Saint Matthew Parish celebrated 150 years, a time spanning three centuries, in 2003. This overview of the parish history is compiled from existing archives and from oral accounts. It is not comprehensive, but strives to accurately reflect the realities of various eras. Problems were surmounted, prejudices were overcome, and the Saint Matthew community has evolved into a richly diverse and caring presence in Tyrone, Pennsylvania.
In the beginning… God created Heaven and Earth.
Eons later we are living in this beautiful area of Central Pennsylvania, blessed with majestic mountains and valleys, profuse with streams and rivers.
Early history shows Woodland Indians roaming the paths and trails of this large geographic area, hunting and fishing to survive.
As early as 1760, Reverend Louis Sibourd, who became vicar general to Bishop Carroll in Baltimore, said Mass in this area for a group of families. His service to the area lasted until 1795.
Upon visiting America in 1792, Demetrius Gallitzin, a Russian prince, was inspired to spend his life in ministry to the Catholics in Central and Western Pennsylvania. Following Father Gallitzin’s 1799 ordination, Bishop Carroll of the Baltimore Diocese appointed him to serve in Western Pennsylvania. Service to the early Catholic communities involved difficult travels on horseback and on foot. Floods and snowdrifts were common throughout the mountains and valleys. Father Gallitzin’s travels occasionally brought him to Sinking Valley, and the local Catholics would gather to have their marriages blessed, their children baptized, and to receive the sacraments.
Peter McMullen bequeathed land to establish a Catholic Cemetery in Sinking Valley in 1809; in later years, this was known as St. Luke’s Cemetery. Regrettably, most records have been lost.
In 1820 Rev. Thomas Heyden, a protégé of Father Gallitzin, took over the eastern territory, headquartered in Bedford. He often visited Sinking Valley, with periodic duties in Philadelphia. By 1831, the Sinking Valley Catholic community became a mission affiliate of St. Patrick’s in Newry, served by their first resident pastor, Rev. John O’Reilly.
McMullen Cemetery was reserved for Catholics throughout the area. One of St. Matthew’s last parishioners buried there was James McClain, who died February 18, 1937. One or two headstones in this cemetery can be seen from the road near the Sinking Valley Golf Course, near the juncture of the McCutcheon and Wachter farms. Small communities surrounding the future Tyrone had abundant timber, iron ore, and limestone. These new industries, along with farming, provided employment for early settlers.
The growing railroad industry brought a large influx of settlers; it was a rare family that did not have employment ties to the railroad. Others industries followed, including the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company in 1878 (later known as Westvaco). Many area laborers arrived from Europe, principally Germany and Ireland, seeking a life free of political and religious oppression. Sadly, early American Catholics were often denied voting privileges and jobs. But Catholic immigrants to this area had a faith that sustained them through floods, fires and bigotry.
Chronological History of Early Catholic Events in Tyrone
In 1840 Reverend James Bradley of St. Patrick Parish in Newry ministered to the Sinking Valley congregation and built the first church there. St. Luke’s functioned as a mission church for a few decades and then closed. The altar cross from St. Luke’s is now in St. Matthew’s rectory dining room, atop the china cabinet.
The oldest gravestone in St. Luke’s Cemetery is for Mary Wilson, who died January 16, 1804, in her 30th year. On the stone is the inscription:
“This mother left four children small
Resigned her to Heaven’s call
Her youngest only eight days old
When death her summons infold
As you are now, once was she
As she is now, so must we be
For sure from death, none living free.”
The Catholic community of Tyrone was founded in 1851, and was served by the same Rev. Bradley. Mass was celebrated at a private Tyrone residence, where a tall dresser served as the altar.
For a tme, Reverend John Tuigg and Reverend William Pollard, both of St. John’s Parish in Altoona, shared the priestly duties at St. Matthew’s.
After two years of planning and saving, the local Catholic community was prepared to begin construction of their own local church. Land was purchased in 1853 from Lyon, Shorb and Company for the sum of $1.00, and construction began on the original church site, the corner of Washington Avenue and 11th Street. The lot was 120 feet by 165 feet. The Bishop had requested that the church be built under the invocation of St. Matthew the Apostle. The cornerstone was laid on May 29, 1853, by Rev. William Pollard, and the church was dedicated September 24, 1854. St. Matthew was a mission church of St. John’s in Altoona until 1858, when Reverend Patrick Sheehan was named our first resident pastor.
