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
In the late 1890’s, a group of Hungarian immigrants in the Monongahela River valley approached the editor of a Hungarian newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio for a new church in McKeesport. 2 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. He 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. 2 3 They asked for a pastor to be sent to McKeesport. Rev. Kalman Kovats, a priest, professor and editor of a political newspaper in Hungary, made the voyage over, arriving in the city 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 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 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. A painting of St. Stephen was bequeathed by the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Josef 3 while an organ was given 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
The church’s fortunes declined in the latter half of the 20th century, mirroring that of the city of McKeesport. The city’s population began to shrink with the downsizing of the National Tube Works. Likewise, 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 with St. Stephen 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. 2 6 On July 7, St. Stephen Roman Catholic Magyar Church held its final Mass, with Wuerl as the celbrant.
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. Follieri intended to convert the building for a new use but no work was conducted at St. Stephen.
In its 103-year history, St. Stephen 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).
- Rev. Stephen Kato (June 1962-April 2002).