Commemorating 150 Years:
Holy Infancy Church
Emergence of a Parish
Lithograph of the second edifice of Holy Infancy, built in 1886.
Courtesy Holy Infancy Parish
With an Irish labor force working on the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the iron company in the 1850s, it was not until 1861 the Most Rev. James Frederick Wood (1813- 1882), fifth bishop of the Philadelphia Diocese, established Holy Infancy as a parish in the village of Bethlehem South with permission to build a “territorial” church in the Diocese.
Technically, this appointment had no bearing on its predominantly Irish congregation living in the Third Ward, or on any other of its ethnic people: Belgian, German, English, Welsh, French, Swedish, Italian or Polish. It was the “mother church,” open to all nationalities of Catholics within the territory of South Bethlehem.
In 1862, Rev. Michael McEnroe was appointed pastor of Holy Infancy and later resided in the rectory built on the southwest corner of Locust and E. Fourth Sts.
Establishing An Identity
While both Holy Infancy Catholic Church (1864) and the Episcopal Church of the Nativity (1865) were under construction in South Bethlehem, the name “Nativity” was first chosen by the Catholic congregation; later, they relinquished use of the name in favor of “Holy Infancy.”
South Bethlehem’s first Burgess, James McMahon (1865-1866), a respected Irish citizen, had been an active participant in the organization of the borough’s first Catholic church.
Patrick Briody, an Irish immigrant who came to America in 1850, was also a dedicated founding parishioner of Holy Infancy Church. Like him, many community leaders of Irish decent contributed to the community by the close of the century: John Donegan, Charles Quinn, James Broughal, Thomas O’Reilly, to name a few.
The First Holy Infancy
Construction of the church began in 1863; it measured 40 feet by 80 feet and was located on the corner of Locust St. (now Taylor) and E. Fourth St. It was dedicated by Bishop Wood in 1864. After its completion, a plot of 2.5 acres lying on South Mountain was donated to Holy Infancy Church by Asa Packer for a cemetery in 1867. The first interment was that of James Griffin in what is now St. Michael’s Cemetery—the burial site of at least 26 nationalities.
In 1877, Rev. Philip McEnroe succeeded his brother, Michael as pastor; in time, he saw the growing congregation in need of a larger church. By 1882, Bishop Wood, now elevated to first Archbishop of Philadelphia, gave approval to begin work on the larger Holy Infancy Church to be built on the site of the existing structure.
A New Edifice
Designed by Philadelphia architect Edwin Forrest Durang, the new Gothic Revival church measured 67 feet by 147 feet and was built of stone in the Perpendicular Style. A cross topped the distinctive, centrally located 196-foot spire, later lowered and modified during WWII.
The church bell was donated “to the Church of the Holy Infancy, South Bethlehem, by three friends of the pastor [Rev. McEnroe] and his people.” The donors were William W. Thurston, John Fritz and Samuel Adams.
Italian immigrant painter, Philipo Costaginni.
James Wohlbach headed construction, John Stewart Allam provided the church’s carpentry work and millwork was furnished by Ritter & Beck—all of South Bethlehem.
The interior wall behind the altar featured three paintings: the central “Crucifixion” painted by Philipo Costaginni (1839-1904), and two others flanking it, painted by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880)—both Italian immigrants trained at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, Italy.
Holy Infancy interior with triptych paintings behind the altar. Brumidi painted the two frecos flanking Costaginni’s center
When completed in 1886, the second Holy Infancy Church was dedicated by Archbishop Patrick John Ryan. Toward the end of the century, Holy Infancy Church offered Mass in languages other than English for an ever-increasing ethnically-diverse congregation.
