Recently, a film crew interviewed me for a documentary about the historic Huber Breaker in Ashley, PA. While Ashley is in the Northern Coalfields of the Anthracite Mining Region, and I hail from the Southern Coalfields, the filmmaker, John Welsh, a friend of a friend, thought I might lend an interesting perspective. Why? Well, I grew up with an abandoned breaker a stone’s throw from my bedroom window. Before my siblings and I were old enough to make the trek through the woods to the breaker, we looked out on it and imagined it to be where souls went when people died. Even while we were then being inculcated with our Catholic Christian faith’s resplendent images of heaven, we viewed the Mary-D Colliery “abode of souls” rather like the Old Testament Sheol. That is, it was a foreboding place where spirits existed as shadows flitting about in the dust and the dark. And yet, there was also a Valhalla (“hall of slain heroes”) aspect to our fantasy of the breaker as a final resting place.
John asked me to tell this tale on camera because he encountered an unexpected twist in his telling of the Ashley Breaker story: some of his interviewees were describing the place as “sacred.” During his first visit to the breaker, he himself felt as though he were “entering a cathedral.” (Easier to imagine when you see the Ashley Breaker: it is eleven stories high, with walls composed of windows, many of which are now missing. When you stand on the top floor, wind whipping past your body, you feel as though you are soaring over the surrounding hills.) John thought my perspective as a native, combined with my background in religious studies, might help illuminate this part of the story.
And so it was that I met John, and his colleagues Alana Mauger and Alex Fox Rudinski, one recent Saturday for a trip to Ashley.
During my interview I was careful not to position myself as an expert on sacred spaces because I am not. And while my Master’s thesis dealt somewhat with the “sacramental imagination”—that is, an optic on the world that sees the divine manifest in both natural and human creation, an optic I believe is most pronounced in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, both prominent in the Coal Region—I didn’t want to put forth any half-baked hypotheses on camera.
But I realize I may have been too careful, and there is more I wish to say on this. No answers emerge in what follows, just more questions.
When religion scholars speak of sacred v. profane space, they often do so with recourse to the thinking of the late religious historian, Mircea Eliade. Eliade’s universalist theories of religious experience have come under postmodernist scrutiny, but they are useful for shedding light on why people might experience “secular” spaces as “sacred.” Eliade believed that a sacred place can be anywhere a person has an encounter with the divine (such a manifestation of the sacred he called a “hierophany”). Humans do not choose the place; it is chosen by the divine. In theory, an abandoned colliery could qualify. And if a space is regarded as sacred, shouldn’t that add another dimension to the debate over its preservation?
At the end of our exploration of the crumbling Huber Breaker, the filmmakers asked me to reflect on its future. I found myself saying that while I’m generally sentimental, my thinking about the preservation of these spaces is more pragmatic. I said something about how I feel they are best preserved in art and historiography, rather than in actuality…that it would be too costly to restore…they are public safety hazards…yadda yadda yadda.
Thinking now upon my response, I realize it as a complete reversal of how I felt when I was younger. Maybe I was not being pragmatic as much as slavishly fatalistic. If so, I reason recent, significant events in my life brought me to this point of resignation.
In 2008, the Allentown Diocese, which oversees the Roman Catholic parishes of most of the Coal Region, shuttered 47 of its 151 churches. Thirty-two were in my home county of Schuylkill; among these was my childhood parish of St. Bertha’s in Tuscarora. St. Bertha’s was a beautiful, serene, holy place where I had many “hierophanies,” both as a child and as an adult. In 2010, the building and grounds were sold for $30,000 and converted to a private residence. When I drive past now, I weep to see vinyl windows in place of stained glass, and a Mercedes Benz parked in the driveway.
A fate more tragic than that of St. Bertha’s is St. George’s in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County. Closed in 2006, St. George has particular historic significance as the first Lithuanian parish in the U.S. Despite this fact, the Allentown Diocese deemed the building structurally unsound and opted for demolition rather than preservation in 2009. After years of pleading with the diocese to spare the church from destruction, even offering to buy the building and subsequently suing the diocese in civil court, the parishioners of St. George saw their beloved church razed to the ground in February 2010. Each year, at the annual Lithuania Days heritage festival in Schuylkill County, parishioners publicly mourn the loss of their church at a small shrine erected just for the event. A former parishioner told me that since he no longer has a church, he no longer attends Mass. At midnight on Christmas Eve, he can be found in front of the fenced, vacant lot where his church once stood holding a solitary candlelight vigil.
When I once asked my grandmother, a life-long, devout Catholic, how she felt about her own parish, St. Bartholemew’s in Brockton, being shuttered, she replied: “I am bitter.” I realize I am bitter too. Maybe funds ought to be expended to preserve the material legacy of Anthracite Mining. Maybe the Huber Breaker bears enough historical significance to justify the cost and effort. It is a debate worth having. (And it is already taking place in the Region, though often not charitably. See comments here.)
But, I ask: If a wrecking ball can smash through the face of Christ and his Blessed Mother as painted on a gorgeous ceiling fresco, why not through through the rusted sheet metal walls of a breaker? If a colossal pipe organ can be smashed to splinters, if an angel can be hauled away in chains to an unknown destination, why cannot corroded pieces of metal be sorted and sold in the scrap markets of Philadelphia?
If our churches, why not our collieries? And if our cultural heritage, why not our labor legacy?