Development of the Catholic Faith in Berks County
St. Mary's, Reading
A skyline landmark in the southern section of the city, the steeples of St. Mary's Catholic Church rise above Twelfth and Spruce streets. The church, west side of South 12th St.; the rectory, northwest corner of 12th and Spruce Streets; convent, east side of South 12th St; and school and auditorium, southeast corner of 12th and Spruces Streets.
The first Polish immigrants into Reading came from the area of Poland known as Poznan. Because Poznan was frequently under German control, most residents of the area spoke German as well as Polish. At that time, in the history of the Church in the United States, almost all parishes were based on a particular ethnic population. When these immigrants came to Reading, they naturally attached themselves to a parish, St. Paul’s, which served the needs of German-speaking Catholics because there was no Polish Church in Reading.
The pastor of St. Paul’s, Father and later Monsignor George Bornemann, actively sought out Polish-speaking priests to serve the needs of Reading Polonia. Eventually, a Father Emil Kattein became the assistant pastor at St. Paul's. Father Kattein studied Polish while in Reading, but was then selected in 1882 to be the founding pastor of the first Polish-speaking parish in Philadelphia, St. Laurentius (Lawrence). When Father Kattein left St. Paul's, no Polish-speaking priest was assigned to take his place. Father Bornemann continued to look after the spiritual needs of the fledgling Polish community.
In 1887, Rev. Adelbert Malusecki was ordained to the Priesthood and appointed to Philadelphia, filling the place of Father Kattein who had gone there in the meantime and died in August, 1887. Father Malusecki came to Reading at stated intervals to attend to the Polish people of the city.
In January of 1888, Father Victor M. Lebiecki was appointed assistant at St. Paul's. Father Lebiecki took on the task of establishing St. Mary's Parish and its first church, which became the basement of the present church. Supposedly, there were 300 souls in Reading's Polish community; however, only 180 of them were financially supportive of the proposed venture, which called for the immediate building of a church approximately the size of St. Paul's. It quickly became apparent that the larger church would have to wait. But, there were bitter fights over whether to build immediately or be content with a basement church. The smaller faction repeatedly electing "presidents" of the parish congregation - something unheard of in the annals of Catholicism.
Once the basement was dug and put under a roof, a cornerstone-laying ceremony was arranged. On Sunday, October 8, 1888, an assembly gathered around Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan of Philadelphia and the clergy present on the roof of the basement. The rough floor, which had been laid temporarily, was crowded by some 1,500 persons. As the corner-stone laying ceremony was nearing its end, the weight of the people proved too much and nearly 400 square feet of the flooring near the central portion had suddenly fallen, precipitating many persons into the cellar. One woman was killed and many people were injured as they fell into the basement. This tragedy greatly affected Father Lebiecki and he left Reading in November, 1888.
Father Lebiecki was succeeded as assistant at St. Paul's by Father Mark Januszkiewicz, who oversaw the repairs to the basement church. This basement church probably took up the same space now occupied by the chapel and the meeting room.
In time, probably in April, 1889, Father Januszkiewicz was named the first pastor of St. Mary's. He arrived in Reading in November, 1888. He built the original rectory for St. Mary's at 236 South 12th Street (the present parking lot on the left side of the current church).
Father Januszkiewicz lived on the second floor of the Rectory; the first floor served as a school. The Schoolmaster, following the practice of the time, was also the Church Organist. The times were difficult and there was a great deal of friction between the pastor and the parishioners.
St. Mary's Church, 1888
On Sunday, April 28, 1889, dedication services were held at St. Mary's Catholic Church for the completion of the basement and structure, but it would take ten years before the main auditorium and roof were completed. During this time, the congregation of 300 members used the new basement of the edifice for school and church services. The edifice occupied a lot 60 by 100 feet and is built of stone and brick. The base is of sand stone and the structure is on the south side of 12th, at Spruce. In the basement, there were 58 double poplar pews, having a seating capacity of 400. The floor was cemented and the entrances were on the north and south sides. The interior of the basement is 53 by 90 feet. A large and handsome white altar, striped in plain gold, was placed at the west end. This was surmounted with the image of St. Mary, ornamented in gold. The image was 3 feet high. The altar was 4 feet high with 3 bases, and occupied a space 12 by 6 feet. To the north of the pulpit was the priest's dressing cabinet, which was of imitation cherry. At the east end of the church was the confessional and choir gallery. The basement is 12 feet high in the interior. A large arch of laurel had been suspended over the door. Each member of the congregation had his/her choice of a seat in any pew for 60, 50, 30 and 20 cents a month.
