THE BLOG
05/22/2014 08:57 am ET | Updated Jul 21, 2014

Trip to a Small Pennsylvania Town

There's nothing like a road trip when you have had too much of the city. In my case, the plan was to drive to Palmerton, Pennsylvania, with a friend (he did the driving) in order to participate in a Divine Liturgy at Saint George Orthodox church, at 730 Church Street, a church that is currently not only in foreclosure but which has only one remaining parishioner.

The plan was for His Eminence Justinian Archbishop of Naro-Fominsk to celebrate a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy (with his large entourage of area Orthodox priests and seminarians) at the little church of Saint George in honor of the church's feast day.

Palmerton, while a quaint town nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, is also very much a town of the past. According to one local we spoke to, most of the young people of Palmerton have left for the greener pastures of cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Bigger cities promise better opportunities, even if (job) opportunities in bigger cities are not what they once were.

As we drove into downtown Palmerton, we noticed the inactivity and the quiet. It was a Saturday morning, after all, a time when many towns are alive with activity. We saw very few people walking about. When we got lost, we stopped to ask directions from two men, both of whom told us that they were not from Palmerton. Finally, we spotted a woman who looked like she had to be a local -- she was weeding a garden on her front lawn -- who gave us the directions we wanted.

"It's nice to know that somebody is from Palmerton," Stephen joked.

For anyone sick of inner city congestion, chronic (Philadelphia) Septa detours on weekends (thanks to marathons and street festivals), standing room only "seats" on the Frankford Market El, and unrelenting stop and go traffic (not to mention angry drivers and honking horns), this peaceful little river town would seem to fit the bill. The mountains certainly add a dimension of beauty along with the Lehigh River and Aquishicola Creek. The famous Blue Mountain Tunnel that cuts through the Kittatinny Ridge is very noticeable before you take the turn that goes into Palmerton. I remember the Blue Mountain tunnel from childhood, but that's another story.

Who would not want to escape to a place like this? Of course, for any city sophisticate, the 'John Boy Walton' beauty of this town doesn't erase the fact that it is also a cultural wasteland. You can forget about going to a rock concert, a jazz festival, any type of theater, the opera, art galleries, or a museum. You might be able to hang out at the local Subway restaurant with its plastic orange chair Kabuki theater seating area, or hunt out a local Dunkin Donuts, or go bowling, but aside from this, your only option is a pastime connected with nature, like rafting, which I hear is pretty exciting. There's the fair-sized Palmerton hospital in case you break an arm, have an allergic reaction to a bee sting, or come down with food poisoning. If your imagination is rich enough, you might be able to fantasize about what goes on in the large gothic Victorian house that sits alone on a mountain top and which seems to be the town's crowning glory. The site of this house from a distance is impressive. Reminiscent of Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, or even the house in Hitchcock's Psycho, the building lords over Palmerton like the Asa Packer mansion lords over the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Given the ghost town status of Palmerton, it's no wonder that the churches are empty. Our arrival at the little church of Saint George was not without some confusion, since the first church we spotted was a striking dual onion domed structure with triple bar crosses, a look that usually signifies Eastern Orthodoxy. In actuality, the church was a Byzantine/ Greek Catholic church although long ago the church was Orthodox, the change having occurred near the time of the Russian Revolution. At that time the status of Orthodoxy in Russia took a sharp nose dive, causing jurisdictional complications with many Russian-affiliated parishes in the United States. With the Russian Patriarchate in a Bolshevik-prison, the Palmerton congregation sought protection from Rome, and became a Byzantine Catholic parish. This is what a resident told us, anyway.

My friend Stephen initially assumed that the onion domed church was the parish of Saint George, but I told him that the blue and white statue of the Virgin Mary near the entranceway meant that it was Catholic. Saint George's three bar cross was nearly hidden by trees. From where we parked the car, you had to strain your neck and stand on your toes to see it between the tree tops. It's no wonder that Stephen ran straight to the onions. Of course, once I redirected him, we backtracked and walked past three elderly women sitting on their porch on lawn chairs. Were these the grandmothers of long gone grandchildren, now collecting jobless benefits in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? They seemed like quiet, softly suspicious women. When I made eye contact with them, they could barely manage a smile.

