*** ONLINE AS OF AUGUST 5, 2011 ***
    



St. Agatha Catholic Church - Ellwood City

Soon after Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, was founded by Henry Hartman in 1892 a visiting Catholic priest, the Reverend Thomas Walsh of the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Darlington, began making periodic visits to the new settlement. Without a Catholic church in Ellwood City the once or twice monthly Sunday services were held in private homes. On other weekends local Catholic parishioners traveled on Sundays to outlying churches to include St. Teresa Catholic Church in nearby Hoytdale.

In 1895, after a sufficient congregation was built up by Walsh, the new St. Agatha Catholic Parish was founded in Ellwood City. The congregation consisted of immigrants of numerous nationalities to include Italians, Germans, Irish, Poles, Hungarians, and Slovaks. A small wooden frame church, located on Spring Avenue, was opened in September 1895. The Reverend William Dwyer was assigned as the first pastor and served for two years.

A handful of short-term priests led the church over the next eight years until the Reverend Patrick J. Hesson took over from 1905-1910. He was succeeded by the Reverend Philip Brady in 1910. When Brady suddenly died in October 1914 he was succeeded by the Reverend Robert Wilkey (1880-1949). Wilkey, a native of New York City who was born to Irish immigrant parents, had attended St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York and also St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He had been ordained in 1906 and subsequently served in several posts in Pittsburgh. He would go on to serve the congregation of St. Agatha’s for the next three and a half decades.

Wilkey took charge of a thriving congregation and a new church building was a priority. A prime lot adjoining the old church was purchased at the northwest corner of Spring Avenue and Fifth Street. The old rectory would soon be demolished to make way for a new church building. An article in the New Castle News of Monday, June 28, 1915, read, “Plans for the new church are being drawn at the offices of Carlisle and Sharrar, architects of Pittsburg and Beaver Falls. These plans have been in preparation for some time and Father Wilkey expects that they will be completed and that the work can be started within the present week. As soon as the plans are received from the architects the work of excavation will be begun… The new church will be built upon the lot purchased some time ago, at the corner of Spring avenue and Fifth street; thus being placed in a convenient location, and in addition is so situated that its beauty will be displayed to the best possible advantage. The completion of the new bridge will make this one of the main thoroughfares of the city, while the Harmony cars will pass directly in front of the new building.”

A delay was encountered when the significant Italian faction of the congregation, desiring to have services provided in the Italian language, broke away in 1916 to form the foundation of the new Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Parish/Church. The Italian-speaking Reverend Salvatore Marino, pastor of the St. Lucy Catholic Church in Mahoningtown, was tasked to help establish the new Italian-ethnic congregation. Marino became the first fulltime pastor when the new building of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church was opened on Fourth Street in Ellwood City in March 1918.

The new St. Agatha Church, its congregation basically cut in half, was finally completed and dedicated on Sunday, July 28, 1918. A new rectory was also opened alongside it on Fifth Street. The old church remained in service as a parish hall, but was torn down in about 1922. A church cemetery was also established in late 1922 just south of Ellwood City in North Sewickley Township. This burial ground was shared with the Purification of Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church beginning in 1929.

The Reverend Wilkey continued at the helm, while guiding the church through the prosperous decade of the 1920’s, the economic depression of the 1930’s, and the historic worldwide events of the 1940’s. Wilkey grew gravely ill in late 1948 and was hospitalized in Pittsburgh. The congregation lost an icon when Wilkey, who served a pastor of the church for thirty-five years, succumbed to his illness on Wednesday, May 25, 1949.

