Catholicism in Lehighton dates back to the year 1850, when there were seven Catholic families in the area. Also during this time, German Catholic immigrants came from their fatherland and located here. They were later followed by the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, and the Slavs.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, these Catholic families were instructed in their faith by Father John G. Freude. Traveling by horse and buggy, Father Freude covered in his missionary work the territory from Mauch Chunk to Berlinsville. He visited the Lehighton territory only once a month, celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the Schwartz home on First Street. This later became Smith's Home Appliance Store, now the site of a mini-mall.
Father William Heinen, later Monsignor, built a small church to accommodate the Catholics of the town and gave them their own place of worship. This church was dedicated by Bishop Wood. The exact date of the founding of the church is unknown.
Seeing a need for missionary work in East Mauch Chunk, Father Heinen selected a few Catholic families from Lehighton and with them, founded the parish of St. Joseph's. Once again, the Catholics of Lehighton had no pastor of their own, but were attended by a priest from St. Joseph's in East Mauch Chunk. During this period, the elder girls of the parish traveled to East Mauch Chunk, sometimes on foot for their religious instruction. They, in turn, would instruct the younger generation of the parish.
According to the official records of the parish, Father Hubert H. Hammeke was the first resident pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul Parish. His residency encompassed the years from 1885 to 1890. During his tenure as pastor, Father Hammeke brought the Sisters of Charity to the parish from St. Joseph's in East Mauch Chunk to instruct the Catholic youth of the Lehighton area. Sensing the need for both secular and religious training, he opened the parish school of Ss Peter and Paul in 1886 with an enrollment of 60 pupils. The school was staffed by three sisters from the order of Saint Francis from Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania. The old church was remodeled at this time to serve both as a school and as a place of worship. During this time, the sisters lived in the basement of the old church.
From "History of Carbon County, Pennsylvania" by Frederick Charles Brenckman, written in 1913:
"St. Peter's and St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church was organized in 1869. Rev. G. Frende, who resided in Lehighton and had other churches in charge, was the first pastor. Rev. William Heinen, who later became the minister of St. Joseph's Catholic church at East Mauch Chunk, and one of the best known members of the priesthood in this section of the State, succeeded Rev. Freude. This church was rebuilt under Rev. Francis Regnery, the present pastor. The cornerstone was laid on October 7, 1906. The church was completed and dedicated on September 1, 1907, being blessed by Bishop Prendergast, now Archbishop of the Diocese of Philadelphia. It cost $30,000."
From the years 1890 to 1892, Father Aegidus Mersch succeeded as pastor of Sts Peter & Paul. His successor was the Rev. Charles Sauers, who guided the parish from 1892 to 1894.
Father William Hammeke, brother of the Rev. Hubert Hammeke, was then appointed pastor. Among his accomplishments while stationed in Lehighton for ten years (1894 to 1903), a residence for the priests was constructed in back of the old church. Later, this dwelling was turned over to the sisters and a new rectory was built on the south side of the church. During Father Hammeke's pastorship, four mission parishes were established; these being Bowmanstown, Palmerton, Slatington, and Berlinsville.
In 1903, Father Francis Regnery took over as pastor. He saw the immediate need of a new church. However, it was not until August 21, 1906, that ground was broken. The cornerstone of the present church was laid on October 7, 1906. When fully completed, the construction of the church cost approximately $25,000. This modest yet adequate brick structure with stone trimming of gothic style architecture was dedicated by His Excellency, Archbishop Edmund Pendergast on Monday, September 1, 1907. The first solemn Mass in the new church was celebrated by the Rev. Father Longinus of St. John's Church in Pottsville at 10:00 am. Two new bells were installed in 1907. The large bell weighs 1230 pounds and the smaller one weighs 630 pounds. They are dedicated to the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother, respectively. The old church was then remodeled for use as a full-time parochial school.
An early morning fire in 1910 was discovered by the sexton who arrived at the church to ring the morning Angelus. Destroyed in the fire were the altar, the candlesticks, the statuary and similar fixtures. The fire originated in the boys' sacristy adjoining the altar. The damage exceeded $1,000. Due to the fire, the new church was renovated, including being frescoed and beautifully decorated. Having been closed during the alterations, the church was reopened on Christmas Day of that year. It was also during this time that the Silver Jubilee of the parish was celebrated. Father Regnery's pastorate of Ss Peter & Paul lasted until 1923, a stewardship of twenty years.
