At eight o’clock on March 14th 1915 a determined group of thirty-three souls met at the home of Andrew Kovacs with a noble purpose in mind. These men were immigrants come to the New World, embarking on a new way of life. Yet they wanted to worship God in the true faith, in the tradition of their fathers from Europe. They were Slavs from the Kingdom of Hungary and from the Russian Empire, the regions of Central Europe. They wanted to establish a new parish in West Aliquippa and build a Church in their own neighborhood. The journey to McKees Rocks and South Side by train and ferry was too difficult, and the number of faithful locally warranted the establishment of a new community. The founders chose to place this project under guidance of the Holy Spirit, and dedicated their new community under the title of the “Descent of the Holy Spirit.”
They elected the first officers who would begin to organize themselves and search for a suitable property in West Aliquippa. The first officers of the parish were Andy Kovacs (president), Mike Malinich (vice-president), Joseph Merges (secretary), and Mike Opsatnik (treasurer).
The young Greek-Catholic community formed a Charter, and this was set in place an approved in April. They purchased tow lots on Main Street for $1, 400 and the members were asked to pledge money to pay for the purchase of the land and for the building of the Church. Very quickly $1550 had been collected, and the generosity of these immigrants (who were not well off) had made a good foundation for building. By November 1915 the name of the Church had been chosen: “Saint George the Great-Martyr.” The officers began traveling around to other churches to look at American designs, interiors, towers and altars. An architect and builder were chosen, and George Miller undertook to build the church, which cost $7,500!
On October 29th 1916 the marker for the new Church of Saint George was ready for blessing! The original marker has survived and can be seen today in the courtyard of our Church. Father Arnold Shuba, the pastor of the Byzantine Church in McKees Rocks, came to celebrate the blessing, and he was assisted by Father Nestor Volinski and Father Valenin Palermo (of Aliquippa). A band was hired, and the parish launched with great joy. Building continued through the winter, so that in April it was decided that the blessing of the new Church could be planned. On July 4th 1917 Father Gabriel Martyak (Apostolic Administrator for Greek Catholics) performed this ceremony.
By 1921 a parish house had been obtained, and parishioners loaned money to the Church to make it possible to have their own resident priest in West Aliquippa. A priest and a cantor were hired, and the regular liturgical life of the parish was begun. Bells were purchased for the parish in 1927, and these were donated by Joseph Merges, John Nadzam, and John Chapes. At its institution, the parish had been placed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and graces abounded. The distinctive Byzantine services, and the popular style of singing enjoyed by the faithful became a feature of life in West Aliquippa. A wonderful musical tradition was instituted by dedicated cantors and choir directors who had trained in Europe, and Saint Gorge became noted for its worship. The story is told, that even members of Protestant churches would come outside our Church at the time of services to listen, and they would marvel at the spirited singing, and the way these Byzantine’s praised God in their own language and with such love and devotion.
The year 1930 was a landmark year. At a meeting of the ‘member’ of the parish, women came to attend the meeting for the first time, and asked to be able to vote. (Until then, only men who had paid dues were able to vote for officers of the parish!). Father Rapach (pastor at the time) ruled that only those women, whose husbands were not present could vote. There was to be only one vote per (dues-paying) family. Mrs. Barkovic was nominated to be president (though she was not elected), and this was a historic turning point for the parish.
The depression was a difficult time for the young community, and many austerities were instituted. It was necessary to share the services of one priest between several churches. Father Rapach also served in Clairton, and later Father Warady also served in Ambridge, but this meant that services were not always at a convenient hour. The thirties and forties also witnessed difficult times, not only because of the financial austerity, but also because of the Second World War. The parish also faced the question of married clergy and the change of the church calendar. Later, the parish agreed to change the calendar (moving all the feasts 13 days, e.g. moving Christmas from January 7th to December 25th), and to celebrate Pascha according to the Western system. These disputes were difficult ones for the clergy and the people.
After being served by 11 pastors in 30 years, Bishop Takach sent a young priest, Father Michael Simodejka to Saint George in 1947. Father Michael was to make Aliquippa his home and serve as a pastor for more than 50 years. At this time, men who had been serving in the military abroad, began to return to Aliquippa. They married and started families. They were employed in the Steel Industry, and at this time parish membership grew from less than 200, to more than 1,200. The number of Liturgies had to be multiplied to three! The ownership of cars became commonplace, and the G.I. Bill helped many servicemen buy houses, and the local Byzantine community spread from West Aliquippa to encompass Hopewell and Center Township. The church was soon too small, and even with three Liturgies, people were left to attend outside, After much prayer and discussion, it was decided to begin to consider building a lager church, and fund raising was begun in 1962.