In August, 1894, Father Januszkiewicz left St. Mary's to become the pastor of the then-combined Polish parishes of McAdoo-Mahanoy City.
Father Matthias Tarnowski became pastor of St. Mary's in 1894. Before coming to St. Mary's, he was the founding pastor of St. Casimir Parish in Mahanoy City (1893-94). In 1895, Father Tarnowski exchanged places with Father Adalbert Malusecki, a future pastor of St. Mary's.
Father Malusecki was ordained in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia, by Archbishop Ryan on May 29, 1887. He was the first priest of Polish descent ordained in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. His first assignment was as assistant to Father Kattein at St. Laurentius, Philadelphia, the very same Father Kattein who had looked after the needs of Reading Polonia from 1878 to 1882. Father Kattein continued to look after the flock at St. Mary's from 1882 to 1887, journeying from Philadelphia occasionally to preach and hear confessions. Father Malusecki also made the journey to St. Mary's from Philadelphia. When father Kattein died in August, 1887, Father Malusecki was appointed his successor at St.Laurentius. He probably continued traveling once a month to Reading until Father Lebiecki was assigned to Reading. In 1895, Father Malusecki, already well-known and loved in Reading, was appointed pastor of St. Mary's.
He added two classrooms in the basement of the church structure to relieve the overcrowding in the school housed on the first floor of the Rectory. In June, 1899, after ten years' waiting for the completion of their church, Father Malusecki called a parish meeting, and with nearly all at the meeting in favor, it was decided to begin operations to finish the church. At this time, one hundred and twenty or more children of the parish attended school in the basement, but they had been dismissed for their summer vacation. The congregation had increased to 400 families.
On Sunday, June 24, 1900, a ceremony was held to dedicate the completed St. Mary's Catholic Church. It was a great event in the history of the parish. Many members of other congregations were in attendance. Shortly after 10 o'clock, Rev. Father Malusecki went to the Franklin street train station to receive the visiting clergy and societies, and then the doors to the edifice were thrown open, admitting an anxious crowd. About 10:30 the Reading societies reached the station, and in a few minutes the train arrived bearing the Philadelphia and Manayunk delegation. Archbishop Ryan came at the same time.
A line of parade was then formed and the procession marched down Franklin to 5th, to Penn, to 13th, and Perkiomen Avenue, countermarch to 12th, to the church. Upon arrival at the church, the clergy, including the Archbishop and his attendants, entered the parish house. A procession was then formed and, led by two acolytes and followed by the altar boys, the ecclesiastics entered the main door of the church and passed up the centre aisle to the sanctuary. The litany of the saints was chanted in Latin. Upon its completion Archbishop Ryan made a tour of the church blessing the walls, etc., and upon their return to the sanctuary, a solemn high mass was celebrated, with Rev. Father Kasparek, formerly pastor of the Slavish Church, Oakbrook, as celebrant.
Father Malusecki secured the services of the Bernardine Sisters to teach in the school. Because there was no convent, quarters were rented for them at 1210 Spruce Street (at that time the home of Frank and Rose Czartorynski). In 1898, the Sisters moved to Ridgewood, they gave up teaching in the school, which reverted to lay teachers.
On Sunday, October 2, 1904, the corner-stone was laid for a 12-room parochial school behind St. Mary's Church in what is now the rear parking lot behind the church. Malusecki built secured the services of the Felician Sisters to conduct the Parish School. St. Mary's parochial school was first established in two rooms in the rear of the basement of the church. There were only a few pupils. By the time the new church was finished the two school rooms proved inadequate to accommodate the children. As a result, several additional apartments were fitted out in the basement, in that section which was formerly the house of worship. While the rooms suited the purpose, they soon became crowded.