During America’s Civil War, Reverend John Farren, a noted musician, served as St. Matthew’s pastor. In 1861, part of the church was rebuilt due to a dangerous land shift. The congregation continued to grow during the 1860s to over 500 members. Reverend Farren secured a building at 10th Street and Lincoln Avenue in 1869, and established St. Matthew’s first school. The building contained one room, 15’ x 35’, and featured a pot-belly iron stove which the students stoked with coal. The only nearby structures were cow stables and pig sties. One teacher had sole charge of the school; some early teachers were Miss Anne Bailey from Sinking Valley, Mr. Brophy from Altoona, Miss Reed (a niece of Rev. Farren), and Miss Shoemaker.
Several years later, the new Mercy Motherhouse in Loretto sent Sisters Justina Daly, Andela O’Friel, Agnes Hanninger, Teresa O’Niel, Thecla Hetzog, and Agatha Carney to take charge of the schooling at St. Matthew School. The Sisters’ temporary residence was in the Stover’s Building. The arrival of the nuns was an exciting event for the community; none of the students had seen a nun prior to this time.
In 1875, the Elliot Building (site of the current Citizen’s Fire Company) began functioning as the school and convent. The building was poorly heated, and during cold weather, students and teachers wore coats, hats and gloves during class. The following year, the school and convent were moved to the Mathias Home on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and 11th Street. The first floor housed a community room, chapel, music hall, and living quarters for the Sisters; the second floor had two classrooms, a drawing room, and a guest bedroom. The third floor had only one classroom, which was used for the boys. The older boys were taught in the “wash house” behind the building.
During the Civil War, Patrick Heydon, a St. Matthew parishioner, died while interred at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia.
The land for Oak Grove Cemetery was officially purchased in 1865, but it had been used as a burial ground prior to that. It was commonly known as the Catholic burying ground. Ten acres were purchased for a total cost of $400. The oldest readable gravestones are from 1821, with the names Maurice Fitzgerald, William Wilmore, and John Wilmore.
In 1876, our former pastor Father Tuigg was named Bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese, which included St. Matthew Parish. Later that year, St. Matthew united with the newly formed Allegheny Diocese, only to be reverted back to the Pittsburgh Diocese in 1877.
In 1881 the Cameron Avenue property was purchased, and by 1886 a new four-room school and separate convent were ready for occupancy. These are the two current buildings to the right of the church, as you stand on Cameron Avenue. The rectory was built in this same time period. The second floor of the school was used as a temporary church, and later as a church and school hall; eventually it was converted to classrooms. A parish stable housing the priest’s horse and carriage stood on the site of the present parish hall.
From 1889 until 1891 Reverend Ferdinand Kittell handled fundraising for construction of the new church, and ground was broken under his supervision.
During the later part of the 19th century, the Pennsylvania Railroad underwent tremendous development. Tyrone was home to a rail yard, round house, and machine house and became a hub as the railroad reached west to Chicago, north to Buffalo, and from Philadelphia to Renovo and Mount Carmel, where riders could connect to New York on the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Parishioners Jim Downes and Patrick J. Walsh were officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad during these years.
Reverend Dennis Gallagher began his pastorate at Saint Matthew during 1891. He spearheaded fund raising for the present church building. Many local farmers who were parishioners, unable to provide financial support to the church, dug and hauled large rockes and stones from their land to the church site. These were used for the foundation, laid at its current site in 1891. The foundation was laid by William Lanners and Sons, local stone masons. Mr. Lanners, a parishioner, used a molding technique to create cement blocks which looked like rough stone. Many of the older homes in Tyrone have foundations laid by Mr. Lanners and his employees. Some of his work can be seen in the intricate moded stonework on the church cornices.
Reverend Thomas Rosensteel arrived in 1894, and his sister Alma served as his housekeeper. Father Rosensteel would travel by horse and carriage to visit local Catholics, soliciting funds for a church building. James Patrick Walsh often served as his driver. One trip took him to the local quarry, where Father spoke with some Eastern European Catholics at work. In response to Father’s request, one of the workers replied “No speak English.” Father asked James to mark this gentleman down for a $5 commitment, to which the worker replied “One dollar! One dollar!”
Among the colorful accounts of the time period is a story of young William Downs being interrupted by Father Rosensteel while William was kissing Father’s sister Alma. Father kindly let it go with the remark, “Excuse me.” Young Mr. Downs later was to become Monsignor “Big Bill” Downs.
On June 30, 1895, the Very Reverend Father Edward A. Bush, Vicar General of the Pittsburgh Diocese, officiated at the St. Matthew Church cornerstone ceremony, where Reverend Father Thomas P. Smith, Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, served as homilist.
