CENTRALIA, Pa. — Centralia is the spookiest and saddest place in Pennsylvania. An unquenchable 54-year-old underground coal fire compelled the relocation of virtually the entire population of the borough through federal government buyouts in the 1980s.
From a population of more than 1,000 in 1980, only a half-dozen holdouts remain in the Columbia County community — residents who struck an agreement with the government allowing them to stay until they die.
Improbably, however, there is life beyond their scattered homes. Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church — perched on a hilltop just outside the borough line — is still active, drawing congregants from afar on Sundays and holy days.
This Sunday, the church will host a daylong event welcoming the faithful for liturgy and prayer. It’s the first such event since Assumption was declared a holy pilgrimage site.
“Everyone is invited,” said Father Michael Hutsko, Assumption’s pastor of six years. “It’s not just for Eastern Catholics. It’s a call to prayer. We’re hoping people will leave with a renewed sense of God’s presence in their lives.”
Founded in 1911, Assumption has about 50 parishioners. Last year, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, primate of the worldwide Ukrainian Catholic Church, visited and marveled at how the congregation had endured despite the desolation of the borough, which is essentially an empty street grid slowly being reclaimed by nature.
Shevchuk likened the jarring emptiness to that of Pripyat, a Ukrainian town of 49,000 abandoned in 1986 after the Chernobyl nuclear plant catastrophe. But he saw a profound symbol of God’s presence in the persistence of the church.
“He thought (Assumption) was so holy and spiritual, he wanted to make it special,” said Father John Fields, spokesman for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, explaining how the isolated church earned its designation as a pilgrimage site.
“It’s eerie,” Fields said. “There’s no town at all but there’s a viable church, in a day and age when churches are being closed.”
The people who left Centralia behind years ago “all went off in different directions,” Hutsko said, “but the church remained the common denominator.”
Sunday is the Feast of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God. The holy day corresponds to what Western Catholics call the Feast of the Assumption, commemorating Mary’s bodily ascent to heaven. It is also the date of the church’s founding.
The theme of the pilgrimage is “Beseeching God’s Mercy — Praying for the Intercession of the Mother of God.”
“We don’t have an idea of how many people to expect . but we’re getting a tremendous amount of media support,” Hutsko said. “We’re anticipating 300 to 400 people. It could be double that or it could be less than that, but that’s what we’re planning for.”
Events will begin at noon, with Metropolitan-Archbishop Stefan Soroka of the archeparchy as main celebrant of the Divine Liturgy.
A Living Rosary will be prayed at 2:30 p.m. before a jeweled 18th century copy of the Icon of Our Lady of Pochaiv.
At 4 p.m., pilgrims will gather at the outdoor chapel for a candlelight procession to the church and the Blessing of Water for the Jubilee Year of Mercy will take place at the Grotto of the Holy Cross. The water will be distributed to the pilgrims.
That will be followed by the celebration of a Moleben (prayer service) to the Mother of God. Soroka will again be the main celebrant as well as homilist.
Confessions will be available throughout the day at various locations on the church grounds. There will be religious articles for sale, which will be blessed at the conclusion of the Living Rosary.
The event is rain or shine, and food will also be provided to whoever shows up.