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 History of St. Joseph Parish

​Before 1890, the areas now known as New Kensington and Arnold were part of Burrell Township, Westmoreland County. The terrain was farm land, along with a few homes scattered along the river. Two nearby communities included the village of Parnassus, and a small town at Arnold Park Station.

In these early days, Catholics were ministered by priests from Verona and Natrona. The first Mass in the town was said by Father Joseph Suehr, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Verona, at a private home in Parnassus. After that, a small frame church with a seating capacity of 24 served as the house of worship when priests came to town.

In 1891, Samuel E. Moore and a group of Pittsburgh businessmen formed the Burrell Improvement Company. This company purchased portions of farms around the Parnassus village. In the spring, engineers began to lay out and plot the town of Kensington. Four industrial companies were secured to locate, fund, and build the town: the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (later ALCOA), the Excelsior Glass Company, the Steel Wheel Company, and the Cold Rolled Steel Company. By the end of the project, only the Pittsburgh Reduction Company remained.

The sale of lots in the town began on June 10, with the Burrell Improvement Company offering free train rides to and from Pittsburgh to attract buyers. About 15,000 people came to look over the land, with plots priced from $30 to $300. During the first three days of sale, 500 lots were sold for a total of $135,000. Once construction began and people started moving to the area, the Company recognized the residents' needs to fulfill their religious obligations. Church trains were run on Sundays between Pittsburgh and Kensington so people could attend Mass. By fall 1891, the Company began deeding land to religious groups so that they could build houses of worship. On Oct. 24, 1891, Bishop Richard Phelan of Pittsburgh purchased four lots on the corner of Stanton Avenue and Locust Street for $1. Bishop Phelan also purchased three additional lots for the same price on the corner of Kenneth Avenue and Catalpa Street. Historical records show that a Mission Church was built on the three bonus lots, and it was believed that the area Catholics worshiped there until construction on St. Joseph was complete.

Ground was broken for the first St. Joseph Church on Nov. 26, 1891. Work was delayed until January 1892 due to poor weather conditions. Father Constantine Michael Hegerich became the first pastor of the new parish. He also said the first Mass in the new church, but the date of the ceremony was not recorded. Father Hegerich never took up residence at St. Joseph. He continued to reside in Verona and traveled to Kensington to work until he was transferred in 1893; despite the move, he continued to service the church until 1895.

Father Neil P. McNelis became the first resident pastor of St. Joseph on May 14, 1893. The first rectory was located in the 1100 block of Stanton Avenue. Father McNelis was succeeded by Father Thomas J. Kirner in 1897. Father Kirner was a German priest who preached exclusively in his native tongue. During his pastorate, Father Kirner remodeled the church to add an additional 40 feet of space to the original structure. He also purchased a tract of land known as the "Young Reserve," which included a large frame house that would be used as a rectory. In July 1903, with the acquisition of new land, the church was moved to a new location on the corner of Locust Street and Constitution Boulevard. Nine years later, the church was moved once again, this time to the corner of Kenneth Avenue and Locust Street.

Bishop Regis Canevin of Pittsburgh and Father Hertzog decided to sell five of the church's lots in July 1915. The sales were pursued in the hopes of gaining extra revenue for the church, and the venture paid off. The money from the sale was used to build a new rectory, which was completed in 1917.

With the population of Kensington growing at an alarming rate, the old church became too small for the size of the congregation. Plans to build a new church were formed in 1920, and ground was broken for the current church building in 1922. The contractor who was hired to complete the project went bankrupt in the middle of construction, so Father Hertzog had to subcontract the remaining work so the project would stay on schedule. The church was dedicated on Aug. 31, 1924, by Bishop Hugh C. Boyle of Pittsburgh, a former classmate of Father Hertzog. The new building was constructed in English Gothic style using red tapestry brick, stone, and solid oak timbers. The church had a seating capacity of 750 people.

The old church was used by the Slovak Catholics, the All Saints congregation, until they were able to build their own church. Once the All Saints Congregation moved out, Father Hertzog converted the building into a Lyceum, which served St. Joseph until 1963, when it was razed to make room for a new school and gym.

