Two Slovenian communities in US to lose their churches

St John's Windish Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, US.
St John's Windish Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, US. Photo: STA

The Slovenian Protestant community in Bethlehem in the US state of Pennsylvania will soon be left without their church. More than 110 years after being built by the community, St John’s Windish Evangelical Lutheran Church is being sold. The town’s Slovenian Catholics are in the process of losing their church as well.

The story of the two communities has been closely tied to historical developments, dating back to the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century when immigrants, in particular from Central Europe, were arriving en masse to work at the Bethlehem steel plant.

The Slovenian immigrants mostly came from the north-eastern region of Prekmurje. Convinced by Hungarian priests that they belonged to a special ethnic group called Windish, many adopted this name, with the Protestants among them in particular preserving the name even after Slovenia gained independence.

On arriving in Bethlehem, each ethnic community first built their own church, which was the only place for them to socialise in their mother tongue and according to their customs and traditions. The Prekmurje Slovenians built two churches – the Protestants built theirs in 1910 and the Catholics their one in 1914.

The first Slovenian Protestant immigrants in Bethlehem attended the German St Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, with the Germans later helping them secure their own. The Bethlehem Slovenians bought the plot for their church building for US$2,500 in May 1910. The first pastor speaking the Prekmurje dialect was Ernest Stiegler, who arrived in 1914 and stayed on for 42 years.

The world of old is however disappearing from Bethlehem. The immigrants are growing older, new ones from Prekmurje are not arriving, the steel plant has shut down, and the lack of finances and parishioners has led to three Evangelical and Lutheran parishes being merged into one, which has been named the Blessed Trinity Lutheran Church.

The seat for the parish will be found once the three buildings are sold – the German St Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church of the Light of Christ, which is the result of an earlier merger, and St John’s Windish Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The sale of St John’s Windish is not proceeding smoothly, as the owners, representing the Slovenian Protestant community, have become embroiled in a dispute with the city over the intended purpose of the large parking lot in front of the church.

Mass celebrated for the reopening of at the Slovenian Catholic St Joseph’s Church in Bethlehem, US, in 2012.

Meanwhile, also subject to a dispute has been the Slovenian-founded St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Bethlehem. Unlike the Protestants who will be party to the proceeds of the sale, the Slovenian Catholic community in 2008 lost what it had built and maintained without getting compensation. The then bishop of Allentown, Bethlehem’s twin city, decided to close 47 ethnic churches due to lack of money, priests and parishioners.

Led by Stephen Antalics, the initiator of the twinning of Bethlehem and the Prekmurje city of Murska Sobota, the community took the case to the Vatican. The Bishop of Allentown then found a Solomonic solution and allowed the church to be open for mass on St Joseph’s Day and for funerals.

The first mass four years after the church’s closure was attended by 400 parishioners along with Slovenian state officials, including Roman Kirn, who at the time served as ambassador to the US.

A final closure for the church is impending, however, as the parish has now run out of money and the diocese will soon start proceedings to liquidate the church.

 St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Bethlehem, US.