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Wedding business changes affect Lehigh Valley church congregations – The Morning Call

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Remember when weddings took place in churches?

Attending or participating in a wedding once usually meant shuttling between a house of worship and a reception hall – or, back in the day, possibly someone’s backyard.

In our family, during the ‘60s and ‘70s, weddings of my aunts and cousins took place at Ss. Simon and Jude, the family parish, at Seventh Avenue and Broad Street, in west Bethlehem and the receptions a block up the street on my grandparents’ small yard at Seventh and Market. Wedding party members got to drive, those attending walked.

The only time I’ve been glad that my grandfather is no longer with us is when my daughter got married in a rustic barn in Bucks County – despite neither family coming from there – with the ceremony and reception in one place. A family friend who was a judge did the service – and the total cost was more than my grandparents paid for their house in the day.

A lot has changed in a few generations.

A wedding industrial complex has engulfed young America, making the price of nuptials today the only thing other than health care and college with little relationship to the actual cost of delivering the service.

Fortunately, for my dad, the wedding arms race was just getting started back in the early 90s when my sister married. Equally as “frugal” as his father, he couldn’t pull off the side yard picnic in that era and sprung for a reception above a bowling alley on Stefko Boulevard in Bethlehem. The place had the romantic name, The Glass Slipper, but midnight struck long ago for the Slipper and it’s now a Rent-A-Center and a chiropractor’s office.

The wedding and reception were beautiful – and my sister is still married, 31 years later. One of my favorite family photos is of my dad, me, and my sister inside the Slipper on her wedding day.

The era of the church wedding is fading fast, along with many churches.

The Lehigh Valley’s industrial and manufacturing economy was a magnet for immigration throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and remains so today. People came here for work and to build a life and a family, often following those who came earlier from their town or village in Europe, the Middle East, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South America, Korea and elsewhere.

One of the first things they did was to build a church in the neighborhood where they settled. As like other Lehigh Valley towns and cities, Bethlehem, particularly its south side, was home to dozens of ethnic churches built as the centerpiece of their enclave.

My mom’s family was part of the Slovenian, or Windish, neighborhood. My great-grandmother who emigrated from Europe in the 1920s never left the  neighborhood. She lived to be 98-year-old, and never spoke much English.

The Slovenians, who oddly adopted the label Windish after coming here, built two churches in the neighborhood: St. John’s Windish Evangelical Lutheran Church on Fourth Street and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Fifth Street. My great-grandmother walked to mass nearly every day at St. Joseph’s. The last time I was there was for her funeral.

Today, most of the ethnic churches in Bethlehem are long closed, many have become apartment buildings or converted for other community uses. Some have been taken over by newer churches or long relocated to different parts of the city as parishioners moved away. Each one has a unique story and history.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was shuttered by the Allentown Diocese in 2008 as part of a large consolidation of churches. Since then, the Slovenian faithful have been able to use the neglected and much-in-need-of-repair church occasionally for special services.

Not wanting to see the church of their parents and grandparents become another apartment house, the Slovenian faithful have banded together and bought the church from the Diocese, forming the Society of St. Joseph of Bethlehem to restore its use as a church.

The Slovenians are a hardy and proud people.

They are doing it not only for their own kind. As one of Bethlehem’s last remaining ethnic churches, they want to preserve it to help tell the story of the immigrant groups that came to the Lehigh Valley to work the mills and factories and, in the process, not just build a life for themselves but build the Lehigh Valley.

Not only are churches fading but so are the faithful. Only 16% of Americans report going to church once a week, according to the most recent Public Religion Research Institute survey. Participation has been in steady decline. Congregations are often not large enough to sustain the houses of worship that exist.

Developers and communities have often made the best of repurposing and reusing these special places where people married, were baptized, bar mitzvahed, worshipped and mourned friends and relatives for decades or centuries.

Each time, however, I still think we I lose a part of our collective soul. I’m grateful that through the work of the Society of St. Joseph, the spot where I knelt to say goodbye to my great-grandmother won’t be someone’s living room. Maybe a little of the money being spent on today’s expensive weddings could find its way to help repair St. Joseph.

It’s too late for the Glass Slipper. Right now, someone is on a table getting their spine aligned where that wonderful photo of me, my dad and sister – in her wedding dress – was snapped.

Don Cunningham is the president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. He can be reached at [email protected].

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