St. Thomas Parish was founded at a time when new coal mines were being opened in Fayette County. The early settlers, joined by many immigrants, sought to earn a livelihood in the mines. Many of these who were Catholics realized the need of a place of worship.
A new parish was formed and building of a new church began in May 1901. The H.C. Frick Coke Co. granted a 99 year lease on the property on which the church now stands.
Bishop Richard Phelan of the Diocese of Pittsburgh appointed Father John Jaskovits as the first pastor.
The first Mass of the parish was celebrated Sunday, May 13, 1901, in one of the Frick Company houses.
Immediately the men and women organized to begin the work of building a church. The zeal and enthusiasm of these early parishioners became apparent in the success of St. Thomas Parish.
The foundation of the first church, a frame building, was erected under the supervision of Father Jaskovits. The cornerstone was blessed July 4, 1903, and services were conducted in the basement. Father Jaskovits was then transferred to Homestead.
Father Michael Orzechowski was appointed to succeed Father Jaskovits. He completed the church and it was dedicated July 4, 1905, by the late Bishop Paul Rhode, Bishop of Green Bay, Wis.
Father Ignatius Ostaszewski followed as pastor from 1905-09. He erected a frame rectory in July 1906 and opened the school and convent a little later that year.
Father Ostaszewski, with the parish's first assistant Father Andrew Bejenkowski, succeeded in organizing the following mission churches: St. Mary, Cardale (Dec. 6, 1908 to July 4, 1915); St. Hedwig, Brier Hill (Dec. 14, 1906 to Sept. 9, 1909); St. Casimer, Keisterville (Aug. 9, 1906 to Oct. 9, 1909). These missions later became separate parishes and are no longer existence.
In 1909, Bishop Regis Canevin appointed Father John Kopera as pastor. He served as pastor for the next eight years. He continued the progressive work of his predecessors.
On Sunday afternoon, November 17, 1909 tragedy struck St. Thomas Church. The church so loved by its parishioners was destroyed by a fire whose origin was undetermined. Their faith undaunted, the people conducted services for a time in the school as plans were made to erect a larger more substantial church.
The work of building the foundation progressed so rapidly that the cornerstone was laid and blessed by Father Michael A. Lambing Sunday, July 17, 1910. The new church was built in a Romanesque style and constructed of buff brick with a red Spanish tile roof.
The church contained beautiful stained glass windows. It was dedicated by a missionary priest, Father Charles Janowski, S.J., August 9, 1911.
Temporary altars were erected and the present pews installed. The church was a beautiful monument to the memory of Father Kopera who was transferred in 1917.
By this time Father Bejenkowski was made pastor of the missions at Keister and Brier Hill. Father John Wojciechowski and Father Stanley Zmijewski served as assistants under Father Kopera.
Father Anthony Baron succeeded Father Kopera as pastor from 1917-25. The present altars, a used boiler to heat the church and a used electric organ were installed with the aid of loans from the chancery and the Polish American Beneficial Society.
St. Thomas Church was assessed $6,580 for the Educational Fund. St. Thomas School was closed but the parish began a school fund hoping to build a new school. Father Baron was transferred in April 1925 to St. Mary of Czestochowa, New Kensington.
Father John Robacrewski was pastor from 1925-27.
Father Leo Buza took charge of the parish from 1927-39. The depression years and general unemployment brought difficulties to the parish. Father Buza found it necessary to obtain a loan from Joseph Slowik, a parishioner.
Social and entertainment were kept alive to help the financial situation. In spite of financial difficulties, the parish spiritual growth expanded. St. Thomas Parish enjoyed an active Holy Name Society, sodality, Holy Rosary Society and choir.
During 1938, with the aid of Father Adam Jurczyk, a temporary assistant, Father Buza succeeded to have the interior of the church painted and new flooring installed in the church aisles.
Father Ladislaus Kolakowski also served as assistant pastor. Time for a change though and Father Buza was transferred to St. Hyacinth Church, Pittsburgh, leaving the parish with a $12,000 debt.
Father Stanley Gawronski became pastor in August 1939.
During his pastorate, loans amounting to $5,200 were paid off; the Educational Fund assessment of $6,382 was paid in full; the church interior was repainted; all exterior woodwork was painted; stained glass windows were repaired; a rubber tile flooring was installed in the sanctuary; electric lighting fixtures were installed, including 14 pendant lanterns; cushioned kneelers were installed; and two rooms added to the school building.
Father Gawronski did much in a financial way to guard the future interests of the parish. After serving the parish for 18 years, he was transferred to the former All Saints Church, East Vandergrift.
Father Walter Iwaniski was the next pastor to serve St. Thomas Church. He became pastor in 1957. His first interest was to reopen the school. He used every effort to get teaching nuns, but to no avail.
Teaching religion to our young people, first through twelfth grade, became his primary concern. With the help of the Trinitarian Nuns and in cooperation with the diocesan program, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine was organized and interested lay teachers took over the teaching.
A new roof was put on the school and the interior remodeled to better serve teaching religion. The St. Thomas Social Center was built. A hardtop surface for the parking lot was started but not completed.
It was during Father Iwaniski's pastorate that the changes in the church began. It was a smooth transition. The altar of sacrifice, facing the congregation was used for the first time. Lectors were trained and congregational participation began, including singing.
Father Leonard Knuth, the next pastor, succeeded Father Iwaniski in 1968.
Father Knuth completed hardtopping the church parking lot; paid off the debt on the Social Center, which approximated $40,000; installed stainless steel steeples; installed a new tile roof and copper gutters on the church; installed new furnaces in the church and school buildings; made improvements on the church cemetery; had repairs made to the church organ; installed a new public address system in the church; installed new concrete steps from the church to the highway, including iron safety railings; installed protective roof over church entrance; installed a concrete walk from the church to the rectory; and completed the building of a new rectory.
St. Thomas Parish is grateful that it was blessed with pastors and assistant pastors who contributed much to physical and spiritual growth of the parish.
However, much credit is due to the great number of parishioners for their hard work and voluntary contributions. It is impossible to list the names and accomplishments of each. Time and space does not permit it. There are so many who have sacrificed and given of themselves.
Only by the grace of God could all this happen. So we say: Deo Gratias – Thanks be to God – Bogu Dzieki.
Read the full history of the former St. Thomas Parish.