Sewickley's Saint James Parish was formally established in 1863. Two hundred years ago, Catholics in Beaver County and Pittsburgh were planting the seeds of the Faith which were to be the source of its growth in Sewickley. Three hundred years ago Catholic explorers were the first white men to see this beautiful valley as they made their way down the Ohio River into the heart of our country.
Father Reid was born in Carrickmacross, Ireland in 1793. He was a granduncle of Judge Ambrose Reid of Pittsburgh. When he became pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Church, Father Reid began ministering to the spiritual needs of Catholics in the Beaver Valley and as far north as Mercer County, traveling throughout his parish district by horse and buggy after the fashion of the circuit rider popular at that time. One day, while celebrating Mass in New Castle, members of the congregation interrupted their prayers to rush outside and protect Father Reid's horse and buggy. Stones were being thrown by local inhabitants who regarded such visits as a menace to the community.
Sewickley after the Civil War
The earliest original records for the parish list the names of Rev. Joseph Branstetter and Rev. Martin Kink, probably from Allegheny City, as the attending priests.
Among these records are the following:
First Baptism: John Gilroy, December 21, 1865, who later became an engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
First Marriage: Joseph Muller of Reichberhausen, Wurtenberg, and Maria Anna Eichenlaub of Scheid, Bavaria, on November 4, 1868.
At noon on Wednesday, May 12, 1869, tragedy struck. The Pittsburgh Post reported the story: "The walls of the handsome new Catholic church under course of erection at Sewickley gave way. The heavy roof crashed through to the floor beneath it. It was in turn covered by the walls, which fell inside, crushing the timbers to splinters. The entire side walls fell down, but the tower and the front wall, as well as the real wall, remained standing. The roof was composed of heavy timber, and was covered with slate.
Late 19th Century
An unknown skeptic wrote, "This church must always remain one of the most unaccountable instances of miscalculations ever witnessed in this country. For while the congregation will number no more than 38 families, with perhaps 40 servant girls, it has no prospect whatever of doubling itself in the next 25 years. What the future of the Parish is destined to be, would be hazardous to conjecture."
In the early 1870's notices appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic, recalling the collapse of the church. All congregations in the Diocese were urged to come to the rescue by giving financial help and aid to the unfortunate congregation.
Early 20th Century
In 1892, Rev. Florence F. O'Shea was appointed pastor. Born in Killarney, Ireland, in 1865, he came to this country at an early age for primary education and was ordained in Buffalo in 1889. During his 14 years of leadership, the parish grew and began to show a new surge of strength.
Instead of following the example of his predecessors in reducing the debt, Father O'Shea immediately increased it by $3,000. During his pastorate a rectory was built and furnished for $6,800. About $10,000 was spent in completely refurnishing the church with a new furnace, stained glass windows, altar and sanctuary furniture and new pews. The purchase of the present five-acre cemetery which had been arranged for by Father Kaylor was completed for the amount of $500, on August 1, 1892.
Wars and Depression
In June, 1914, Rev. William P. Curtin replaced Father Sweeney as pastor of St. James Parish, at a time when the congregation was continuing to grow and take on new responsibilities. Three Masses were held on Sunday: 6:45, 8:00 and 10:30 a.m. An article in the Sewickley Herald stated that Father Curtin wanted it clearly understood that the general public was welcome to attend any and all services.
During the succeeding years, many activities flourished in the parish: the girls choir; the children's bazaar; speaking engagements by Father Curtin; a parish sewing society; men of the parish repainted the woodwork in the church; Christmas boxes were sent to soldiers at war in 1917; children raised money for a flag and pole at the school. During the flu epidemic in 1918 Mass was held, but the congregation was told not to attend for fear of spreading the dread disease.
Mid 20th Century
Long-range plans for building a new school for Saint James Parish began to take shape in 1946 when property was purchased on the corner of Broad and Bank Streets, from the Staunton Farm Corporation. This was the site of the former home of Joseph W. Craig. This purchase was paid for in three months and the parish was free of debt once again; free to start a fund for the building itself.
During his next eight years, Father Hurley and his parishioners struggled to relieve the teachers and children of the almost impossible conditions in the old school building. Four nuns managed somehow to teach two classes each, in four classrooms. The enrollment reached 200 and new applications had to be turned away with the apology, "no room." Summer festivals, bazaars, benefit parties and other activities were held by parish organizations to raise funds for the school. A trade school was organized by the Saint Vincent de Paul Society to give supplementary vocational training to the children.