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No mention of Catholicism can be found in the earliest history of the local area. However, we do know French priests did follow the Susquehanna River to evangelize Native American tribes in Pennsylvania during the late 17th century. Jesuit missionary priests who traveled from Maryland during the early 18th century are most closely related to the faith communities of Parishes in the Harrisburg diocese today. Early missionary priests moved about searching for isolated Catholic immigrants, mostly Irish and German. The potato famine in Ireland caused Mass migration while war and religious persecution were factors in German immigration. The Irish, in particular, suffered great prejudice by the English colonists to the point of not acknowledging their Catholic background.
Missionary priests helped the settlers to hold on to their Catholic faith and identity. The recorded beginning of Saint Columba Parish dates back to the year 1826 during the construction of the North Branch Canal and the building of the railroads. The spiritual ministerial and needs of this small group of mainly Irish and German immigrants in and about Bloomsburg and Catawissa were attended to by priests who came either from Milton or Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
From 1844 to 1847, Father John Fitzpatrick of Milton regularly attended to the spiritual needs of the Catholic community, and services were held at the home of Michael Casey on North Iron Street. Also at this time, the spiritual needs of a group of German Catholics in the Lightstreet area were administered by a German priest, whose name has been lost in antiquity; however, here too the Mass was celebrated in private homes.
Twenty-two Catholic families resided in the Bloomsburg area at this time and among the early names recorded were John Hartman, Michael Casey, John Egan, Martin Crogan, David Jones, John Donolly, M. McQuillen, John Halligan, Michael Asby, John Smith, Peter Smith, Hugh Furrey, and James Cronin.
In 1848, the Catholics took their initial step toward becoming an organized Parish when they banded together to purchase land from Reverend David Waller and his wife on October 17, 1848, for $180 in Bloom Township, west of Iron Street, for a cemetery. This was occasioned by the fact that in that year, the angel of death visited the small flock for the first time and burial had to take place in Pottsville.
The next step in this journey toward becoming a Parish in Bloomsburg covered the years from 1849 to 1882. During the years from 1844 to 1849, their spiritual needs were answered by Father John Flanagan from Milton and later by a Father Hennigan who was in turn succeeded by Father O’Keefe, the first resident pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Danville in 1849. The Catholics of Bloomsburg became a mission of St. Joseph’s and St. Hubert’s churches. Father O’Keefe was followed by Father Kerney, who was succeeded by Father Sheridan in the fall of 1851. Father Edward Murray became the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church and the Bloomsburg Mission on September 30, 1857. As the years passed, the membership of the mission congregation continued to increase and it became apparent that a central place of worship was needed. On April 4, 1859, Father Murray purchased a property on East Third Street near the iron Street corner for $535.
It is recorded in Deed Book O, pages 765, 766, and 767 that the property purchased from John Snyder and wife and deeded to the Right Reverend John N. Neumann, Bishop of the Diocese of Philadelphia was a lot on Third Street, 68 feet, 6 inches wide and 163 feet long on which stood a stone church 30 feet by 50 feet, formerly owned by the “American Primitive Methodist Sect.” Father Murray dedicated the new property to the worship to the worship of Almighty God under the patronage of St. Columkil (Columba) on September 4, 1859. The Catholic congregation in Bloomsburg became known as the Saint Columba Mission. In 1866, Father Murray was succeeded by Father McGinnes as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, Danville, and the Saint Columba Mission.
Bishop Neumann of the Philadelphia Diocese visited the Bloomsburg area on three occasions for the purpose of administering the Sacrament of Confirmation. In 1854, he confirmed nineteen persons; in 1857, twelve; and in 1859, a class of twenty-one.
Saint Columba Mission became a mission of St. Hubert’s German Church in Danville in 1870 under Father Schmidt, who was succeeded by Father Schleuter in 1872. In 1877, Father Schmidt returned as pastor of the two congregations, serving Saint Columba Mission until 1882.
In October 1882, the Saint Columba Mission achieved full Parish status with the appointment of the first resident pastor, Father Andrew O’Brien. His term and that of his successor, Father Charles Kenny, was very brief – one month. In December of that year, Father M. O’Reilly was appointed pastor of St. Columba Church.
