St. Stephen Roman Catholic Magyar Church is a former church located in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. It was the first Hungarian Roman Catholic Church in the state and only the fifth constructed in the United States at the time of its completion in 1901.4
The idea for the church came from a group of Hungarian immigrants in the Monongahela River valley in the late 1890’s.2 The vocal group approached the editor of a Hungarian newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, who printed many of their concerns and desires. At a speech to a group of Hungarians near McKeesport in November 1897, the editor spoke of the need for a Catholic church in the area and ended his speech with a $25 donation towards the building of a such a facility.
When $650 had been raised, the Hungarian immigrants, via the editor, wrote to the Bishop of Kassa, Hungary, and asked for a pastor to be sent to McKeesport.2 3 Rev. Kalman Kovats, a priest, professor, and editor of a political newspaper in Hungary, made the voyage over, arriving in town on August 12, 1899. He was taken in by the Janos Szajbert family.
The first church service was held in the basement of a school of nearby St. Peter Catholic Church on August 20, 1899 – the feast day of St. Stephen.2 3 The initial parish consisted of 23 families along with 817 adults from 31 communities in the Monongahela River valley. With the parish growing at a rapid rate, a decision was made to acquire land for a permanent building.
Land was acquired in McKeesport on April 3, 1900, at a cost of $2,500.2 Groundbreaking for a modest two-story brick and stone church was held on July 26, 1900, and a cornerstone was laid on September 9. The church, named after the first Christian king of Hungary, was dedicated to a crowd of 4,000 on August 25, 1901. The building cost $45,000.
Inside, the wooden altar, built from the wood of trees grown in Hungary,4 was donated by the bishop of Kassa and a painting of St. Stephen was donated by the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Josef.3 An organ was donated by Andrew Carnegie.4
Growth and Decline
Four nuns were sent from Hungary to educate children in religion and their native language in 1912.2 A grade school was constructed in 1931 using materials salvaged from a nearby school that was closing.
By World War II, St. Stephen Roman Catholic Magyar Church boasted a membership of approximately 300 families; Masses were often held with a standing-room-only crowd.2
Mirroring that of McKeesport, the church’s fortunes declined in the latter half of the 20th century. McKeesport’s population began to shrink with the downsizing of the National Tube Works and membership at the church dropped to the mid-hundreds. In 1967, the school closed.2
St. Stephen’s Parish merged with St. Pius V Parish in 1994 and St. Stephen was scheduled to close.2 At the time, Rev. Stephen Kato, who was celebrating his 50th year as a priest, asked Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl if the church could remain open as long as he was able to say Mass. Wuerl granted Kato’s request and St. Stephen remained open.
In April 2002, Kato died and on July 7, St. Stephen Roman Catholic Magyar Church held its final Mass, with Wuerl as the celbrant.2 6
In January 2007, the church was acquired by a limited-liability corporation owned by Raffaello Follieri for $60,000.1 5 Follieri, who had close ties with the Vatican, was able to purchase hundreds of closed churches in the United States with the goal to “renovate them” and “convert them to new uses” including housing or commercial use.
In its 103-year history, the church had just four pastors: Rev. Kalman Kovats (August 12, 1899-May 1927); Rev. John Rethy (May 1927-July 1946); Rev. Raymond Novak (December 1946-June 1962); and Rev. Stephen Kato (June 1962-April 2002).