The Ethnic Churches
During the 1880s, Rhineland, German- born Rev. William Heinen, came to South Bethlehem by way of Mauch Chunk and Lansford, coal regions of Carbon County. He believed the Philadelphia Archdiocese lacked stewardship in providing spiritual guidance to Slovaks, Hungarians, and Italians— Roman Catholic immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. These immigrants later created a rich and diverse cultural mix to what is now the city of Bethlehem’s South Side. In the early part of the last century, the influx of these diverse nationalities settled in South Bethlehem, having been lured by jobs at the Bethlehem Steel Co. New ethnic parishes formed to fit the needs of these non-English speaking immigrants and were recognized by the Diocese:
- Holy Ghost (German) 1871;
- Ss. Cyril and Methodius (Slovak) 1891;
- Our Lady of Pompeii of the Most Holy Rosary (Italian) 1902;
- St. John Capistrano (Hungarian) 1903;
- St. Stanislaus (Polish) 1906;
- and St. Joseph (Slovenian/Windish) 1913.
Today, Holy Ghost and Ss. Cyril and Methodius (now Incarnation of Our Lord Parish) are the only two Catholic churches originally founded by ethnic groups that still exist in South Bethlehem.
At 150, Holy Infancy remains the first Catholic church established by the Diocese before South Bethlehem became a borough. Today, the church not only continues serving an English speaking, multi-cultural congregation but also includes its Spanish-speaking members from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Central America and Guatemala; and Portuguese-language members from Portugal and Brazil.
To mark its 150th anniversary, Holy Infancy parish celebrates with various activities planned throughout 2011.
Your movie ticket got you more at The Lehigh Theatre
What we remember most [about the Lehigh Theater on E. Fourth St.] is that it was the cheapest theatre in town, and you could sit in there all day on one ticket. It was not very clean, but if you were collecting dishes, you Your movie ticket got you more at The Lehigh Theatre got one free dish every time you went.
You dare not skip a week when the dishes were given out because you wouldn’t be able to complete the set. My mother had a beautiful set of dishes, a Renaissance ballroom scene with gold rim around the edge. As kids, we were embarrassed about where the dishes came from—but years later, they were worth something. Mother was a widow with eight of us kids, so buying a set like that was out of the question—they were our “best” set.
When we went to the “Lehigh,” we would look around to see if we knew anyone before buying a ticket because we’d be embarrassed going in [to buy the dishes]. Now, it all seems so silly.
Hungarian Christmas Traditions
South Bethlehem Hungarians fondly recalled Christmas in their native Hungary as a festive time of year when family members got together to celebrate the holiday.
Candles were placed in the windows as a symbolic greeting to those absent from home, and in memory of deceased family members.
The Christmas tree played a very important part in the celebration of Christmas: in the village square, as well as in the home, evergreen trees were decorated with ornaments which originated from their regions.
Edibles used for tree decorations included foil-wrapped Christmas candies, cookies, apples and decorated whole walnuts. Other ornaments included wax candles and hand-crafted items.
Carolers were heard as they strolled about the village, carrying a huge illuminated star and perhaps a Nativity scene. Nativity plays were very popular and could be found in almost every village.
At home, a great deal of time was spent preparing foods of all kinds for the Christmas meal, while the table was set with
Christmas Eve was an occasion of family activity. Before the evening meal, the family gathered around the Christmas tree; after a short prayer, gifts were placed near the tree. When the first star appeared in the sky, the evening meal was served.
After the meal was completed, families attended church services together, recalling the birth of Jesus Christ. Returning home from church, family members eagerly opened their Christmas gifts.
The Emergence of Industrial Pioneers in South Bethlehem
Samuel Wetherill established the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Zinc Company by 1853.
In 1848, the Moravians of Bethlehem, Northampton County, Pennsylvania, divested 1,380 acres of farmland situated along the Lehigh River, flanked by picturesque South Mountain.
After the Civil War in 1865, this idyllic setting became a borough named South Bethlehem . . . a community of industrial pioneers, who, combined with ethnic immigrant labor, would impact the nation—and the world.
Bethlehem, Pa. has a long and remarkable record of industrial and technological achievement. Since its earliest days as a religious enterprise of the Moravian Brethren, the practical genius of this community has left many a curious traveler awestruck.