The New Castle News of Thursday, May 26, 1949, reported, “A solemn pontifical requiem mass will be offered for the late Rev. Fr Robert D. A. Wilkey, pastor of St. Agatha’s church for 35 years, on Saturday morning at 11 o’clock, in the church, 124 Fifth street. Officiating at the requiem mass to be offered for the repose of Fr. Wilkey’s soul, will be the Most Rev. Bishop John F. Dearden of Pittsburgh diocese. Father Wilkey passed away Wednesday morning at 4 o’clock in the Pittsburgh hospital, where he had been confined since last November. He was 69 years of age… Father Wilkey was held in high regard by members of his parish, as well as other residents in the district, including those of other faiths. He has served his community well, and his death comes with great sorrow to his many friends in Ellwood City and New Castle. He has worked hard at St. Agatha’s and has made it an outstanding Catholic parish of Ellwood City.” Wilkey was laid to rest in St. Agatha Cemetery.

Wilkey was succeeded by the Reverend James A. Byrne, who would lead the congregation for the next eighteen years. It was under the guidance of Byrne that a new 12-room parochial school, a longtime dream of the congregation, was opened along Bridge Street in September 1961. The Reverend Byrne retired at the age of seventy in June 1967. He was succeeded as pastor by the Reverend Edward H. Cole, who was reassigned in January 1970 to take up the helm of the St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in New Castle. The Reverend Donald L. Voelker soon took over as pastor and served in the capacity until he was reassigned seven years later.

Due to dwindling attendance the St. Agatha Catholic School abolished its seventh and eighth grade classes in 1970. The facility was merged with the Purification of Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic School in July 1971 to form the new Ellwood City Catholic School. Classes were held at both sites. The Reverend Voelker served as the first-ever chairman of the Ellwood City Board of Catholic Education, and was also elected to the Ellwood City Area School Board in November 1973. The school on Bridge Street was shut down in 1978 and the building was subsequently utilized by the parish for religious classes and other purposes.

Voelker departed in October 1977 for a new assignment in Munhall Borough in Allegheny County, and he sadly passed away just over two years later. Subsequent pastors at St. Agatha’s included Thomas B. Ferris from 1977-1982, William J. Schwartz from 1982-1985, Thomas M. Kirby from 1985-1992, and Paul G. Henne from 1992-1997. The church, which began experiencing a dwindling congregation like so many other churches, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1995.

The congregation was led by the Reverend Vincent P. Velas from 1997-1998 and the Reverend Mark Thomas, an assistant pastor at the nearby Purification of Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, from 1998-2000. On Saturday, February 5, 2000, St. Agatha’s and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church were officially merged to form the new Holy Redeemer Parish in Ellwood City. The two “sister” churches were essentially rejoined after eighty-six years of separation.

The Reverend Mauro J. Cautela, a native of Coraopolis, assumed the role as the first senior pastor of the new parish and both buildings remained opened for the time being. By late 2004 regular services at St. Agatha’s were phased out and the Purification of Blessed Virgin Mary Church became the primary location for weekend mass. The sanctuary of St. Agatha’s was still utilized for funerals and weddings, while the basement social hall remained in use for its popular bingo games among other events.

The congregation of Holy Redeemer was shocked when the Reverend Cautela abruptly resigned in August 2005 amid serious allegations of sexual and financial wrongdoing. The Pennsylvania State Police began an investigation, but the actual details of the alleged crimes were not disclosed. The Reverend John G. Oesterle was quickly dispatched by the diocese to take over as pastor. In the midst of much confusion Cautela died of a heart attack in Youngstown, Ohio, on December 10, 2005. The criminal investigation against him essentially came to an end. In November 2006 the diocese announced that an agreement with an unknown plaintiff(s) had been reached and the issue was resolved. No further information was provided and this left the congregation wondering about the validity of the accusations.

In August 2007 the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced that St. Agatha’s was among several churches slated for closure in the coming weeks. The church was officially closed on Saturday, September 8, 2007, although a special mass was held at the church on Sunday, September 30, 2007. It was presided over by Reverend Oesterle and the Right Reverend Edward J. Burns, a 1975 graduate of Lincoln High School in Ellwood City, who was later elevated to the post of Bishop of Juneau (Alaska) in early 2009. The church, after 102 years of service to the community, was shuttered.