Soon 14.6 acres were obtained from Mr. Nick Istok in Aliquippa’s Plan 12 on which parishioners would build a new church, a new parish house, and a new social center. Bishop Nicholas Elko broke ground at the new site on August 2nd 1964 and sufficient funds had been donated or promised for construction to begin in October of 1964. At the time the building was completed, Bishop Nicholas had been named Archbishop and was called to Rome, and so, on October 29th 1967 the new church was blessed by Msgr. Edward Rosack, Administrator of the Exarchate of Pittsburgh. Because of the larger size of the new church, the number of Divine Liturgies was reduced to two, one celebrated in the Church Slavonic language, and the other in English.
Through the remarkable generosity of parishioners, and through much hard work by volunteers in the kitchen and Center, the costs of the building were fully paid within three years of their completion and all debt absolved!
The church was blessed at this time with a very well organized School of Religion. Our parish has given the church a number of priests and religious, including Msgr. Russell Duker, who is Chancellor and Protopresbyter of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh.
For his devoted service to God and for his prudent and exemplary love for the church, Father Michael Simodejka was titled “Monsignor” by Blessed Paul VI, Pope of Rome, in 1976. Father celebrated his fiftieth year of ordination with a Liturgy and banquet on September 23rd 1990. On this day of celebration, Archbishop Stephen Kocisko presided, and the singing was led by Monsignor’s brother Emil Simodejka, and the Byzantine Male Chorus he directed. After more than fifty years as pastor of Saint George, at the age of 83, Father Michael died from cancer on October 2nd 1997. He had celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the church the day before, for the holy day (the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God). May his memory be eternal!
For several months, priests came from the seminary and elsewhere to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. One of these priests, who came from the Christmas 1997 holiday, was a Carmelite monk from England, Fr. Elias O’Brien. Because of the shortage of clergy, Metropolitan Judson asked Father Elias if he would serve in the Archeparchy, and Father Elias was given permission by his religious superiors in England to become administrator of Saint George.
Again, thanks to the great generosity of the faithful of Saint George, in these last five years of our parish story, much work has been accomplished and our community has grown. A Parish Advisory Board was appointed, and Mr. Charles Sirko was named treasurer. Attention has been given to renewing and improving our wonderful church and parish facility. Air conditioning has been installed, the parking lot refinished, and the whole building painted and redecorated. At the direction of Metropolitan Judson who advocated the renewal of our churches in authentic Byzantien and Eastern Catholic tradition, the parish of Saint George undertook to re-order the altar and install an iconostas. A wood carver, Mr. Frank Cunius, and iconographers, Father Theodore Kufos and Mr. Valentine Streltsov were chosen. The response by the parishioners to this new challenge was remarkable, and in a very short time, 47 icons had been donated and the new project begun. Our iconographers have also undertaken to paint icons of the Mother of God, angels, and the Fathers of the Church in the dome over the altar. The iconostas and holy table were completed at the time o fthe 85th anniversary of the parish, and a celebration was planned at which the iconostas and holy table were to be blessed. But this was postponed because of the death of Metropolitan Judson and the anniversary has passed.
In the past two years, we have continued to improve our facility, and have remodeled the Parish Center, to make it possible to use the Center for banquets and wedding celebrations. This project is completed, and final plans are in place for its use. We have purchased the remaining land surrounding our original property, still owned by Mr. Istok’s heirs, and so Saint George now owns the field and wooded area that borders the original property. The property now consists of 80 acres. The Carmelite sisters have purchased the house adjoining Church property (1000 Clinton Street), and have contributed greatly by their prayerful presence in our parish.
We have established a ‘room of memories’ in the social room, and parishioners have brought pictures celebrating our Church’s history, and life. Among these in pride of place, we honor our own veterans, and those who have served our country in the armed services.
With the appointment of Metropolitan Basil as the new Archbishop of Pittsburgh, the parish asked if it would be possible to revive the places for the celebration, and arrange for the belssing of the iconostas and holy table. That has been planned for May 4th 2003.
At this celebration, we will bless the iconostas and holy table, as these are symbols of God’s grace and His presence in the center of our Community. God has blessed this parish of Saint George in so many way since its foundation. We give God thanks. We also rejoice in the generosity and dedication of generations of faithful parishioners, who have sacrificed and worked hard to enable this Church, rooted in ancient traditions, to witness the vitality of the Christian faith, to new generations.
May the Lord grant to all the founders and benefactors of Saint George who have fallen asleep in the Lord, Eternal Memory! May the Lord God grant to all our parishioners, our families, and friends, peace, health, and happiness for many blessed years!