Father O’Reilly was an outstanding administrator and organizer. He proved most successful in transforming St. Columba from a Mission to a Parish church. On January 13, 1883, Father O’Reilly purchased a property, which adjoined the church to the west, for $1500 from James Reilly. The brick building, which stood on the property, was used as the first Parish rectory. Father O’Reilly remained as pastor until June 1884.
Between June 1884 and February 1885, St. Columba Parish had no resident pastor, with Father Schmidt of St. Hubert’s of Danville attending. The next pastor of St. Columba was Father Edward Clark who served from February 1885 until 1886 when Father Arthur J. McCann was appointed pastor in September of that year. During his 13-year pastorate, additional property was purchased on the corner of Third and Iron streets on the east side of the church from Elizabeth Rawlings for $4250. The brick building, which stood on the lot, was intended to be used as a school. This particular structure is still standing and is in use today as the rectory. NOTE: In 1911, this building was moved about 70 feet west from the original corner location when construction began for a new church. Also under the direction of Father McCann, the existing church was completely remodeled and frescoed and new altars were installed.
Father James Bair came to St. Columba in 1899 and in October 1901, he was succeeded by Father Joseph R. Murphy. Father Murphy remained as pastor until May 1910. During this period, the congregation continued to grow and the need for a larger church was recognized. There were 270 souls in the Parish during the close of Father Murphy’s tenure and it prompted him to initiate planning for the construction of a larger church. However, it was during the pastorate of his successor, Father Edward Burkard, that the plans were completed and construction began on June 27, 1911. Bishop John W. Shanahan dedicated this new church on October 12, 1913. Ultimately, this church yielded to the current structure, which was dedicated in January 1970.
Reverend Herman B. Gies succeeded Father Burkard in December 1917 and remained until February 1936. During that time, the indebtedness as paid off, the church was frescoed, a new organ installed, Stations of the Cross erected, and another property was purchased on Iron Street.
Father Louis J. Yeager came to St. Columba in February 1936. During his pastorate, a substantial building fund was created and several additional properties were purchased for the purpose of future church expansion. While Father Yeager was the pastor, St. Columba experienced another first: Father Daniel Gearing was appointed assistant pastor. Father Gearing came to Bloomsburg from the Pittsburgh Diocese and was very active with the youth of the Parish. The two priests recognized a void in the Parish involvement with the Catholic students attending Bloomsburg State Teachers College and consequently founded the “Columbian Club” to serve their spiritual needs. Today’s chaplains assigned to the Catholic Campus Ministry by the Diocese attend to the Catholic students at Bloomsburg University. Sunday Masses for the students have been conducted at St. Columba, with the consent of the pastor, since the fall of 1970.
During World War II, about 110 boys and girls of St. Columba’s Parish entered the armed services, and six of their number made the supreme sacrifice. And independent Catholic U.S.O. Center was conducted in the church hall.
Father William J. Burke became the pastor of St. Columba Parish on May 24, 1945, and during his pastorate, the Parish school building was constructed. The school was dedicated in 1954 – the Marian Year – and was staffed by the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. With the addition of this school, St. Columba became a complete Parish. Father Burke inspired the congregation toward many spiritual, social, and fundraising activities, not the least of which was the reactivating of the Parish stand at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds.
On November 8, 1957, Father Vincent Topper assumed the leadership of St. Columba, and he purchased the property on Iron Street for use as a Parish convent.
Father James W. Beeman came to St. Columba as Father Topper’s assistant, and they were responsible for establishing the Benton Mission of Christ the King in November 1961.
On August 9, 1963, Father John J. Suknaic replaced Father Topper and served for a five-year span. During that time, he paid off the Parish debt and initiated the preliminary planning and architectural work for the construction of the present church.
Father Suknaic’s time was marked by a flurry of assistants. They were Fathers David T. McAndrew, Bernard Petrina, Hubert J. Kealy, and Martin T. Brown. Although their tenures were short, each left his mark on the Parish, the community, and Christ the King Mission.
Father Joseph T. Kofchock assumed the Parish leadership on September 19, 1968, and under his direction, the final plans for the building of the new church were approved. The old church on the corner was razed in the fall of 1968 and construction of the present church progressed quite rapidly, culminating with the dedication ceremony and first Mass on January 19, 1970. The church cost $473,000 to build and furnish and seat 700 people. During construction, Masses were held in the school cafeteria/gymnasium and at the Columbia Theater on Center Street where in lieu of kneelers, Parishioners and the university’s Catholic students would stand.