Five harmonically-tuned tubular chimes were installed in the St. Joseph bell tower in 1947. This type of unique chime was discontinued in 1957. Present-day signals are either a set of cast bronze bells, or an electronic reproduction of bells that is programmed onto a microchip. The chimes were dedicated to the veterans who served and died in World War II.

Father Hertzog, who served the parish for 48 years, died from a fall in the church vestibule on Jan. 24, 1959, at the age of 88. He was succeeded by Msgr. Henry F. Hanse in June 1959. During the Monsignor Hanse era, a grotto to Our Lady of Fatima was built on church grounds and dedicated by Bishop William G. Connare on May 20, 1962. Msgr. Hanse received many honors during his time as pastor. He was appointed Vicar General of the Diocese of Greensburg in August 1965, and he was appointed Prothronotary Apostolic by Pope Paul VI in 1966. Next to the appointment of bishop, this is the highest church honor a priest can obtain.

Msgr. Hanse was named pastor emeritus on June 18, 1974. At this time, Father Francis M. Ott took over as pastor. Under Father Ott, the parish became debt free in February 1979, and celebrated with a Mass of Thanksgiving and a mortgage burning ceremony. Three months later, Father Edward F. Higgins, a native son of the parish, took over the pastorate.

St. Joseph Parish celebrated its 100th anniversary on Sept. 1, 1991, with a Mass. A dinner dance followed at the Days Inn, New Kensington.

The historic chimes at St. Joseph Church had become severely deteriorated by 1996. They were only used for special occasions, but in moderation. The chimes were inoperable by 1998. A bell fund was established, and donations were accepted during a second collection at Masses. It took one year to raise enough money to restore the chimes. An electrician in the parish helped to reduce costs by donating 80 hours of time to rewire the chime system prior to restoration. The chimes were repaired, rather than replaced with an electronic set, to preserve a piece of church history. On August 13, 2000, the chimes were rededicated by Father George W. Swast, pastor, when he was lifted 35 feet into the air in a cherry picker to bless the chimes in the tower. The chimes are now used regularly for the Mass peal, Angelus, weddings, the quarter-hour strike, and funerals.

In 2016, St. Joseph Parish celebrated its 125th anniversary.

 History of the former St. Joseph School

Under the direction of Father Francis J. Hertzog, the first St. Joseph School building was constructed in 1914, on Leishman Avenue. The school opened for first through sixth grade in 1916. However, records show that some children attended the school in 1915, while it was still under construction.

The Sisters of St. Joseph from Baden came to staff the new school. They lived on the top floor of the building for about two years until they were able to move to a convent, or rather until the convent was able to move to them. The convent was the old rectory building that had been converted and moved on rollers to a lot near the school. An old tool house was moved beside the rectory-turned-convent, and it was converted into a small chapel. A door was added so that those attending daily Mass at the chapel could enter without disturbing the convent.

In 1919, Father Hertzog started a high school program at St. Joseph School. The program began with a two year commercial course, with the hopes of expanding to a four year curriculum in the future. The high school program opened to 10 students — 7 girls and 3 boys—who had all graduated from the eighth grade at St. Joseph School.

One of the Sisters was chosen to teach the high school program. However, due to a teacher shortage, the same Sister also had to teach fourth grade. In order to have enough time to instruct both age groups, the Sister taught fourth grade during the day, while the high school class attended a full day of school that included working on assignments. Then, in the evenings the Sister would instruct the high school students, check their assignments, and teach new material.

Unfortunately, the high school program did not last. It was closed after the first year. The ten students were left in a bind, especially after the superintendent of public schools refused to admit the St. Joseph students, citing a lack of proper supervision. These students had to go out and find work rather than continuing their education.

In 1939, a new convent was constructed and was made an addition of the school building. The new structure connected both floors of the convent to the school, and consisted of two classrooms, a meeting room, 14 sisters' rooms, a community room, a chapel, a dining room, a kitchen, parlors, an office, two practice rooms, and a laundry room.