During the years 1923 to 1940, Father Charles Saas guided the parish with his zeal and well-known charity. It was during his administration and under his personal supervision that the present school building was erected. Digging for the new building began on April 28, 1924. The cornerstone was laid on August 17, 1924. Classes in the new building were held for the first time on February 9, 1925. It was also during that time that Father Saas turned over his residence on the south side of the church to the sisters as their convent. The sisters of St. Francis lived at this convent until 1984. He then planned and built the present rectory as it stands today. In both construction jobs, Father Saas donned working clothes and helped in the manual labor.
On Saturday, June 3, 1929, the first Lehighton native to enter the priesthood was ordained by Cardinal Dennis Dougherty. Rev. James A. Murphy celebrated his first solemn Mass at 10 am on the following day in the church before an overflowing crowd of friends, both Catholic and non-Catholic. Father Murphy was paid tribute during a testimonial dinner and reception at St. Joseph's auditorium in East Mauch Chunk. The dinner, held June 7, 1939, was given by the Damien Council No. 598 of the Knights of Columbus.
Due to his failing health, Father Saas resigned in May of 1940. The Reverend John P. Ludwig was appointed his successor by Cardinal Dennis Dougherty. Under his administration, the excellent work of his predecessors was continued. In 1947, an impressive statue of Christ was erected between the church and the convent. In 1949, Father Ludwig supervised the redecorating of the church, installing new statues, new Stations of the Cross, new lighting, and a new heating system.
After eleven years of service, Father Ludwig resigned his charge due to failing health. The Rev. George J. Fenzil assumed his duties as pastor on March 27, 1953.
In 1954, Father Fenzil built an addition onto the school in order to meet the ever-growing needs of the enrollment due to the increasing Catholic population in the area. He also remodeled the school hall, the kitchen in the school, and part of the convent. In 1975, Father Fenzil began renovating the exterior of the church when the church steeple was lowered and the roof, doors, and brick exterior were replaced. Rev. Fenzil retired in 1976 due to his failing health and served as pastor emeritus until his death on Monday, June 6th, 1988, at Holy Family Manor, Bethlehem.
Father Fenzil's successor was Rev. William E. Handges. Earlier, Father Handges, now a Monsignor, lived in residence at Sts. Peter & Paul while teaching at Marian High School. Fulfilling the dreams of his predecessor, Father Handges continued the renovation of the church. On July 9, 1979, Father Handges undertook the interior beautification of the church. During the remodeling, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was held in the school hall. Complete exterior and interior renovations were finished on Friday, September 21, 1979. At a special 7:00 pm Mass that evening, Father Fenzil and Father Handges concelebrated the first Mass held in the newly renovated church.
Interior renovations included painting the walls ivory and beige tones, gold leafing, and rust-colored mosaics. Six new chandeliers and wall-to-wall carpeting were installed. Other new additions included oak pews, a new sound system, sanctuary furniture, organ screen, and several unique wood carvings. One depicts the Holy Family and is located just above the baptismal font. The five-foot figures were made in Italy of linden wood. In the center of the sanctuary is the altar and directly behind it is a 12-foot high reredos adorned with hand carvings to form a cross. The altar of repose, complete with a golden tabernacle, is located on the right side of the sanctuary. Above the tabernacle is a six-foot wood carving of the Eucharistic Lamb, also crafted in Italy. The Lamb, which symbolizes the Risen Eucharistic Lord, is mounted on a golden circle superimposed on a six-foot cross and stands on a book with seven markers, symbolizing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. A dual-purpose room was built at the back of the church to be used for confessions and a quiet room for parents with small children. The old Stations of the Cross were preserved and finished in gold leaf. Also preserved were the beautiful stained-glass windows.
On April 22, 1980, Father Handges was assigned to St. Paul's Church in Reading. Rev. Monsignor Joseph M. Whalen was named pastor of Sts Peter & Paul until January of 1983. At this time, he was appointed to Secretary of the Apostolic Delegation in Washington DC. During his pastorship, Monsignor ordered stained-glass doors to further beautify the church.
