In the colorful fabric that forms American culture, immigrants have brought diverse faiths and beliefs. Chester County is no exception in that regard, with families from throughout the world expressing their ancestral traditions in churches here.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-19, of Exton, a former professor in the department of International Studies at West Chester University, said churches built on the backgrounds of recent immigrants are often in flux -- sometimes starting out, sometimes operating in stability with their traditions, and at other times melding into the greater community of churches, as the next generation becomes less enmeshed in the language and rituals of the past.
Dinniman talked about Catholic churches that at some time in past reflected residents of neighborhoods from one background or another. Many are now being incorporated into the larger and more diverse churches in the archdiocese. This happens, he said, because as the second and third generations of the immigrants mature, they become less a part of their family’s past and more a part of the American melting pot.
Some nationalities, however, remain strong locally, with their congregations showing no signs of diminishing anytime soon.
St. Rocco in New Garden is an example of a church that has a large congregation of mostly Mexican immigrants and appears to be growing every year.
Up until several years ago Mision Santa Maria, located in a storefront just outside of Avondale, served the Hispanic community that arrived in southern Chester County, largely to work in the mushroom industry. The Rev. Frank Depman celebrated masses in various Catholic churches from Kennett Square to Oxford.
Then in 2010, a wealthy banker name Rocco Abessinio contributed $5 million to establish a church in New Garden to serve the Hispanic community. It was named St. Rocco – or San Roque -- in honor of Abessinio’s favorite saint.
The church clearly appeals to its congregation. Designed in the style of Mexican adobe, it sits atop a bluff along Route 41 in New Garden. Depman said the membership is 4,000 families – or 14,000 individuals. It celebrates Mexican religious holidays as well as providing baptisms, marriages and quinceaneras (the Mexican celebration of a young woman reaching her 15th birthday).
In December the church fills to overflowing with a number of services celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe. At that time there is a colorful procession with lights, flowers and a statue of the Virgin. A choir in native garb provides upbeat music, and children dressed in Mexican dresses and shirts present fruit and flowers at the offertory. A feast follows the service with Mexican food and beverages.
The church also celebrates Christmas Posadas, the Jan. 3 Feast of the Three Kings, St. Anthony of Padua on June 13, the Festival of St. Rocco on Aug. 16, Holy Week Stations of the Cross and Sunday Easter Vigil.
Depman, 57, said he believes St. Rocco will endure as an ethnic church for a long time because the congregants are quite family-oriented and share their traditions with their children. Their families are large, and the average age of the church members is 18. There are 1,400 kids enrolled in CCD (religious education), and last year his church performed 437 baptisms. That bodes well for future enrollment, he said.
Additionally, St. Rocco is a good fit.
“They are coming to practice their faith in a way that’s comfortable. Everyone here is bilingual. I hope its importance will not diminish,” he said.
Mision Santa Maria, the service agency under the umbrella of St. Rocco, helps the community in many ways including Green Card applications and citizenship classes, as well as food, clothing and transportation. Depman said he is waiting to see how pending immigration legislation will affect the arrival of Mexicans to the area.
In the past Depman was eager to help guide his young people into careers and college, but he said in recent years the schools have been doing a good job as well.
“A lot of positive things are going on. More youth are going to college each year. Families who had almost nothing now own a car, a house and a business. The kids are going to college …. Families who are down (in Mexico) are saying ‘look at my uncle.’ They are achieving the American dream,” he said.
In contrast, Holy Ghost Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Coatesville serves an older congregation. Most of its members are first or second generations who are descendants of immigrants who came from Eastern Europe. The church serves a geographical area covering greater Coatesville and it has a membership of about 120 people.
Ukrainian Orthodox churches arose from a split with Rome in 1054 and operates on the Julian calendar, which features different dates for festivals—including Easter and Christmas -- from the other Roman Catholic-based churches.
Carol Bently, 70, who wrote the church history for the church’s 100-year anniversary booklet in 2009, said all of her grandparents came to America from Eastern Europe out of poverty. They, along with many others, came to the Coatesville area seeking work, and they lived in mixed neighborhoods of Italians, Polish and other Eastern Europeans in the city.
They brought their heritage and traditions and organized services in homes. Soon, the number of attendees made it necessary to build a church on Gibbons Avenue in 1909. Later, in 1917, they built the current church on Charles Street.
On April 6, a group of women of Holy Ghost joined to make Paska bread, an Eastern European egg bread traditionally made at Easter (which for them is May 5 this year). It is light, with a slightly sweet flavor, and the dough is braided before being baked in round pans.
They sell the bread to their members on Easter, a time when they bring baskets of meat, eggs and other treats following a Lenten period of fasting that ranges from fish on Fridays to a totally vegan diet during the 40 days.
Another tradition is the Christmas Eve dinner on Jan. 6 featuring 12 meatless dishes in honor of the 12 Apostles. It is a meal consisting of pierogis, mushrooms, borscht, cabbage rolls, dried fruits, fish and dumplings, among others.
The bakers of the bread were not young – more like a group of grandmothers. Bently, with the assent of the other women, said that most of their children and grandchildren are not frequent attendees at the church, although those kids almost universally show up for the festivals.
They were not ready to speculate on the future of the church, but said that the traditions remain strong in their families.
The current church, like most Ukranian Orthodox, is colorful with plenty of gold accents.
It is led by The Rev. Anthony Ugolnik, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College for 30 years. According to the account written by Bently, Ugolnik served in the military as a medic during the Vietnam War. He also spent at year at the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The church has many organizations including an altar guild, a church school, a choir, the St. Anastasia’s Sisterhood, the Senior Ukrainian Orthodox League.