Father Kofchock purchased a property on Iron Street across from the church in anticipation of the need for a new rectory. He was instrumental in the formation of the first Parish school board, which was instituted to take an active role in the operation of St. Columba School.
In June 1973, the pastoral responsibilities of St. Columba were placed in the hands of the Reverend Leonard V. Casey. Under his leadership, the Parish debt was substantially reduced, and he initiated a myriad of ongoing activities and programs, notably the formation of the “Casey Club” for the over-fifty members of the congregation and the formation of the Parish Advisory Council, which plays an important role in Parish decision making. His greatest pleasure was derived from helping make the liturgy meaningful for all Parishioners that included the introduction of what at the time most called a guitar-music ministry. Father Casey was a fixture in the school and was active in the children’s religious education whenever he was asked.
During Father Casey’s administration, he was assisted by Father Lawrence McNeal and Father Thomas Scala. Both priests aided in the operation of Christ the King Parish in Benton. Father Casey’s leadership continued until 1986 when Father Thomas Langan, former Bloomsburg University Chaplin, assumed the role as pastor, continued the debt reduction program and meeting the religious need of St. Columba and Christ the King Parishes. He was assisted for a short time by Father Scala and in November 1987, by Father Ronald Moratelli, who remained until 1998. 1988 saw the return of Father Thomas Scala as pastor, and he served until 1994, concentrating on the religious educational needs of the Parish.
Father Patrick Devine replaced Fr. Scala as Pastor in June 1994 beginning his goal of guiding the Parish to a rich spiritual fulfillment and creating an outreach to the community of Bloomsburg,
The Parish began the Food Cupboard under the leadership of Martha Sheehe in 1994-1995, which distributed food twice a week out of the old Parish Center on Iron Street directly across from St Columba’s Church. After several years, the sponsorship of the Food Cupboard was taken over by the Bloomsburg Ministerium with Martha Sheehe remaining as the Director. This ministry was met with such success that the operations now work out of the former Winona Fire Hall, which the Parish purchased and renovated, dedicating it to Father Patrick Devine at the time of his retirement. The hall also houses a preschool program and is used for meetings of the Knights of Columbus and other Parish activities. After almost 25 years the Food Cupboard has distributed over 400,000 parcels to the poor in the Bloomsburg area.
In 1998, a committee, led by attorney Al Luschas, began a study of the Parish buildings and what needs the Parish had at that time. Two problems emerged immediately: the Parish had filled its existing storage spaces and the Parish office building was in bad shape with too many other buildings the Parish had purchased that were simply not cost-effective and a drain on the Parish budget. The committee’s study came up with a plan that included a new Parish center, renovating and purchasing the Winona Firehouse on Center Street that was up for sale, and razing five buildings for the building of a new Parish center and a new storage center for Parish supplies. The plan was presented to the Parish at a cost of $1.2 million in 1999 and Parishioners contributed $1 million of the total over three years. The remainder of the money came from Parish savings. Ground was broken for the new Parish Center in 2000 and it was dedicated in November 2002.
The addition of the new Parish Center was designed to make a statement of the church’s commitment to the neighborhood and the town. This was recognized in a Press Enterprise editorial column, “Roses to the ambitious building program that includes construction of a $1.4 million education and meeting center. Not only is the Parish transforming one of the town’s oldest neighborhoods, but it is also proving wrong predictions about the inevitable decline and demise of mainstream churches.”
By this time, the old Winona building had been renovated by the generous volunteer group of men and women headed by Larry Snyder. On the main floor, it housed the food bank and other areas were used as a preschool program for St Columba School and as a meeting area for the Knights of Columbus.
Father Keller, the next Parish assistant, arrived in 1998 and stayed until 2000.
From 2002-2010 under the principalship of Mrs. Maryann Vernarchick, the Parish grade school expanded from Pre-K to 5th Grade program to include 3 more grades, giving the Parish a complete Pre-K through eighth-grade elementary/intermediate school.
