Resurrection through tears and change

Mar 14, 2016 by

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Several years ago during the Easter vigil at Resurrection Catholic parish in my hometown of Johnstown, Pa., I found myself weeping almost uncontrollably.

Stephen Kriss


The Saturday Easter vigil is among the grandest of Catholic ceremonies in the liturgical year. Worship begins with fire and a sense of anticipating resurrection. Lights are dim or darkened, and the altar is empty. The worship eventually culminates with light and celebration, flowers on the altar and candles blazing.

The weeping came in a section of prayerful remembering.

Resurrection is a merged parish of multiple ethnicities. It’s also the parish where my great grandparents attended. The Slovak script that was above the altar and proclaimed Glory to God has been scrubbed clean, painted over so that the space could be hospitable to other tribes who joined this newly merged parish.

They left behind their sacred buildings, slowly sold off by the diocese to create a new future by consolidating into fewer buildings and cultivating a new vibrant worship life.

Inside the Resurrection facility are elements from each of the ethnic traditions in this gateway neighborhood for immigrants now brought under the same roof — Irish, Polish, Hungarian, German, Slovene, Croatian. Certainly all European, but as different as white folk can get some days.

It is not a negating of tradition and there are certainly losses of identity. However, under the banner of resurrection a future seems to be unfolding.

Masses are full, and the music is compelling. The old St. Steph­en’s parish building teems with life, though it’s painful to walk past the empty structures of other congregations like St. Casmir’s Polish church, which is waiting for a new owner to turn it into a microbrewery, and the empty lot where St. Emerich’s Hungarian church once stood, torn down due to structural integrity issues.

As part of the Saturday vigil, each of these predecessor parishes and their patron saints were named.

I never lived in this historic neighborhood. My family fled to the suburbs by the 1960s. But I felt the pain of letting go in the prayer. And I felt the hope of resurrection in this newly packed-out church finding a different life that incorporates these distinctly different communities.

There are still pierogies, for sure. There are polkas. Cheap beer still flows at church festivals in the midst of embraces and friendly greetings among neighbors who used to worship in different parishes.

The neighborhood population is a fraction of what it had been at the height of the immigrant waves from Europe, but it still holds the memories of immigrant life as a touchstone for thousands who have spread out across the U.S. from this tiny multilingual enclave along the Conemaugh River.

I want to hold on to the memory of my vigil experience in the midst of the turn from the twilight of Saturday toward the bright hope of resurrection.

It’s a memory of bringing, what we have that is both holy and sacred — recognizing those gone before, both communities and individuals, of letting go and finding a different future than might have been expected.

There are ways, even though there have been tears, to sing the alleluias and to proclaim as boldly as I can muster: Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. And to say it together and to find a new way forward with great love, again.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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