Monsignor Falconio, representative of the Pope in America, officiated at cornerstone laying ceremony. Monsignor Falconio, assisted by the other priests, read the service and the silver trowel and a silver tray were brought forth. Father Caruzzo held the tray, on which he had placed a small amount of mortar. Monsignor Falconio then took the trowel, blessed it and then, using the tool, threw two trowelfuls on the base on which the stone was to rest. Master Mason Adolph Eichner, under the direction of Stonemason Daniel Miller, placed the stone in position and the stone was then blessed. It is a sandstone block about two feet high, two feet wide and three feet long, and on the front is cut the date. "1904." A hole has been cut in the top to contain a box, in which will be placed church records, coins of the present year and copies of the city papers, containing the account of the ceremonies.
Several substantial subscriptions for the purpose encouraged Father Malusecki in his efforts to erect a new building. Architect Lewis Gelle, of New York City, designed the building. The building is made of brick and is three stories high with a basement. It is 50 by 60 feet in size, and is located on the property adjoining the church on the rear. Architect P. A. Walsh. of Phila., who designed St. Peter's Catholic Church, prepared the plans and specifications for the school.
The building front was on Wunder St. and extended out to Spruce. Besides the three floors, the basement was fitted out as a residence for the Janitor. There were eight school rooms on the first and second floors. The third floor was used as a hall and meeting place for societies, of which there were about half a dozen in St. Mary's at the time.
The roof was of slate, supplied with a large ventilator, and the cornice and trimmings will be of galvanized iron.
A new Rectory was built in 1908, and the old Rectory became the Convent for the Felician Sisters (prior to that, the Sisters lived at 316 South 12th Street, which later became the home of Clara Kowalski).
On May, 4, 1925, a convent at 325 South Twelfth Street for the Felician Sisters, at a cost of $58,000, was completed. The building was solemnly blessed, on Wednesday, June 29th, by Bishop Michael J. Crane, D., D., of Philadelphia. The new home of the Felician Sisters, about a dozen in number, was built on the east side of South Twelfth street, between Spruce and Muhlenberg, on what was operated for many years as a stone quarry by McQuade Brothers. Architect Lewis Gelle, of New York City, designed the building. The building was three stories high and of brick construction, the dimensions being 56 by 30 feet. On the first floor was a chapel, a refectory, a kitchen, a parlor and an office. On each of the second and third floors were 12 rooms for the sisters. In the basement were laundry and store rooms.
In 1926, the old convent became a day nursery/kindergarten and convent for the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, whom Father Malusecki brought over from Poland. Like the Bernardine's in 1894, the Servant Sister look back on St. Mary's as their first foundation in the United States.
In 1927, the 12-room school that was connected to the back of the church had become too crowded, so work began on the construction of a $175,000 combination high school and recreational center at southeast corner of Twelfth and Spruce streets, diagonally across from the church. In addition to the high school department the building included grade class rooms to relieve present crowded conditions at the Polish parochial school where there was an enrollment of nearly 900 pupils. Features of the interior were an auditorium with a large seating capacity, and a gymnasium. The latter was located in the basement, where showers and lockers were also provided.
Frank V. Nickels, Philadelphia architect, designed the building. The building, was two stories high, with a basement, and conformed in appearance with the new convent for the Felician Sisters of the parish, located on South Twelfth street, near Muhlenberg.
On Independence Day, Thursday, July 4, 1928, the corner-stone was laid for the new school and recreational center. Rt. Rev. Michael J. Crane, auxiliary bishop of the Philadelphia Catholic archdiocese, officiated at cornerstone laying ceremony.
The building was dedicated to Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Polish leader and patriot, who came to this country with Gen. Lafayette a French man, and other foreign officers, to help George Washington during the stirring times of the Revolutionary War. His name is inscribed above the double entrance to the structure.
The new school building, of brick and limestone, was two stories high, with a lower floor, and 55 by 147 feet. It included 13 classrooms, an office, an auditorium, a gallery with four rest rooms, a kitchen, boiler room and coal bins, a large billiard and bowling hall, and a gymnasium.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression struck in 1929, and the costs of building the Parish Halls and School Annex proved a heavy burden on the parish that would not be lifted until 1950.
