A Crisis of Heritage

(The following is a guest commentary by yours truly which appeared in Thursday’s edition of the News-Item.)

Shamokin is in crisis.

It is a crisis which stems not from the issues of crime, poverty, or even blight—topics which have been exhaustively lamented, and remain constant and serious threats to our community. Behind these more familiar issues—and perhaps contributing to some of them—is a danger as deeply rooted and similarly destructive to the past, present and future of Shamokin. That crisis is the indifferent and reckless eradication of the city’s history, heritage and culture, one landmark at a time.

In an article of August 7, 2018, the News-Item announced the imminent demolition of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church located on Lincoln Street. The old-world charm of the chapel’s stone facade, together with its adjoining Tudor-style rectory, has been one of the most recognizable and distinctive examples of local architecture since 1891. Generations of worshippers have passed through its great oak doors. Sarah W. Kulp (1862-1931), the wife of Kulpmont founder Monroe H. Kulp, was one well-known parishioner. A stained glass window above the altar was commissioned in her memory over eighty years ago, and remains a central feature of the chapel today. In the 1970s, national attention was drawn to the Shamokin church after an image of Christ was said to have appeared on an altar cloth.

Now, citing structural issues the Church deems too costly to repair, the diocese has elected to desacralize Trinity Episcopal by the end of the year. Despite the fact that the structure is clearly not beyond saving—and undoubtedly at a far less substantial cost than the exaggerated repair estimates obtained thus far—it has been decreed that simply because it is considered unsuitable for regular public use in its current condition, this cornerstone of history must be razed to the ground in short order.

If this occurs, Trinity Episcopal will join the long list of landmarks wiped off the map in recent decades. The former Independence Street YMCA building, Edgewood Lake and the surrounding Edgewood Park, the Park Hotel, the McConnell Mansion, and the J.H. and C.K. Eagle Silk Mill together with its iconic clocktower are among the lost. Many historic structures, rather than being preserved and restored, were destroyed and replaced with projects deemed more worthwhile, such as the Victoria Theatre on Independence Street, razed in the 1990s and currently the location of a Rite-Aid. In the 1970s, the palatial Queen Anne residence known as Oaklawn, which stood on lands occupying an entire city block in Edgewood and was once the home of Trinity Episcopal’s own Sarah Kulp, was demolished to make way for a housing development.

Time and again, the powers that be have sacrificed heritage in the name of profit and convenience. Yet one has only to look around to recognize that for their efforts, Shamokin ultimately has been left with neither heritage, nor profit, nor convenience. The affliction in the city is not only economic, but spiritual. With each landmark lost, a part of the region’s identity is discarded. We are on the road to becoming a city of Rite-Aids and parking lots. As the soul of a community withers, it is little wonder that its citzenry and businesses take flight. While most communities take measures to safeguard the treasures of their past, we have repeatedly demonstrated by our actions and by our inaction that to Shamokinites, our history is not worth the gravel we pave over it.

As we so cavalierly dispose of our past, so should we prepare to dispose of our future.

The recent unveiling of a time capsule, secured in the cornerstone of the former YMCA and Masonic temple since 1901, comes at a timely moment to remind us that history should be protected and preserved. We look back in wonder at one bequest of a lost age, by a people who wanted to be remembered—just as we stand ready to obliterate another.

I urge my fellow citizens, whether in Shamokin or anywhere in the anthracite region, to take action before another chapter of history is erased with the impending destruction of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. This is an issue which, like our heritage, we cannot allow to be buried and forgotten. Instead, share it with neighbors, friends, parishioners, and city officials, and make it known that the destruction must stop now. Recently, an historic church in Kulpmont, the Church of the Ascension, was preserved and restored in a project led by Kulpmont100. Likewise, through a joint effort of our citizens, elected officials and community leaders, we have the ability—and the responsibility—to save Trinity Episcopal Church, and with it, an irreplaceable block in the foundation of our own community identity.

 

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