The Roman Catholic Parish of Saints Peter and Paul in Towanda will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the current church building on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019.
Father Patrick Toner (pastor 1863-1876) was appointed pastor of Saints Peter and Paul parish in 1863. He was 30 years old when he assumed the responsibility of the Roman Catholics in Bradford County.
A native of Ireland, he had been ordained by Bishop John Neumann in 1859. In addition to the relatively large group of Catholics residing in Towanda, clusters of his parishioners were to be found in what were the outlying frontiers of the diocese. Despite the distances involved, Athens, Troy, South Waverly, Bentley Creek, Ridgebury, Windham and Barclay were all dependent on him for service, as were the nearby communities of Ulster, Burlington, Monroeton, Overshot, Smithfield, Standing Stone, Wyalusing and Pond Hill.
With 17 mission stations to keep him occupied, Father Toner practically lived on horseback for the first five years of his stay in the northern tier.
Father Toner and the parishioners of Saints Peter and Paul did not see eye to eye. He had a much better relationship with the parishioners at St. Patrick’s at Barclay, probably due to the fact that most of them were recent immigrants from Ireland, as was Father Toner. The parishioners were a people who had their own ideas as to how the world should be run. Above all they were not going to let any Irish immigrant dictate to them, no matter how talented he might otherwise be. That conclusion was made clear to him in the fall of 1867. For the previous four years he had tried, with but little success, to drum into their consciousness the urgent need to replace their outmoded frame church, one which had been built in 1841 for a much smaller congregation.
When despite their opposition, he managed to save enough money to start construction.
J. K. Vaughn of Towanda was hired as architect and a crew hired to erect the foundation. On Sunday, Oct. 27, 1867 Bishop Wood laid the cornerstone for the new church of Saints Peter and Paul. The opposing parishioners remained silent about the construction until the masonry work had been completed. Then, the more vocal among them took over. Mercilessly they criticized everything Father Toner had done. To back up their objections to the completed foundation, they hired an architect, who after a cursory examination, agreed with them, advising that an entirely new start be made. A work crew was hired to demolish the offending walls.
By the summer of 1868, the alleged errors of the first phase had been corrected, a new contract was let, and a corps of bricklayers converged upon the rebuilt foundation. As the exterior of the church began to take shape, a majority of the parishioners threw their support at last to the side of their embarrassed pastor. Though dwindled in their numbers, the critics kept their fires well-tended. They demanded a refund to the parish treasury of the $8,000 that was expended on the second foundation. While able to sidestep their annoying charges, it had unpleasant consequences for Father Toner’s dream of a modern usable church building.
In July of 1868 the Diocese of Scranton was created from Philadelphia. The 11 counties in the new diocese included Bradford County. Rt. Rev. William O’Hara was installed as the first Bishop and his first act of business was to divide Bradford County into two parishes the new parish of Holy Ghost at Athens included Sayre, Bentley Creek, Ridgebury, South Waverly and Windham. This freed Father Toner of the time-consuming trips to Northwestern Bradford County.
In 1869 St. John Nepomucene in Troy was made a separate parish, dividing Bradford County into three parishes.
When the contractor placed the finishing touches upon the roof, added the doors, and positioned the windows of the church in the summer of 1869, every cent was drained from the savings account of the parish and still there remained a debt of $2,500. Father Toner did his best to raise the needed cash, but it was a futile effort. As a result, the builder was forced to place a mechanics lien upon the property to protect his investment. Father Toner appealed to his brother Thomas, a priest in Philadelphia, for help and between them they came to the rescue of the parish, paid the lien, and entered a judgment against the congregation for the amount of their loan.
On Dec. 12, 1869 the new church building was blessed and opened for Divine Worship.
The building is a perfect model of neat Gothic architecture. Mr. I. J. Perry of Binghamton, New York was the architect. It is of brick with a granite base, having an attractive front of embellished cut stone, chastely and elegantly designed. The building is 100-feet long by 50-feet wide and is surmounted by a grand spire, 190 feet high. The basement is 14-feet high. The stonework of this part of the building is also a magnificent piece of handiwork being handsomely cut and designed. The windows of the church are of a stained glass, of superior material and workmanship. The church will contain three altars and has but yet to be plastered and receive the final frescoing and other embellishments to be a complete structure. The old church was a rickety frame building, badly located and utterly unsuited for the growing wants of the congregation. The cost was $50,000.
For the next five years, the parishioners of Saints Peter and Paul’s kept their purse strings so tight that bankruptcy was a perennial specter before the pastor’s eyes. Not only was he subjected to the hardships of hand-to-mouth existence, he had to continually plead for whatever financial assistance was given him. Meanwhile, they let the church stand unfinished as a mite reminder of his past improvidence. In 1874 the bill collectors again lost their patience and the sheriff once more posted the property for sale.
Father Toner humbled himself, made the rounds of his parishioners and managed to scrape together enough to postpone the day of retribution a little longer. Each contributor made his offering as a loan, not a gift.
On Feb. 11, 1876 Father Charles F. Kelly, S.J., D.D, (pastor 1876-1899) was named pastor of Saints Peter and Paul’s parish.