When the old Lyceum was razed in 1963, more construction projects were able to move forward. Plans were made for a new school and gym. The project was completed in 1964, and the school was dedicated on Aug. 26, 1965, in time for classes to begin in September. Bishop William G. Connare presided over the dedication ceremony, which started with a procession into the church, followed by a homily and benediction from the bishop. Then another procession took place from the church to the new school, where the structure was blessed. An open house for parishioners and friends followed.

The new school was made of red brick, and provided four new classrooms, administrative and nursing offices, a library, a music room, and a gym and shower rooms. The cafeteria and kitchen in the old school were also renovated. The seventh and eighth Grade students were going to be moved to the new building, while younger students would remain in the old one. A kindergarten program was added in 1981.

In 1998, St. Joseph School assembled a technology committee. The groups' main focus was to research and enact changes in the school's technology systems and programs. The committee came up with the NetDay plan, a three phase project that updated all facets of technology in the school. The first phase of the project had parishioners, parents, students and other volunteers wiring the new building. The second phase called for the wiring of the old building, which required more planning, and presented more problems thanks to the old building's construction. The final phase of the project included providing internet access for all students, teachers, and administration. The Internet and educational resources could be accessed from all classrooms, meeting rooms, and offices. The number of computers in the building was upgraded from 23 to 128.

The project was completed in December, when the school unveiled its new website and computer network at a meeting for parents and alumni. The website was developed by students with the help of young-adult mentors from the parish. The site was to be maintained by students, and included a school schedule, a sports page, cafeteria menus, a parent handbook, Parent-Teacher group pages, and other information about the school.

The NetDay project received support from many community businesses. MicroPower Systems Inc., a New Kensington-based computer systems integration company became the school's service provider, and also donated software instruction for the teachers. Other businesses, such as BuildPen, Bell Atlantic, Storm Technologies, and ALCOA, donated equipment.

In April 2000, members of St. Joseph, St. Margaret Mary, and Mount St. Peter schools met to listen to a proposal that outlined a plan to establish a middle school program, sixth to eighth grade, for students of all three schools. The program would be housed in one of the two buildings at St. Joseph School, and would be established to enhance the educational needs, and provide more youth ministry, athletic, and other extracurricular opportunities for students. The subject of a middle school was broached in 1991, but was not pushed forward. The 2000 proposal never came to fruition either.

In fall 2002, Mary Queen of Apostles School, a regional school, opened to serve students in preschool through eighth grade. The school was formed from the merger of St. Joseph, St. Margaret Mary, and Mount St. Peter schools, and catered to students in the New Kensington, Lower Burrell, and Arnold areas. The school used two of the former school locations for classes: the former Mount St. Peter School on Freeport Road housed preschool through third graders, and the former St. Joseph School on Leishman Avenue housed the fourth through eighth graders, as well as the main office. Site selection was based on projected enrollment, the space availability, and proximity of the sites. Cathy Collett, the former principal of Mount St. Peter School, was named the first principal of Mary Queen of Apostles Catholic School.

Today, Mary, Queen of Apostles Catholic School still instructs students at the Freeport Road site, but opened a new site for fourth through eighth grade students during the 2016-17 school year. With the permission of Bishop Edward C. Malesic and the MQA Board of Pastors, Greenwald Memorial School, a former elementary school of the New Kensington Arnold School District was purchased for $525,000. The former building closed due to a school consolidation in the summer of 2014. Once purchased, MQA volunteers spent the summer of 2016 sprucing up their new home to create an inviting space for students.

 St. Joseph | Our Patron

​St. Joseph was chosen by the Lord to be the husband of Mary, protector and guardian of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.  The little we know about Joseph is taken from the Gospels.  In Matthew's Gospel, Mary is betrothed to Joseph, a "righteous man."  St. Joseph is presented to us in Matthew's Gospel as the husband of Mary and guardian of the child Jesus.  This is the title by which the church honors him, guardian and spouse of Mary.  

Joseph was attentive to the messages of God.  Several times, the "Angel of the Lord" appears to him with directions about the life of Jesus and Mary.  

We pray to St. Joseph to help us in the many needs of our lives.