When Father Malusecki was not building during his years at St. Mary's, he was probably baptizing. In 1889, the first year of St. Mary's existence, there were 50 baptisms. In 1895, the first year of Father Malusecki's tenure, there were 95 baptisms and the following year there 112. By 1906, the number of baptisms was 237 and in 1910 baptisms rose to 321. The greatest number of baptisms (325) took place in 1917. Baptisms remained in excess of 200 per year until 1926. During Father Malusecki's 42 years at St. Mary's, he baptized over 8,500 infants.
In his early years at St. Mary's, Father Malusecki labored alone. Starting in 1900, a number of assistants were assigned to St. Mary's for periods of a few months to several years. One of these assistants (10/1911 - 6/1912), Father John Mickun, later returned to St. Mary's as pastor in 1938.
Because of the numbers of immigrants, baptisms, and school students, in 1914 those families living west of the Schuylkill River were detached from St. Mary's to form St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Millmont. Earlier, St. Mary's numbers were decreased when the Slovaks of Reading formed their own parish in 1895 and the Lithuanians of Reading did the same in 1913.
Father Malusecki was preparing to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his ordination when he died on May 11, 1937 - three weeks short of the anniversary date. The grand tribute that was to be given him in life was given in death instead. His body lay in state for three days while thousands paid their respects. It was estimated that two thousand souls packed the church for his funeral Mass while eight thousand stood outside. When the funeral Mass was over, the entire crowd processed to the parish cemetery accompanied by a band playing dirges. His body was laid to rest in the Pastor's Plot. Rose Greenberg, who served Father Malusecki as housekeeper during all the years of his local chant, followed him in death exactly three weeks later.
When Father Malusecki took charge of the local parish in 1894, the membership consisted of only 150 families. In 1937 there were 1,100 families on the roll, with between 6,000 and 7,000 attending services. Heavy debts which hung over the parish when he first came were wiped out.
Rev. Malusecki's successor was the Rev. Joseph Gazdzik. He was ordained in St Charles Seminary by Bishop Edmond F. Prendergast, then auxiliary bishop of the Philadelphia Diocese. He was born in Rymanow, Poland, in 1892. He was serving as pastor of St. Stanislaus Parish in Philadelphia when he was appointed to St. Mary's.
Father Joseph Grazdzik then became pastor of St. Mary’s. Unfortunately for him, Father Grazdzik had to fill the shoes of an energetic and well-like predecessor and he had a difficult time doing so. Shy and sickly, he was not well-received at St. Mary's. In March of 1938, he was transferred to St. Casimir Parish, Shenandoah, as pastor, and the pastor there, Father John Mickun, a one-time assistant at St. Mary's, was appointed pastor of St. Mary's.
When Father Mickun became pastor, the interior of St. Mary's had this appearance.
Interior of St. Mary's Prior to 1938
The main changes were the addition of a pulpit connected to the first left-hand column and the addition of a considerable number of statues. St. Mary's was quite an ornate church.
1938 marked the Golden Jubilee of St. Mary's, so Father Mickun had to quickly paint the church and get the parish ready for its celebration. The major problem was the lack of funds in a parish that was in debt to the tune of $246,921.72 due to Father Melusecki's building program and the Great Depression. Father Mickun asked the parishioners for help and they responded by raising $16,500. Father Mickun used $6,200 to paint the interior of the church exclusive of the murals. The interior had probably not been painted since it was built in 1900. Much of the statuary was removed. One lady, long dead now, anonymously donated $2,500 which was used to install the first chandeliers installed in the church.
On Sunday, November 20, 1938 St. Mary's observed its Golden Jubilee with an 11:00 AM Mass celebrated by Msgr. J. Carroll McCormick, at that time Chancellor of the Archdiocese, in the presence of Bishop Hugh L. Lamb, then the Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia. Assisting were Fathers Francis Palecki, Ladislaus Sarama, and Joseph Zmijewski (later to become the Administrator of St. Mary's i8n 1942. The Sermon was preached by Father Julian Muraczewski, Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Clifton Heights, NJ. That evening, at 7:00 PM, a banquet was served in the parish hall; the toastmaster was father John Lorenc.
