Catholics in Southwest Virginia
Catholics in S. W. VA
Catholics in Southwest Virginia
A History of the Catholic church in Southwest VA and Norton, Virginia
From the middle 1840’s until 1896, the priests from Wytheville, VA came occasionally to minister to the needs of the Catholics scattered in the mountains. The priests traveled to Hilton in Scott Co. by train. In order to arrive at the small chapel near Snowflake, VA, the priests followed the trail over Clinch Mountain. The faithful that gathered every few months for Mass consisted mostly of immigrant coalminers’ families of Hungarian, Slovak, German, Irish, Lebanese, and Polish origin.
In 1902 Thomas Roach of Stonega, Virginia, having lost both legs in a railroad accident, sent for Rev. P. Ambrose Reger, O. S. B., a priest of the Benedictine order, who had just arrived in Middlesboro, Kentucky. The beginning of the Stonega mission dates from 1896 when the Stonega Coal and Coke Company erected “a handsome edifice” for its Catholic employees. Records state the mission was first served by Fr. E. Olivier, Bluefield, West Virginia, and later by Fr. Burke from Bristol.
Shortly after the Tom Roach sick call, already mentioned, Fr. Ambrose was requested by Mr. C. G. Duffy, of Appalachia, to come to baptize several children, as the mission had been some six months without a priest due to the death of Bristol’s pastor. Having consulted the Right Rev. Bishop of Wheeling, the Benedictine Frs. of St. Bernard in Cullman, Alabama, were to take charge of the Catholics’ needs in Southwest Virginia.
In December 1902, the Bishop asked the Benedictine priests to minister to the coalmining camps surrounding Stonega, and further a field as far as Bristol, Tennessee. Fr. Vincent Haegle, O. S. B., then became the first permanent pastor of Stonega. Fr. P. Theodore, O. S. B., served Bristol. The coal company provided a miner’s house as Fr. Vincent’s residence. To serve the outlying camps Fr. P. Augustine Palm, O. S. B joined Fr. Vincent. In time, priests built churches with monies from miners’ offerings, and companies, in Glamorgan, Dorchester, Dante, and Thom’s Creek. Revered priest and prized friend, “Mr. Fr. Vinz”, is what the Hungarians called their pastor. Respected by both parties, Fr. Vincent acted as interpreter for and mediator between, the miners and their employers.
To care for the needs of the Hungarians, a Fr. Anthony Hoch, O. S. B., went to Hungary to learn the Magyar language and to study the customs and manners of the people. Fr. Hoch and later Fr. Robert Reitmeier, O. S. B., a native Bohemian, did much for the Stonega Catholic community. Later, assistant Fr. Joseph Stangel, O. S. B., a native Bohemian and beloved priest and co-worker, while building little churches did much for the Stonega Catholic community.
In 1911 Fr. P. Celestine Mittermeirer, O. S. B., arrived. Frs. Athanasius, Clement, Thomas and Raymond Greweling, O. S. B. assisted successively. With houses serving as churches, new mission starts were in Rhoda, Keokee, and Pardee. The priests built a church in Inman-Linden. Before the church in Inman-Linden, a celebration of the Mass was at the Appalachia home of Thomas Roach’s sister (Mrs. Carrier). The years before and during the Depression, saw the folding up of the coal companies and exodus of the miners and their families to northern cities, thus depleting the number of Catholics.
The Benedictine annals note there were Italian and Syrians Catholics in Norton, described as “a beautiful town of three thousand.” The priests felt Norton’s pivotal position as a railroad junction would make it an ideal place as a center for missionary activity. Concerned about the future of the catholic community, Fr. James B. Quinn, O. S. B., came to Norton. Tradition has it that the church in Dorchester was demolished and materials used in the mid-20’s to erect the building that served as a place of worship on the 800 block of Park Ave., in Norton. Thus began the need to build the St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Norton, Virginia.
Source of the Information
Through research and preparation, this article is courtesy of Denise Ellen Gabriele. Information provided by Cecilia Kelly, S. M. G., and Julia Dennehy, S. M. G., and from newspaper articles and church records available at the time of the 50th Anniversary of the Virginia Avenue, St. Anthony's Catholic Church, in 1988.