The 18th Century wooden age knowhow of millwright Henry Antes, the mechanical brilliance of 19th Century ironmaster John Fritz, and the genius of steel titan Charles Schwab in the 20th Century, are but a few of those talented individuals responsible for the industrial legacy we proudly share today. There are many others indeed.
Samuel Wetherill (1821-1890)
Chemist, Industrialist, Civil War Soldier
Among those oft forgotten is a man by the name of Samuel Wetherill, who came to Bethlehem from his native Philadelphia in the early 1850’s. As a descendant of one of Colonial America’s most enterprising families, Wetherill came to Bethlehem, not by chance as one might expect.
Two generations of Wetherills prior to Samuel’s era pioneered the early chemicals industry in America with the production of numerous products, including white lead carbonate — an ingredient that revolutionized the manufacture of house paints globally, for both its adhesive and covering properties.
Samuel came to Bethlehem hoping to extend his family’s control of the paints industry; between 1852 and 1853, he set up the first industrial colossus for the manufacture of zinc oxide — an experimental substitute for the proven, yet expensive, white lead.
Wetherill supervised the construction of brick and frame structures for this purpose in 1852. The enterprise was situated on four acres, just east of the present Fahy Bridge, and employed technology both developed and patented by Wetherill himself.
His “furnace process” reduced raw ore to its powdered mineral form, and his “tower process” extracted and isolated it from a sundry of impure by-products. The zinc oxide was then bagged and shipped to market.
The raw materials for Wetherill’s manufactory where mined just over the ridge of South Mountain in Saucon Valley and brought to the operation along the Lehigh by packhorse and mule train. The Pennsylvania and Lehigh Zinc Company was chartered in March of 1853.
On October 13 of the same year, the first “white zinc” made in the United States was made at the ZincWorks. Wetherill later pioneered the manufacture of metallic zinc spelter and sheet zinc.
By 1855, Asa Packer surveyed tracks of the Lehigh Valley Railroad between the ZincWorks and the Lehigh River. By 1860, the Bethlehem Iron Company was formed east of the ZincWorks with the intent of producing rails.
After the Civil War, on August 21, 1865, the Borough of South Bethlehem was incorporated. Later, the ZincWorks was absorbed into the Bethlehem Steel Company in the early 20th Century, having employed in excess of 700 persons during its peak years.
Wetherill’s Southside operation is credited with bringing to South Bethlehem the first significant influx of foreign-born labor—an event synonymous with the later growth of the steel industry, vital to this community’s ethnic character.
Wetherill contributed much to the South Bethlehem community, beyond being the first to capitalize upon this opportune location which would become a future industrial hub.
In addition to this important contribution, Wetherill was a vigilant patriot. He organized among Bethlehem residents, a mounted guard in the summer of 1861, for three years serving the Union during the Civil War. Wetherill enlisted as Captain of H Company, 108th Pennsylvania Regiment on Sept. 25, 1861 for a 3-year term. He was promoted to Major of the 108th on October 10, 1861, and was later discharged on Oct. 1, 1864 for expiration of term with the rank of Major.
On March 13, 1865, he received the rank of brevet Lieutenant Colonel. These brevets were common as the war wound down and afterwards.
(Source: Samuel Bates History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Vol. III, pp. 910, 936)
— W. Christian Carson
On September 23, 2003, South Bethlehem Historical Society dedicated an official state marker sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission which reads: “Samuel Wetherill (1821- 1890): Chemist, industrialist and Civil War officer. In 1852 he developed a process for extracting white zinc oxide directly from zinc ore. In 1853 he founded the Lehigh Zinc Co., with a plant just east of here, pioneering the manufacture of zinc spelter and sheet.”