The painting of the church in 1938 was done by Henry Niemczynski and Sons of Flushing, Long Island. The statues and wooden altars were repainted as well as the Stations of the Cross. The Gothic pulpit was cut down, repainted, and moved behind the altar rail. They also repainted the four murals in the front and rear of the side aisles, and added the seven murals of St. John the Baptist, St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr, St. Andrew Bobola, the Immaculate Conception, St. Casimir, St. Stanislaus Kostka, and St. Adalbert in the arches around the main altar.
These murals, with the exception of the Immaculate Conception, which was painted out in the 1963 renovation, still adorn the church. Below these murals are the Coats of Arms of various Polish cities.
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St. Mary's After the 1938 Renovation
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Sacred Heart Side Altar
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St. Joseph Side Altar
Father Mickun, a determined and astute administrator, could not be content until St. Mary's debt was liquidated. To this end, he and his assistants labored; each month the four priests of the parish went from home to home collecting dues past and present. On January 29, 1950, the parish celebrated the burning of the mortgage at a banquet in the parish hall in the presence of Bishop Ignatius Krause, an old friend of Father Mickun's, who had been a missionary in China.
Father Mickun was also devoted to the enlargement and care of the parish cemetery. He purchased additional acreage for the cemetery in 1941 and 1944, doubling the cemetery in size and providing a new entrance on New Holland Road. He had erected a Veteran's Monument in 1946 and made provision for the burial of veterans in a special plot adjacent to the monument. He erected a wall around most of the cemetery's perimeter. All through the grass-cutting season, Father Mickun could be found at the cemetery making sure the grass-cutters worked as he wished them to work.
Father Mickun had the honor of dedicating the three-manual Mohler pipe organ which the parish purchased around the time of his arrival. Word has it that the organ, which still graces liturgies at St. Mary's, was originally the RCA Victor recording organ.
Father Mickun was also responsible for installing, in 1950, the beautiful blue-hued stained glass windows that lend an air of elegance to the church. Father Mickun purchased two of the windows himself: the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The former, which pictures a legless Jesus Christ, was reassembled behind the St. Joseph altar.
Father Mickun retained the pastorate of St. Mary's until he died on December 20th, 1968. He had left St. Mary's for retirement on November 1st, 1961. In those days, it was unheard of for a pastor to be declared Pastor Emeritus; pastors retained office until their death.
Father Joseph A Zmijewski, D.D., late in 1961, was appointed administrator of St. Mary's Parish to replace the retired pastor Father John Mickun. When Father Zmijewski arrived, he was immediately faced with the task of raising $100,000 for Bishop McShea's campaign to build the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, as well as Holy Name, Marian, and Bethlehem Catholic High Schools. St. Mary's pledged $180,000 toward the campaign, leading all the parishes of Berks County and all the Polish parishes of the diocese. Father Zmijewski could not rest on his laurels as the Diamond Jubilee of St. Mary's was fast approaching (1963). In preparation for the jubilee, he began planning extensive renovations to the church.
The cost of these renovations was $150,000. The two steeples were rebuilt and a statue of the Blessed Mother was hoisted over the main entrance of the church. Father Zmijewski was determined to replace the wooden main and side altars with marble ones. Because the wooden floor could not hold the marble altars and the terrazo floor he wanted to install, it was necessary to reinforce and rebuild the church's floor. A mosiac of the Blessed Virgin Mary, executed in the Italian style and probably copied from the Lateran Madonna della Fiducia, was installed within a marble border as the raredos of the new main altar, which faced the wall as the old altar had done. The church was painted by Theodore Hooven of Philadelpha. New chandeliers in a modern style replaced the Gothic lantern chandeliers installed in 1938. New pews and confessionals, in a light finish, were installed. The new pews provided for two rows of pews replacing the old four rows across. In addition, the new pews were much more comfortable than the old pews. The electrical and sound systems were also upgraded.
The Diamond Jubilee was celebrated on October 20, 1963. Bishop McShea was not present because he was in Rome attending the Second Vatican Council. Father Anthony Ziemba, priest-son of the parish, celebrated the Jubilee Mass. He was assisted by Fathers Julian Zagorski, Francis Urbanowicz, Joseph Daniel, and John Basinski - all former assistant pastors. The sermon was preached by Father Jerome Staniszewski, OFM, who prior to the Jubilee preached a mission in the parish. A dinner was served that evening in the Rajah Ballroom at which Msgr. Peter J. Kiekotka of Chester gave the address.