Father Kelly’s next project as pastor was to finish the interior of the church and have it dedicated. During the year of 1879 Father Kelly had an addition built on the east side of the church, which provided a sanctuary and sacristies and the completion of them in a substantial and highly artistic manner. The walls and ceilings were handsomely frescoed upon a ground of light brown or fawn color, broken at intervals by gilded stucco work, which subdivides the ceiling, running downward on the sides. This structure, which is the finest church edifice in this part of the state, is of the following dimensions: Total length, including addition, 132 feet; auditorium, 49 feet by 88 feet; sacristies, 12 feet by 12 feet 6 inches; body of the church, 104 by 56 feet; vestibule, 10 by 10; stairway to the gallery, 9 feet 6 inches, by 16 feet. The ceiling is at an angle, the apex of which is 44 feet from the auditorium floor. The auditorium will furnish seating for 1,000 adults, and the gallery for 250 more. The pews are constructed of selected white oak, trimmed with carved black walnut.
The side walls are 30-feet high, above the foundation, and 20-inches thick — that is, they are composed of two eight-inch walls, with a space of four inches between them. These are divided into seven bays, by broad buttresses on each side, with four cut stone weather tables, giving the walls substantial support. The tower is 15-by-15 feet, divided in four stages, the first - feet 8-inches thick, the second 2-feet, the third, 20 inches. The tower buttresses are carried well up and have cut stone weathering. All the walls are of a good quality hard burned brick; the water-tables, cornices and weathering to the buttresses, are of the best, Onondaga limestone.
The tower is divided into four stages by cut stone string courses; a doorway is in the first, a grouped window in the second, a trefoil window in the third, and openings with triple arches in the fourth. The bell is by McShane, of Baltimore and weighs 2536 pounds: it is an E flat.
The spire is 75 feet in height, terminating in a gilded cross. The entrance to the building is through two spacious doorways, one is located in the center of the tower, the other at the side.
There are twelve windows on the sides, of gothic form, and filled with light gray stained glass, with alternate borders of blue, green, orange and fawn; three windows over the gallery in the west end, and a large gothic window in the eastern end of stained glass, representing the crucifixion, with figures of Mary Magdalene and St. John the Evangelist, and the weeping Virgin.
The altar and side altars were designed in a modern gothic, and harmonize with the character of the architecture of the church,
The gallery is a marvel of inlaid woodwork, extending out well over the entrance into the auditorium.
The beautiful and costly altar was the contribution of the Catholic Young Men’s Association.
The pipes and gas fixtures were put in by E. Williams, of Towanda and the workmanship, arrangement of burners, etc., harmonized with the magnificent finish of the building. The main light was a chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling, it had sixteen burners.
Four large furnaces in the basement heated the structure.
The service of dedication of the completed Church of Saints Peter and Paul took place on Sunday December 14, 1879. Finally, after twelve years the vision of Father Patrick Toner was completed.
On September 5, 1898 during a heavy afternoon thunder shower lightening twice struck the spite of Saints Peter and Paul’s Church. The bolts struck just below the cross about 175 feet above the street and tore fully half the slates from the sides of the spire. Two of the timbers were badly shattered and holes punched in the main roof by flying splinters.
The bell was uninjured, the electric fluid leaving the building just above it. No damage was done to the interior of the church. The strokes came about three minutes apart and in this interval, James Sullivan ran into the church expecting to find it on fire.
The cost to repair the damage to the church was $1,000, the principal item of expense being the erection and removal of scaffolding. The work was completed on November 8, 1898 and the “Friend Returned” began to ring out the hours of six in the morning noon and six at night as it had for many years before.
In May of 1900 a number of alterations and improvements were made in the church. The first row of pews was removed, and a platform constructed in front of the altar rail, bringing the kneeling communicants nearer the officiating priest. The Main altar and the side altars were enameled in white and ornamented in gold leaf, handsome new carpet was placed upon the floor in front about the altars; a new upholstered armchair was added to the furniture. The figure of an angel with outstretched wings was placed at each end of the main altar, the changes added to the beauty of the church. John Taylor the well-known painter and decorator did the work.
In 1905 Father J. J. Coroner (pastor 1899-1912) had the church remodeled when the church reopened Sunday November 29, 1905 the following account was in a local paper: “The congregation of Saints Peter and Paul’s Church occupied their remodeled church edifice on Sunday morning for the first time. To the person who has not kept watch of the improvements as they have been made during the past five months, they are most striking.
The walls and ceilings of the interior beautifully frescoed and adorned with religious paintings, new pews of quartered oak, new stained-glass windows 13 in number, a new altar rail, new stations of the cross, a remodeled front entrance and the exterior of the building repainted.
The transformation has been accomplished by an expenditure of approximately $6,000. The contract for the alterations to the building and all woodwork was taken by Patrick T. Frawley of Towanda. The frescoing and interior painting was done by David W. Lougher of Waverly.
The first thing to strike the observer on entering the church is the interior decoration. Adorning the side walls are the 14 Stations of the Cross, artistic groups of statuary made by the DePrato Statuary Co. of New York and Chicago, costing $600.