Rev. Joseph H. Kean was appointed pastor of Sts Peter & Paul by Bishop Joseph McShea in January 18, 1983. Under Father Kean's administration, the parish saw many changes. Father Kean undertook the renovation of the rectory. Due to the ever-growing enrollment of the school, Father Kean also undertook some necessary changes in the school, converting several storage rooms into offices. A new principal's office was built. Father Kean also saw to new landscaping for the parish grounds.
In the church, the balcony was renovated, opening up the former pipe organ bay to create seating for the choir. Storage closets were also built.
During the 1984-1985 school year, a Kindergarten program was started to enhance an already well-established curriculum. Due to the decreasing number of sisters in the Franciscan order, the sisters were forced to leave their Lehighton home after 99 years of service to the parish. A traveling principal remained in service for one school term to run the parish.
At that time, a new order of sisters, the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, agreed to live in Lehighton and teach at the school. The convent was renovated and additions to the lay faculty of the school were made. Also a pre-school program for three and four year olds was started.
In 1985 Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church celebrated its centennial year. A year filled with celebrations and honors was held, including a parish-wide Mass celebrated by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh and various former pastors of the parish. A special parish directory was published, which included photographs of almost every family in the parish as well as the various ministries of Sts. Peter & Paul.
In 1987, Father Kean was transferred, and Father Charles Marciano came to serve the parish, where he was pastor until l989. In 1989, Father Joseph Sobiesciak, now a Monsignor, served as pastor until 1992. Then Father Robert J. McConaghy, who served as an assistant many years before, became our new pastor. Then in 1999, Father Philip Rodgers became pastor.
In 2003, Rev. James Bechtel was assigned to our parish. Fr. Bechtel was instrumental in keeping the school going amidst declining enrollment. Concentrating on a fine arts education, Rev. Bechtel started a school board and has worked hard to refine the school and the education process.
Some renovations to the school saw the principal's office (located off the cafeteria) divided in two, making a smaller principal's office and the business manager's office. The heating system in the parish center (the former convent) broke down and had to be replaced.
Also in 2005 a major renovation to the parish center saw the entire second floor gutted and a new computer lab built along with new restrooms. Computer education for children and adults was begun in the new lab, dedicated on March 20, 2005. Other renovation work included the replacing of the church's sound system and replacing the electrical system in the rectory.
After only 1-1/2 years with us, Fr. Jim was asked by Bishop Edward Cullen to take over 4 parishes in the Shamokin area. Rev. Edward Essig was assigned as our new pastor, this being his first assignment as a pastor. Fr. Essig took over during Holy Week of 2005.
In 2006 a votive candle holder was added to the side shrine, with money used from the 2005 Christmas Flower Memorials. A statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was donated by an anonymous donor in honor of the Parishioners of Sts. Peter & Paul Church. A statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was donated by Atty. Paul T. & Mrs. Anne M. Essig in loving memory of Rose Essig.
In 2007, a major renovation project was begun to replace the front steps and in front of the church, the parish center, and the rectory. The work was completed just in time for Christmas Masses.
In 2008, the Diocese of Allentown instituted a major diocesan-wide restructuring plan, closing many churches throughout the Diocese. Ss Peter and Paul remained open, but as part of the reorganization, Fr. Essig was transferred, and Fr. Michael Ahrensfield, who had served as an assistant in our parish many years ago, was assigned as Pastor of Ss Peter and Paul.
In 2009, a new carrilon system was installed, along with equipment that allowed the church's own bells to be rung again for the first time in decades. The new bells were rung the first time on Christmas Eve, 2009.
The year 2010 marked the 125th anniversary of Ss Peter & Paul as an official parish. A special anniversary Mass was held Sunday, October 17th, celebrated by The Most Reverend John O. Barres, D.D, S.T.D., J.C.L., Bishop for the Diocese of Allentown. Concelebrating were our current pastor, Fr. Michael Ahrensfield; former pastors: Msgr. William Handges, Msgr. Joseph Sobiesciak, Fr. Philip Rodgers, Fr. James Bechtel, and Fr. Edward Essig; Carbon County pastors: Rev. James Ward, pastor of Immaculate Conception, Jim Thorpe; and Fr. Burgess, pastor of. Also, Rev. Ronald Bowman and Rev. Thomas Kuller SJ concelebrated--both are priests (Bowman for the Diocese of Allentown and Kuller for the Jesuits) who were originally from Ss Peter & Paul. A dinner was held afterwards at Penn's Peak in Jim Thorpe.