Father Zmijewski also introduced the annual and perpetual care payments for the parish cemetery. Like most parish cemeteries, no thought was given to endowment when it was set up nor was there any financial planning. The needs of the parish cemetery were met from parish funds. Times were cheap and graves were dug for a pittance. Survivors mowed the grass and planted flowers on the graves of their loved ones or made private arrangements with men who made it known that they would see to things. As responsibility for cemetery care fell more and more upon the parish, something needed to be done to fund the cemetery care. While Father Mickun had asked for a once-and-done payment for cemetery care, Father Zmijewski inaugurated a regular annual charge with the possibility of a perpetual care payment. In the future, perpetual care payments were deemed the best way of securing an endowment for the future care of the cemetery.
In 1966, Father Zmijewski's health began to fail. Although hospitalized several times, he continued to function despite great pain. On September 28, 1968, he died and was buried from St.Mary's with funeral Mass offered by Bishop McShea. As Father Mickun was still alive, Bishop McShea, on October 23, 1968, assigned Father John A. Duminiak administrator of St. Mary's. Father Duminiak became pastor on March 27, 1969 after Father Mickun died.
St. Mary Church After the 1963 Renovation
Father Duminiak had to detach the marble altar installed by Father Zmijewski and reposition it as a free-standing altar so that Mass could be said with the priest facing the congregation in accord with the Second Vatican Council recommendations. The tabernacle was repositioned to the side of the alter and the center altar rails were removed. This is the positioning that you see at the present time when attending Mass at St. Mary's.
When Father Duminiak's health failed, Father Marion Paskowicz was assigned as administrator of St. Mary's. Father Marion Paskowicz was assigned to St. Mary's as an assistant to Father Duminiak on September 2, 1969. On September 1, 1971, he was named administrator of the parish in the absence of the convalescing Father Duminiak. On June 11, 1973, Father Duminiak resigned as pastor of St. Mary's. Father Paskowicz remained as administrator until he was named pastor on June 17, 1975.
Concerned about the lack of parking in the vicinity of the church, Father Paskowicz razed the original Rectory at 236 South 12th Street to provide additional parking (parking lot to the left of the church). Prior to this, the only available parking was on the street and the parking lot adjacent to the convent. In 1977, to provide additional off-street parking, Father Paskowicz also razed the first St. Mary School behind the church (now the rear parking lot). The number of families in the parish decreased with the result that fewer children attended St. Mary's School. The classrooms over St. Mary’s Hall were sufficient to handle the reduced number of students. The classrooms over the hall were greatly needed when the building was built in 1928. In those days, St. Mary's School enrollment was close to 1,000 pupils and the "new" housed the upper grades. Once the parish no longer provided the 9th and 10th grades in its elementary complex, the classrooms above St. Mary's Hall served for a number of years as the Freshman Annex of Central Catholic High School. The Felician Sisters, who served the parish since 1904, withdrew in 1978. Father Paskowicz was able to secure the services of the Bernardine Sisters to take their place (the same community that had conducted the parish school from 1894 to 1898).
Father Paskowicz then razed the 1908 Gothic Rectory and rebuilt it in Colonial style in the same location. The new rectory, the demolition of the old rectory and the old school, the rebuilding of the back wall of the church, and the building of a new sacristy to join the rectory to the church cost $383,000. Father Paskowicz undertook several projects to beautify the church with marble and stained glass, installed new Stations of the Cross, and made provision in the church basement for a weekday Mass Chapel to save on fuel costs in the heating season and to bring the weekday congregation closer to the altar. This weekday chapel, honoring St. Joseph, was dedicated by Msgr. Bronislaus Sienkiewicz, a former assistant at St. Mary's.
Father Paskowicz was anxious to preserve the Polish traditions of the parish as a means of preserving the parish. To this end, "Gorzkie Zale" was revived and Polish was used more in the liturgy. But the parish was no longer the parish it had been. The language of the vast majority of parishioners was English and for an ever-increasing number, English was their only language. And much worse, the unstoppable move to the suburbs had begun and during Father Paskowicz's tenure, the membership of the parish fell to 2,001 souls from 4,085.
