CENTRALIA, Pa. - For many people who grew up in the vicinity of Centralia, the day of prayer Sunday at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church was a homecoming.
"I grew up in Centralia and this is my home parish. I was baptized here," said Susan Mashack Klein of Still Creek, in Schuylkill County.
As soon as she and her daughter, Ashley Klein of Reading, entered the church at 11:45 a.m., they started seeing familiar faces.
"Oh, my gosh! My Susie! It's so good to see you, welcome home," said Matthew Kenenitz, a cantor from Chicago.
"He's also a homeboy," Mashack Klein said.
"Originally I'm from Centralia. I was born here, but I grew up technically in Ashland. My grandparents lived here until 2000, so I was always in Centralia," Kenenitz said.
Kenenitz and his aunt Bernadette Hutnick, who was also born in Centralia but now lives in Miami, had pictures of their relatives pinned to their chests.
"I never knew them. I believe they died before I was born," Kenenitz said.
She remembered the name of his great-grandfather Frank Kasenych. "My great-grandfather was one of the founders of this parish," Kenenitz said.
Founded on Aug. 15, 1911, Assumption now has about 50 parishioners. Technically, it's in Conyngham Township. But it sits just two blocks north of Route 42 in Centralia, a town that has been largely abandoned since an unquenchable underground coal fire began 54 years ago.
Yet the church endures, with worshipers driving to the hilltop on Sundays and holy days from communities throughout the area.
On Sunday, Kenenitz, Hutnick and the Kleins were among the hundreds of people who traveled to the area for a special event at the church, which is atop a hill made of solid rock.
Assumption Church was recently named a pilgrimage site by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, primate of the worldwide Ukrainian Catholic Church. The church hosted its first pilgrimage Sunday.
"I heard about this celebration, and this is the first time I've been back in a long time," Mashack Klein said.
"I came up here for vacation, but because this was happening I came up for this weekend," Hutnick said.
"I came home for Seminary Day back in July and then I promised Father Michael I'd stay home for this," Kenenitz said, referring to the Very Rev. Archpriest Michael Hutsko, pastor of Assumption and SS. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Mount Carmel.
His parish in Chicago is St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
The five-hour event at Assumption started with a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at noon.
More than 250 people packed the church. Local dignitaries present included George F. Halcovage Jr., chairman of the Schuylkill County commissioners.
The Most Rev. Stefan Soroka, archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, was the main celebrant.
"What I'm looking forward to the most is the sense of awe and appreciation to how God acts in our lives. When people come together and gather in prayer, in particular in a place like this," Soroka said just before the liturgy.
Soroka noted that the church was 105 years old.
"All those generations came here to celebrate the Lord, worshipping together, and be brothers and sisters to one another amid the challenges of daily life. And it's still vibrant," Soroka said.
"One reporter wrote in an article that it's a strange thing to see this happening in a ghost town today, a pilgrimage. It's good when you look at it," Soroka said.
"God acts in ways that may come across to us as strange. But there is a purpose to that. We may not always understand it. And this church was built on solid rock. There's no mine fire under this," Soroka said. "I admire the foresight of the builders. And you have to ascend the hill to the church, as you would ascend to the Lord, in the same way our Blessed Mother, Dormition of God, ascending to Heaven. All of that comes together so beautifully today."
And he was pleased that the sun was shining and the temperatures were in the mid-70s.
"What a blessing this is. And it's not humid," Soroka said.
The homilist was the Rev. Wasyl Kharuk, spiritual director at St. Josaphat Seminary, Washington, and a minister of mercy during this Jubilee Year of Mercy of the Catholic Church.
"I'm looking forward for people to have a great and very spiritual experience today, that this pilgrimage will give to people those praises that we all need. Especially during this Year of Mercy, I hope people will learn how to be merciful," Kharuk said just before the liturgy.
Kenenitz was among the singers on the altar.
"We're going to do the whole liturgy, half English, half Slavonic," Kenenitz said.
Hutsko said he hoped it would become an annual event.
Other events held Sunday included a living rosary prayed before an icon of Our Lady of Pochaiv.
"That will be very unique," said Bryce Fiamoncini, 20, of Mount Carmel, one of the altar servers.