The church building, the adjoining rectory, and a small parking lot were all put up for sale. The church was later sold to a local businessman, who reopened the basement as a social hall known as St. Jude’s Hall. The sanctuary of the church was given a major renovation with plans to convert it into a restaurant – with a church-like motif. Those plans were later halted and the entire property was put on hold for sale to a developer.

In early 2015 the city council was presented with a plan to build a new CVS drugstore at the corner of Fifth Street and Spring Avenue. CVS had been attempting to build a new store in downtown Ellwood City for many years. The new plan would call for the demolition of St. Agatha’s and numerous adjoining properties. The city council approved the plan in July 2015. Initial efforts to salvage historical items proved a disaster, as CVS officials seemed indifferent and vandals carried away various items of importance. CVS later contracted Black Dog Salvage of Roanoke, Virginia, to remove and preserve several items to include the stained glass windows.

The clearing of the properties surrounding the church began in late 2015, while the dismantling operations of the interior of the church were completed by January 2016. The demolition of the exterior of the church began in earnest in early February 2016 and was completed the following month. The exact location will serve as a parking lot for the new drugstore. After a long history of service the historic church met a truly sad fate. Not demolished because of any structural deficiencies, but because a corporate pharmacy wanted to add another store to its vast empire.


The original St. Agatha’s Church (and parsonage) was opened for Catholic pashioners in September 1895, three years after the founding of Ellwood City. Most of the work on this structure was done by the members of the congregation. It was quickly outgrown in need of replacement. (c1915) Full Size


Work began on a new St. Agatha’s in 1915 on the northwest corner of 5th Street and Spring Avenue. It was finally dedicated on Sunday, July 28, 1918. The older church building remained in use for various parish activities until it was torn down in 1922. (c1920) Full Size



The new St. Agatha’s Catholic Church was erected under the care of the Reverend Robert Wilkey, who served as pastor for the congregation for thirty-five years. (Mar 2012) Full Size


This aerial photo shows the area around the church. (c2010)


A closeup of the cornerstone of the church, which appears to have been damaged and hastily patched at one time. (Feb 2011)


A closeup of the facade of the church reads, “ST AGATHA R C CHURCH.” (Feb 2011)


St. Agatha’s was merged with the Purification of B.V.M. Catholic Church to form the new Holy Redeemer Parish in February 2000. St. Agatha’s remained open until reorganization plans saw it closed in September 2007 and its parishioners essentially absorbed into the old Purification of B.V.M. Church – then renamed as the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. St. Agatha’s was sold and currently sits vacant. (Mar 2012) Full Size


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Demolition of the historic church began in early 2016 – to make room for a new CVS drugstore. (Feb 2016) Full Size


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Comment

  1. Robert Wilkey (the man who built Saint Agatha’s) was my Great-Great Uncle.
    I would very much like to visit and spend a little time inside with my nephew, wife and daughters.
    I’d appreciate any information you can offer about the current owner(s) so I may try making contact.

    Also, if you can share any more information about Robert, his brother John or any of the rest of his family (especially information about his parent from before they came over from Ireland), that would mean the world to me.
    I entered my email address in the form.

    Even if you don’t have any more information to share, reading this was wonderful.

    Much appreciated,
    Craig Wilkey (Robert’s brother’s Great Grandson)

    Craig Wilkey · 01/01/2015 01:54 PM · #

  2. After watching the tv show I was deeply saddened. Our catholic churches are slowly disappearing. I know that many Catholics don’t care about their faith thus the closing of churches and schools. In the new York metro area 56 schools have closed in the last few years. The archdioceses have no choice. I went to catholic school in Manhattan as did my wife. I owe so much to Holy Name school, which I attended in the 50 and 60s. Looking at St agatha in ruin after all the marriages, baptisms and funerals that took place there bothers me and on top of that some heartless corporation replaced it. Maybe it’s spirit will live on in it’s salvaged parts

    Frank Padilla · 02/15/2017 04:14 PM · #