BENWOOD, W.Va.—Two years after fire destroyed their church, Benwood, W.Va., Catholics will join Most Rev. Michael J. Bransfield, bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, as he officially opens the new church by celebrating the Mass of Dedication of the Church September 9 at 4 p.m.
The dedication of the new church is the first in the diocese in nearly a decade. St. Agnes Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va., was dedicated in 2008. Bishop Bransfield said the opening of the new church is a historic event in the life of the Church in West Virginia. “The dedication of this church is a beautiful moment of grace for the people of Benwood,” he said, “and indeed the entire Mountain State. It is not a building or structure that makes a strong parish, it is the people that are the heart of a parish. The people of this parish are beautiful, and I am pleased that they will have a church that is just as beautiful. This parish has enjoyed a more than 140-year history. I am pleased to be able to continue that wonderful history with this new church.”
The Mass will begin outside the church where officials ceremoniously hand over the church building to the bishop. Bishop Bransfield will then officially open the doors of the church with those in attendance processing in afterward. Once inside, the bishop will bless everyone assembled with Holy Water—as well as the walls of the church. The Rite of Dedication will follow with the singing of the Litany of the Saints by the congregation, followed by the prayer of dedication by the bishop. Bishop Bransfield will then anoint the altar and the walls of the church with sacred chrism. He will also incense the altar and the church, which will then be lighted with candles.
The former church was destroyed by fire March 30, 2015. In the days following, Bishop Bransfield announced, “the diocese is committed to making sure that St. John Parish continues to have a place of worship for its parishioners and the entire Benwood community.”
The new church was constructed by Trushel Construction Co. of Weirton, W.Va.; roofing by Mansuetto Roofing and Sheet Metal of Wheeling, W.Va.; and the architect was Victor Greco of the Mills Group in Wheeling.
With seating for 150 parishioners, the new church features stained glass windows, the original tabernacle, statues and icons and smaller religious appointments that were salvaged from the old church after the fire. The pieces were carefully restored and incorporated into the design of the new church with recommendations from the St. John Church Committee—made up of diocesan officials and parish members. “Watching our church burn is a painful memory that we will never forget,” said Theresa Gretchen, St. John parishioner and committee member. “Being a part of the rebuilding process from beginning to end has been healing. We are extremely thankful to God for bringing us together as a parish family in our new home where we can celebrate the sacraments. This is not only an exciting time for the parishioners of St. John Church and the community, but also for the entire diocese.”
Recovered pieces of the face of the high altar of the old church, sections of which are still visibly scorched from the fire, are also displayed in the church. The High Altar stone from the old church was buried into the new altar.
A memorial garden accentuates the property, featuring decorative limestone pieces and silver crosses that once sat atop the former church. A large section of the former bell was also salvaged and will be displayed in the garden.
In addition to the new church, crews remodeled the parish hall, which sits across the street from the church. The hall features a state-of-the-art kitchen, new social areas and other facilities.
The Mass is the culmination of the hard work of St. John pastor, Msgr. Kevin M. Quirk, J.C.D., J.V., and the entire St. John Church Committee. Bishop Bransfield expressed his gratitude to all who have helped make this historic moment possible.
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH
The history of the faithful in Benwood goes back to 1868 when circuit riding priests from Wheeling would visit Catholic families in the area, with St. John Parish being founded in 1875. Drawn to the area by opportunities in the steel and coal industries, the families that initially made up the parish were comprised of at least fifteen different ethnic groups, including Croatian, Slovak, Hungarian, Italian, Irish and Austrian—a true melting pot representative of so many West Virginia communities.
On August 1, 1875, Reverend Patrick F. McKernan was appointed the first resident pastor of St. John Parish. In February 1884, an Ohio River flood sig¬nificantly damaged the first church. The church was razed, and in 1891, construction began on the second church. In response to the significant flooding experienced in Benwood, the sanctuary was elevated to the second floor of the church, becoming a safe haven for parishioners and Benwood residents during some of the most significant flooding the area has seen.
In 1910, a cyclone hit the city of Benwood causing widespread damage—including damage to the church. The roof and steeple were severely damaged, necessitat¬ing the removal of the large spire above the steeple some years later.
On April 28, 1924, one of the largest coal mine explosions in West Virginia history occurred at the Benwood mine. Many of the more than 100 men killed were members of St. John Parish. Father Schoenen, pastor of St. John at that time, was forced to conduct mass funerals.
Through floods, wind, fire and explosions, St. John Parish has served the faithful of the city of Benwood for more than 140 years. Thousands of baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, marriages and funerals have occurred within the parish. More than a dozen members of the parish were called to vocation and service to the Catholic Church.