In 2013, some new renovations were done with new cement sidewalks at back of the rectory, just before the steps going down to the side of the school, and the parking lot between the school and the rectory was resurfaced. Also, new railings were installed in the back of the rectory and along with a complete renovation of the front entry to the church, including a new ramp.
In 2014, after 128 years of service, due to rising costs and low enrollment, Ss Peter & Paul School was closed.
In 2015, beginning Sunday, June 7th, the Sunday morning Mass scheduled was reduced to two Masses - 8:00 am and 10:00 am.
On September 10, 2018, Fr. Michael Ahrensfield passed away shortly after celebrating Mass on that Monday morning. Fr. James Torpey and priests from The Apostles of Jesus came to celebrate the Masses for us until we would receive a new pastor.
In October, Rev. William Seifert was assigned as Parish Administrator of Ss Peter & Paul until June, 2019. Fr. Seifert added additional times for the Sacrament of Reconciliation Saturdays and Sunday mornings.
On June 18, 2019, Rev. Christopher M. Zelonis became the new pastor of Ss Peter & Paul Church. In order to accommodate the PREP classes on Sunday morning, the Sunday morning Mass scheudule was adjusted to 7:45 and 10:00 am. The times for the Sacrament of Reconciliation were lengthened and confessions are also now offered on Friday mornings.
In 2020, a world-wide Pandemic called "Covid19" or the "coronavirus" saw not only Ss Peter & Paul, but the entire Roman Catholic Church across the globe close its doors for public attendance at Mass (along with churches from other denominations). Here at Ss Peter & Paul, our last public Mass was on March 15, 2020. During the time the churches were closed, Fr. Zelonis celebrated all Masses privately in the rectory and live-screened them on Facebook Live. All Holy Week Masses: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, were closed to the public, but live-streamed on Facebook Live from the church. From that time on, the Masses were celebrated privately, but in the church. Carl Marzen set up the video recordings to live-stream the Masses and record them as well to upload to YouTube. Mary Marzen and Jim Logue provided music for the weekend Masses. Finally, on June 1st, the public was able to begin attending Mass in person, with a limit of 55 people in the church and an additional 25 in the parish hall, if needed. June 6th & 7th, Trinity Sunday, were the first weekend Masses opened to the public. New cameras were installed to allow live-streaming of Masses and services on a more permanent basis, even after the pandemic ends.
The Sacrament of Confession was moved from the crying room to the front entryway of the Rectory to allow for proper social distancing and for everyone's safety. Fr. Zelonis offered the Sacrament every day but Tuesday. The church remained open for private prayer every day except Tuesday.
Beginning the weekend of Pentecost, 2021, the weekend of May 22 and 23, the church was opened up to full occupancy per the Diocese of Allentown.
Upgrades to the parish began in 2020. A new roof was installed on the church building, a new front porch was built on the rectory. Additional projects are planned to repaint the interior of the church, remodeling of the church sanctuary, and a new organ.
Also in 2021, Ss Peter & Paul started its own conference of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. Steven Kresge was named the first president.
April 29, 1985 by DEBBIE MOYER, The Morning Call
Bishop Thomas J. Welsh told parishioners and guests of Ss. Peter and Paul's Catholic Church that the "good shepherds" of their parish have been those who have reached out to members who have drifted away.
He spoke of the church as the cornerstone of the Catholic faith through the many events in life, such as baptism, marriage and the Eucharist, and said the "good shepherds" are the people who are "leading us closer to God."
The bishop was the principal celebrant and homilist at the Lehighton church's 100th anniversary Mass yesterday afternoon.
"You can remember the good shepherds of your parish as some here today," he said. "The Lord has called us each individually into existence. This is the first in a series of calls which always involved the church."
He noted the significance of the letter "C," through the call of God, the commitment made to Him, the communion which is shared and the faith of the Catholic Church.
"Life isn't just the passage of years, and the life of Ss. Peter and Paul isn't just the passage of time," he said. "The church of Ss. Peter and Paul is here today because of your goodness and the goodness of your ancestors."
According to an historical account compiled by Paul Mriss, a parishioner and one of the members of the centennial committee, the congregation began meeting in the late 1800s in a mission parish on S. First Street, Lehighton. The church of Ss. Peter and Paul was established by the Rev. William Heinen, who built a small church in the community.