All the windows in the church except the small ones in the front are new and all but two are memorials or gifts. The windows were manufactured by the VanGrevchten Art Glass Company of Columbus, Ohio and are made from imported glass.
The altar railing is new of white marble, the work of Burchill Brothers, In the sanctuary the altar and all the statues have been refinished. The floor of the sanctuary is covered with Wilton velvet carpet of a beautiful shade of green. New candle sticks adorn the altar. They are a gift of the women of the congregation and cost $210.
The pews of quartered oak were manufactured in Towanda under the supervision of Mr. Frawley and have a seating capacity of about 800. The wainscoting is also new and of quartered oak.
The alterations to the front of the church make a desirable improvement facilitating the movement of the large congregation. The old side entrance has been removed and two additional doors cut in the front, one on each side of the main entrance.
The Alterations and betterments to the property aggregated $6,000.
September 8, 1937 Father Joseph McGuckin (pastor 1922-1938) requested permission from the diocese to have the interior of the church decorated. It had been 32 years since it was last decorated and badly in need of repairs. David W. Lougher who painted the interior of the church in 1905 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the building was hired to do the project. The work included repainting and redecorating the entire interior. There were new electric fixtures installed, new matting for the floor, new carpet for the sanctuary and the paintings and statues throughout the church were retouched. The cost of the project was $5,000. The ceiling murals were replaced at that time and are still in place today.
In 1941 the spire of the church was once again hit by lightning It was decided then to reduce the size of the spire and it was reconstructed to the current height and size. The cost was $1,250.
Father Martin Maher (pastor 1949-1952) had the weather beaten exterior of the church painted, and what was to have been his crowing work was almost completed when he died. A most extensive redecoration and beautification of the church was in its final stages and Father Maher went to Philadelphia to choose the new altars. There he was found dead in his hotel room on the morning of January 23, 1952. Father Maher was 58 years old at the time of his death. Father Maher was the only pastor of Saints Peter and Paul to die while serving the parish in its history the church which was filed with painters scaffolding had been closed for the renovation but was opened for Father Maher’s funeral which occurred on Saturday January 26, 1952.
On December 2, 1979 Rev. Thomas Flynn (pastor 1970-1984) and the parish celebrated the centennial of the dedication of the church building. The Most Rev. J. Carroll McCormick, Bishop of the Scranton Diocese was the main celebrant for the 3:00 p.m. Mass followed by a dinner at the John F Kennedy Parish Center at St. Agnes School.
In 1981 the exterior doors of the church were replaced at a cost of $14,000, in 1982 handicapped ramp was added to the exterior of the church which cost $8018 and in 1983 Father Flynn had the exterior woodwork of the church painted for a cost of$13,000
In 1993 Father Richard Loch (pastor 1992-1996) had new wiring installed in the church, protective shields and seals put on all of the stained-glass windows, at a cost of $65,000. the parking lots improved and the entrances to the additional coast of $12,600 for the sound system. Saints Peter and Paul’s Church had been restored to its original beauty through this very worthwhile and extensive renovation. The work was completed in 1996.
Father Ron Hughes (pastor1996-2005) during Campaign Care in 1999 asked the parishioners to donate toward repointing and waterproofing the exterior pf the church. This was necessary due to the fact that the mortar was drying out, the cost of this project was $36,000. In 2000 The roof and gutters on the church were replaced at a cost of $40,000. In the fall of 2000, the parish had an appreciation dinner for Father Ron to thank him for the sacrifices he had made for the parish. “It was rare that Father Ron is unavailable as our pastor.” In 2002 Father Ron’s dream of finishing the church basement to benefit the parish community became a reality. Grotto Hall was completed, and the parish now had a place to hold functions right at the church. The cost of the Grotto Hall project was $19,000. In 2004 the carpeting was removed from the sanctuary and replaced with hard wood flooring.
On Sunday October 17, 2004 the parish celebrated two significant anniversaries. The 125th Anniversary of the dedication of the church building in 1879 and the 50th Anniversary of the Knights of Columbus in Towanda. A Mass was held with Father Ronald Hughes as celebrant this was followed by a dinner at the J. F. K. Hall
The steps on the exterior of the church were completely replaced by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Flynn in 2009.
The new Allen Organ in the church was dedicated on Sunday June 6, 2010. A concert was performed by Philip Maue. A graduate of the Westminster Choir College at Princeton which showcased the capabilities of the state-of-the-art instrument.
In 2016 Father Edward Michelini (pastor 2012- present) and the parishioners celebrated the one hundred and seventy fifth anniversary of the founding of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. Under the leadership of Father Michelini the parish continues to update and repair he one hundred and fifty-year-old building preserving it for many generations of Roman Catholics to come.
The parish celebrates the Sesquicentennial of the building on December 8, 2019.
Henry G. Farley is president of the Bradford County Historical Society. He is a descendant of the Irish immigrants who founded SS. Peter and Paul parish in 1841 and has done extensive research and history of the Roman Catholic churches in Bradford County.