The current St. Matthew Church officially opened February 9, 1896, with Solemn Mass offered by Reverend M.J. Wertz of Carnegie. Right Reverend Bishop Richard Phelan of the Pittsburgh Diocese officiated at the church dedication, which occurred on December 8, 1896.
The Altoona Diocese was established in 1901, with Eugene A. Garvey as the first Bishop; St. Matthew Parish was no longer part of the Pittsburgh Diocese. Reverend Philip Bohan served as Pastor from 1901 until 1904.
Reverend Gregory M. Kelly was appointed pastor in 1904. He supported the charter of St. Gregory Knights of Columbus Council #1218, established on April 28, 1907. A strong advocate of Catholic education, Father Kelly occasionally led the St. Matthew School student body in local parades. Although the new church building cost $35,000, a debt liquidation ceremony was held during Father Kelly’s tenure. On Easter Sunday 1912, the Tellers Summerhoff pipe organ, which is currently in use, was donated and dedicated. The organ was a gift from Anna Cullen of Villa Maria.
A new wave of immigrants was welcomed by Reverend Jeremiah Looney in 1912. Many Italian immigrants worked laying railroad tracks; Slovak and Croatian immigrants arrived to work in the quarries. These diverse cultural groups learned to work together and respect one another during their early years in America, although prejudices were common. In fact, Father Looney would not permit a Boy Scout troop to form at the parish because the movement was founded by an Englishman. Consequently, Monsignor Richard Walsh, the first parishioner to achieve Eagle Scout status, was part of the Boy Scout troop sponsored by the Methodist Church.
Father Looney guided St. Matthew Parish through difficult times, including World War I and a flu epidemic.
A local chapter of the Knights of St. George was formed in May of 1913 to provide Catholic families with health, disability, accident, and life insurance at low rates. They also assumed care of St. Luke’s Cemetery in Sinking Valley. Founders included P.F. Kilmartin, Joseph Schriber, Fred Vogt, John Carling, and F.J. Arnold.
During World War I, parish women worked for the war effort, while many parish men fought in service to their country.
In January 1917, Father Richard L. Walsh, Assistant Pastor at Altoona’s Cathedral Church of the Blessed Sacrament, baptized his new nephew, Richard J. Walsh (now Monsignor Walsh). This was the only baptism performed by young Father Walsh, as he died at an early age, during the 1918 flu epidemic.
When Bishop Garvey invited the family to retrieve young Father Walsh’s belongings, it was discovered that some of his books and his chalice, a gift from his parents, were missing. This mystery was to be solved years later with the help of Father Joseph Orr, and the chalice is now used at St. Matthew.
The flu epidemic swept the parish in 1918. All area movie houses, saloons, dance halls, and schools were closed due to the outbreak, and on October 6, all churches were ordered to be closed.
In 1919, Rev. Looney opened a high school in the upper rooms of the grade school at St. Matthew. Sister Mary of Nazareth and Sister Mary Geraldine taught the high school students academic and commercial courses. Graduates of the high school included Thomas Wayne, Agnes Gripp, Rita Seymour, John Burns, Zenith Marthouse, Dorothy Bonner, and Helene Cox. The high school was closed in 1925, when Bishop John J. McCort requested that all area high school students be transferred to the Catholic high school in Altoona (now known as Bishop Guilfoyle High School).
A story is told of how school children would play on the hillside above the rectory, and when Father Looney walked over to the church for confessions many of the children would follow him. On one occasion his voice was heard from within the confessional: “I don’t want to hear what the other kids did, what did you do?”
On occasion, Sister Sebastian and Sister Paula would send children to soften Father Looney when they wanted a day off. At other times children were sent to see Father due to their misbehavior. One young man, when sent for such an interview, never returned to the classroom! Sister began to worry when he remained missing after lunch, and she went to the rectory to investigate. The housekeeper answered the door and informed Sister, “Oh, Father took him to a ballgame.”
Father Looney encouraged social events among parishioners, such as card games and square dancing in the school hall. Card games such as Euchre, used as a fundraiser for the school, averaged $150 income per month.
A national movement in 1903 established the Catholic women’s organization Daughters of Isabella. On June 20, 1920, the Court St. Rita #523 organized in St. Matthew school hall, with 62 charter members. In 1921, the organization’s name changed to Catholic Daughters of America, under the patronage of Mary, Queen of Heaven. The Catholic Daughters at St. Matthew Parish donated the altar rail in 1926, and in 1930 paid for a complete renovation of the rectory interior.