"We're not from around these parts," I wanted to say. "We're from Philadelphia. I'm taking a vacation from Septa. It's a long story, ladies."

Walking into Saint George's at last, we noticed the smell of incense and the sound of a choir and nearly twenty richly vested clergymen chanting the liturgy in Old Slavonic. I happen to like rundown churches with paint peeling off the walls as long as they have character, and Saint George's had plenty of that. The wooden floor was resplendent with a Murphy's oil wax shine. The icons were old, and the iconostasis in front of the altar showed a western artistic influence. The pastel colored mosaics on the walls looked as though they had been painted by dedicated parishioners decades ago. This indeed was a handsome country church.

The archbishop gave a sermon on the importance of Saint George, a saint recognized in both eastern and western Christendom. Saint George, after all, is the patron saint of England.

Afterwards, at the barbecue in the church back yard, I asked someone how many parishioners attended the onion domed church across the street and was told "only five." The number seemed abysmally low, but things got worse when a priest from Wilkes-Barre said that there was really only one remaining parishioner at Saint George's.

It seems to me that as the big cities become even more crowded in the future, towns like Palmerton could become more valuable as escape havens for those wishing to avoid urban mayhem and congestion. After all, in the event of a national or international calamity, living in a crowded city could very well become a liability.

Palmerton was founded in 1898 by Stephen S. Palmer as a company town for New Jersey Zinc. Eastern Pennsylvania was once among the largest producers of zinc in the world. Zinc was especially important during World War II when it was used for shell casings and sheet metal for bombers and fighter planes. Large groups of people from the Carpatho-Rusyn area of outer Russia moved to this area to work in the mines. These Eastern European immigrants brought Byzantine/Greek Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to this region of Pennsylvania. The Carpatho-Rusyns settled in the area in the late 1870s. The Eastern Catholics at that time had to answer to the local Roman Catholic (Latin Rite) hierarchy, a combination that would prove disastrous when it came to the issue of married priests. In the Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox priests may only marry before ordination to the priesthood. The tradition of a married clergy goes back to the early Church (for the western Church, celibacy was a late addition).

The reigning Catholic archbishop in the eastern United States at that time was Archbishop John Ireland, a man known for his unrelenting rigidity. (He once castigated the Dominican Order for celebrating the ancient Dominican Rite Mass). He also forbade Eastern Catholic clergy from marrying, in effect forcing Eastern priests to adopt the Latin Rite custom of celibacy. It didn't help that in 1907 Pope Pius X (a saint in the Catholic Church), issued an apostolic letter mandating celibacy for all priests in the United States, whether Eastern or Latin Rite. Although this rule was later changed for Eastern clergy, serious Roman attempts to "Latinize" the Eastern Rites were common.

Alexis Toth, originally an Eastern Catholic priest, had had enough of Archbishop Ireland's anti-Eastern attitude and sought refuge in Orthodoxy. As a result of Toth's "conversion," (Toth is a saint in the Orthodox Church) huge numbers of Eastern Catholics followed him into Orthodoxy. It was not Archbishop's Ireland's greatest moment.

The barbecue held in honor of the visiting archbishop and clergy attracted the residents of a neighboring house. Four small neighbor boys sat nearby and watched as 20 hungry clergymen in black cassocks and gold crosses ate and drank at separate tables. (The Orthodox fast for Communion involves abstaining from food or drink starting at midnight the night before). Father Gregory, the priest from Saint Michael's in Northern Liberties--the sponsoring parish for this large event -- had gone to extremes to make everyone happy, including bringing along multiple bottles of red and white dinner wine.

As the shish-kabob browned on the grills and gave off whiffs of intoxicating "this is delicious" barbecue smoke, I took occasional looks at the big Victorian mansion on the mountain top -- was Anthony Perkins in there with his rocking chair Momma? -- and thought how nice it was to get away from Philly, if only for a day.