The official records of the parish start in 1885 under the Rev. Hubert H. Hammeke. Under his tenure, sisters were assigned to the parish to teach religion, and the first classes were taught in the basement of the church, and the rectory was constructed.
The cornerstone of the currentchurch building was laid in 1906, and the old church was remodeled into a school. A new school and the current rectory was built in 1923.
More than 20 priests concelebrated yesterday's late-afternoon Mass with the bishop. The ceremony featured the children's choir, adult choir and choral group of the church.
Those concelebrating were the Rev. Joseph Kean, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul's; the Rev. William E. Handges, pastor of St. Paul's, Reading, and former pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul's; and the Rev. George Fenzil, pastor emeritus of Ss. Peter and Paul's.
Others concelebrating were: the Rev. Ronald Jankairis, the bishop's secretary; the Rev. Agnello J. Angellini, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Nesquehoning; the Rev. Joseph P. Marzen, pastor of St. Joseph's, Jim Thorpe; the Rev. James J. Agosta, assistant pastor of St. Joseph's, Limeport; the Rev. John G. Engler, pastor emeritus of St. Fidelis, Mahanoy City; the Rev. John G. Chizman, pastor of Immaculate Conception, Nesquehoning; the Rev. James Connolly, professor at Marian High School, the Rev. Stanislaus Fronczek, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul's, Lansford.
Also, the Rev. Michael J. Lisowski, pastor emeritus of St. Stanislaus, Summit Hill; the Rev. John S. Mraz, vice president of Marian High School and pastor of St. Bertha's, Tuscarora; the Rev. William J. Shields, pastor of St. Nicholas, Weatherly; the Rev. Robert Wargo, pastor of Sacred Heart, Palmerton; the Rev., Paul Welkie, pastor of Sacred Heart, Nesquehoning, and Our Lady of the Lakes, Hauto; the Rev. James Murphy, pastor of St. Clair's, Philadelphia; the Rev. Philip Rodgers, professor at Bethlehem Catholic High School; and the Rev. Joseph T. Whalen, pastor of St. Canicus and St. Fidelis, Mahanoy City.
In addition, two sons of the parish took part in the service. The Rev.Ronald Bowman, an assistant pastor at St. Anne's, Bethlehem, concelebrated, and Thomas Kuller, a Jesuit scholastic in Washington, D.C., served as a reader.
Other readers included Kristine Miranda, Susan Graver, David Rakos, Gene Durigan and Michael Dizon. Mriss was lector.
Organists were Michelle Ebbert, James Logue and Randy Colangecco. Mary Marzen played the guitar, and Carl J. Marzen played the bass and trumpet. Directors of music were Fred Manning, adult choir; Sarah Yurkunas, children's choir, and Josephine Noll, choral group.
About 400 people attended a banquet at the Jim Thorpe Memorial Park following yesterday's Mass.
The bishop, Kean and other former pastors spoke. The invocation was given by Kuller, and the benediction by Bowman. Mriss introduced the members of the clergy and Ebbert provided dinner music on the piano. Other events are planned throughout the year to celebrate the anniversary.
1850 - xxxx Rev. Freude (Missionary)
xxxx - 1885 Rev. William Heinen (Pastor at St. Joseph's, served Lehighton area)
1885 - 1890 Rev. Hubert H. Hammeke (First official Pastor)
1890 - 1892 Rev. Aegidus Mersch
1892 - 1894 Rev. Charles Sauers
1894 - 1903 Rev. William Hammeke
1903 - 1923 Rev. Francis Regnery
1923 - 1940 Rev. Charles Saas
1940 - 1953 Rev. John P. Ludwig
1953 - 1976 Rev. George J. Fenzil
1976 - 1980 Rev. William E. Handges
1980 - 1983 Rev. Msgr. Joseph M. Whalen
1983 - 1987 Rev. Joseph H. Kean
1987 - 1989 Rev. Charles Marciano
1989 - 1992 Rev. Joseph Sobiesciak
1992 - 1999 Rev. Robert J. McConaghy
1999 - 2003 Rev. Philip Rodgers
2003 - 2005 Rev. James C. Bechtel
2005 - 2008 Rev. Edward J. Essig
2008 - 2018 Rev. Michael Ahrensfield
2018 - 2019 Rev. William Seifert
2019 - Present Rev. Christopher M. Zelonis