A.W. Leh: South Bethlehem Architect – New World Rising
A.W. Leh (1848-1918)
Architect, Civil War Soldier
Albert Wolfring Leh, later known to citizens of the Bethlehems and beyond as A.W. Leh—or Captain Leh, in deference to his Civil War service— was born September 17, 1848 on his father’s Williams Township farm, near Easton, Pa. He might have become apprenticed to a tradesman, or even attended college, if that combination of patriotism and a spirit of adventure known as “war fever” had not seized him in the crucial autumn of 1864.
E.P. Wilbur Trust Company, 1910
On September 8, just shy of his sixteenth birthday, Leh enlisted in the Union Army. He signed up for the 198th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, the sixth regiment recruited under the auspices of the Union League of Philadelphia, and was mustered into service at that city on September 15, as part of Company “C.” Leh’s youthful military service marked the beginning of his lifelong involvement in civic and veterans’ affairs.
From 1880 through 1918, Leh’s 38-year career as architect included some of the most significant academic, commercial, ecclesiastical and residential structures in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the region.
—excerpt from A Living Legacy:
Architecture of A.W. Leh
A few of Leh’s architectural designs include Moravian College and Theological Seminary, Broughal Middle School, First Reformed Church, E.P. Wilbur Trust Co., Municipal Market, and Lipps & Sutton Silk Mill.
Phillips Music and Appliance Store by Jennifer Lader
“Businessmen thrive only as their customers thrive.” -The Whetford Book, Bethlehem, Pa. 1915
Today, “24 East Asian Bistro” and “Glen Anthony Designs” occupy the former Phillips Music Store on East Third St.
Abram Philip’s family had a store in Lithuania, so he knew business. On coming to America in the 1880s, he settled in Bethlehem, perhaps because the people here spoke Pennsylvania Dutch.
“He spoke Yiddish and could communicate with the local populace,” grandson Ira Berman says. Abram started as a peddler, then opened a pawnshop. Along the way, he changed his name to Abraham Phillips.
He and wife Sarah Joseph Phillips –niece of America’s only chief rabbi, Jacob Joseph of New York City—had ten children. Raising their children next door to a neighbor who also had ten children, one of them a very naughty child named Morris, they finally changed their own son Morris’ name to Maurice. “They got it corrected,” his daughter Gail Phillips says. “He had to get out of the shadow of the other child.”
Wedding photo of Abram and Sarah (Joseph) Phillips, 1891.
Maurice went on to turn the pawnshop into Phillips Sporting Goods at 13 W. Third St., South Bethlehem. Nephew Ira tells that a customer once wrote that he could not afford to buy a complete set of golf clubs and was amazed to find that every time he went into the store to purchase the next club, it was in stock. He discovered that Maurice had bought the entire set and kept them on hand just for him. Maurice’s brother, Sol, opened Phillips Music and Appliance Store at 24 E. Third Street. Nephew Ira helped out at the stores, although he says, “My aunts would not call my ventures there ‘work.’” By the time he graduated from high school, he made his first big sale —a clock radio. Apropos, he went on to a career in radio broadcasting sales and management.
During the Depression, Sol Phillips advanced credit to his customers. He was later rewarded with customer loyalty after WWII, when appliances were widely available. In those days, South Bethlehem was the place to shop, the sidewalks “packed” [with shoppers] on Saturday nights.
When the fortunes of the Steel changed, though, so did those of the merchants on Third St. Sol and Sadie Phillips closed the music store in the 1970s, and Maurice closed his sporting goods store around 1980. “He [Maurice] was so worried about the store because it was empty,” daughter Gail recalls.
“He worried himself to death, even though a successful photographer was in there for a while.”
She happily points out that Lehigh Pizza on W. Third St. now occupies the building her father once owned, saying, “The store still lives!”
—Jennifer Lader is a new member of SBHS and of the Oral History Association. She writes for The Bethlehem Press and other publications. Her current project, “People of Mettle: Voices of the Jewish Community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,” features personal interviews with fifty people, and presents a view of local and American Jewish history of the past century and more.