The liturgy at St Columba Parish continued to be the main component of Parish life. In 2001, The newest Director of Music Ministry, Catherine Chayko, continued to build on the programs that the former director Dennis Bobber had started, with an impressive number of young people and older Parishioners contributing to the Children’s Liturgy, the choirs, musicians, and cantors.
In 1994, Fr. Devine asked attorney Jack Mihalik to organize a basketball program for the Parish and since then, it has flourished with championship programs for both girls and boys.
In 2000, Fr. Sceskie became both Chaplain of the University and Pastor at Christ the King Parish in Benton, an arrangement that continues today.
On June 18, 2002, the Press-Enterprise newspaper printed a letter written by Rev. Thomas A. Young, Pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church and President of the Bloomsburg Ministerium, stating, “Father Patrick Devine has been a loyal and dedicated servant here for the past nine years and has contributed in many ways to the quality of life of the town. He has been active in so many ways and involved in the town to improve it. We are grateful for his witness among us as a brother in the faith and co-worker. We wish to thank the members of Saint Columba for the many ways they contribute to improving the faith and life of the town of Bloomsburg.”
Father Joseph H. Fennessy provided spiritual guidance and support to the St. Columba Parish family following his retirement from St. Mary’s Parish in Berwick in 1999 until his death on Dec. 10, 2015. He was a well-loved and ever-present part of Parish life during this time and made lasting friendships with several families during his tenure. Father Fennessy was also very influential and active in ecumenical activities and the Legion of Mary.
Father Paul Fisher followed Father Devine and served as our Parish Pastor for two years, from 2009 to 2011. Father Fisher maintained his duties with a focus on liturgy and the sanctuary decorations in the church. He was very interested in making the sanctuary look different for each of the Holy Days of the Church. He was also the Diocesan Ecumenical officer during this time.
From June 2011 until the present time, our Parish has been led by Monsignor Robert E. Lawrence. Msgr. Lawrence is driven by the Theology of Presence; he strives to be present in all aspects of Parish life. On a given day, Msgr. can be found visiting the elderly/homebound, attending to the sick at home or in the hospital, offering Mass at the Senior Residential facilities in our Parish boundaries, and maintaining his availability on the Parish grounds as well. He has initiated the new funeral meals hospitality committee as an outreach program to the bereaved. In communication with the Parish Finance Council, Msgr. Lawrence has spearheaded many initiatives to improve infrastructure, including replacing the church carpets, installing new HVAC systems for the church and the school which enables each classroom (including the gym and cafeteria) to have its own heating/cooling/system, replacing the PA system in the church, installing a new carillon (chiming bell system), and developing an overhead shelter and handicap accessibility ramp at the Parish entrance from the main parking lot adjacent to the rectory. Msgr. Lawrence is also increasing the parking options for our Parishioners with the purchase of adjacent properties. Msgr. Lawrence is also active in the Diocese of Harrisburg as a member of the College of Consultors and the Presbyteral Council.
In 2018, the Religious Education Program was housed in the Parish Center and under the direction of Helen McMenamin. Joe Mullen recently retired from this position after 15 years as the Director of Religious Education, but he continues to lead the adult education program.
St. Columba continues to realize its community responsibility. It maintains an accredited elementary-intermediate-middle school program sustained by Parish monies and tuition. Through character education and religious, hundreds of young people including many who have made significant contributions to the Bloomsburg community, have moved on to regional high schools, well prepared for the rigors of higher education.
A monthly Good Neighbor collection enables the church to distribute approximately $7,000 per year to local charities and individuals in need. During the holiday season, Parishioners purchase gifts for the needy members of the community. The church’s work with Bloomsburg University students must be mentioned as an important part of their college lives, and sports activities for the youth and adults incorporating the use of the school’s gym are very popular.
Former Diocesan Archivist Kathleen Signor wrote in March 2000 about St. Columba Parish, “This message is not new, and the history is not unique. The historical experience, however, is ours, and it offers a valuable and contemporary message of evangelization. Through liturgy and our historical memory, these efforts and our common faith endure being passed to our children and succeeding generations. In thanksgiving, we celebrate our Catholic heritage of faith. Let us, always, recognize this legacy, which is the unifying thread in our historical church – the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.“
Originally written by Richard Connolly for the 2007 St. Columba Parish Directory
Revised and updated in 2018 for use in the new Parish website.