ford City Catholic school.
In August 1997, Ford City Catholic school became a regional Catholic school. This new pre-kindergarten through sixth grade regional school was named The Divine Redeemer Catholic School. Today, the school continues to provide excellent faith based Catholic education, not only to St. Mary parish families, but also to Catholics from the surrounding areas.