In May of 1984, Father Paskowicz requested sick leave from Bishop Thomas Welsh, the successor of Bishop McShea, founding Bishop of Allentown. Father Paskowicz is still officially on sick leave. On May 24, 1984, Father Leonard S. Merook was appointed pastor of St. Mary's. Sadly on September 1, 1984, Father Merook died very suddenly in his suite in the rectory. Father Merook was buried from St. Mary's and lies in the parish cemetery next to Father Malusecki.
Father Merook was succeeded as pastor by Father Leo S. Stajkowski on October 2, 1984. Father Stajkowski was no stranger to St. Mary's as he was born to parents who were parishioners of St. Mary’s.
Since his arrival as pastor, Father Stajkowski has seen to the installation of a new water system at the parish cemetery, replacing the original rusted pipes and adding new spigots on both the old and new sections of the cemetery. He replaced the sections of cemetery fencing and resolved the erosion problems resulting from the city's widening of Upland Avenue. He replaced the original wooden doors of the hall/school auditorium with bronzed aluminum doors, repaired the roofs of the hall/school and convent, repointed and waterproofed the church, hall/school, and convent, soundproofed rectory offices to increase privacy, and added a powder room on the first floor of the convent for the sisters.
More importantly, he had the privilege of preparing the parish for the parish Centennial. To prepare for the Centennial, the pews were refurbished, new kneelers and hymnal racks installed on the backs of the pews, and new ventilators were installed in the church's stained glass windows. Rooms were built at the back of the church for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for proper liturgical entry on Sundays and Holy Days, and for parents with infants. The church was closed for services from January to March of 1988 and the liturgies were observed in the upper auditorium of the hall/school, while the church was completely repainted by the Ritterbeck Family, professional church painters from Gouldsboro, PA. Casablanca fans and new chandeliers (the latter the gift of four parishioners) were installed, the sanctuary was slightly enlarged and carpeted, new bronze candlesticks and vases purchased, the tabernacle restored to match the new bronze ware, a crucified Christ the Priest installed to the left of the altar of sacrifice and opposite the tabernacle, and the Sacred Heart rebuilt and re-installed in the old altar boy’s sacristy while the smaller Agnus Dei window from the sacristy was installed in its place. The Mohler organ was rebuilt over a period of three years for $40,000. In the Centennial year, Father Stajkowski also directed repairs to the basement chapel, replacing the bulging Masonite walls with drywall, painting and recarpeting the chapel, installing matching pews to those in the church, rebuilding the sacristy, adding new pew screens and kneelers and hymnal racks. A new ceiling was also installed in the chapel, new fire and burglar alarms added in the church and rectory, and the church was rewired.
In the Centennial year, Father Stajkowski arranged for an English-language mission and a Polish-language triduum to help celebrate this milestone in St. Mary's history. He conducted a visitation of the parish to ascertain the membership of the parish and the needs of the parishioners.
St. Mary's Centennial was observed with a Mass of Thanksgiving at 3:30 PM on Sunday, October 16, 1988, offered by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh. Concelebrating were Msgrs. John Baruch, James Treston, Joseph Smith, John Campbell, and Edward Musial, and Fathers Raymond Slezak, Robert Tobolski MSC, David Kohut OFM, Anthony Ziemba, Ladislaus Dudek, Lawrence Bukaty, Frederick Przydzial, Roman Tarka, Donald Cieniewicz, and Loe Stajokowski. Msgr. Francis Urbanowicz was present in the sanctuary, and Father William Baver acted as masters of ceremonies. A Dinner/Dance at Riveredge followed, with Msgr. Francis Urbanowicz giving the main address. Bishop Welsh also spoke.
Since the Centennial, Father Stajkowski has done much to restore the Polish heritage of the parish. Recently, the parish membership has been augmented by an influx of Polish immigrants. As a result, St. Mary's now offers a Polish-language Mass once a month to meets the needs of these recent immigrants.
As the number of school students declined over the intervening years, the Bernardine Sisters withdrew from St. Mary's School to be replaced by lay teachers. Eventually, the number of students became so low that it was no longer financially viable to operate the parish school and it was closed. In 2003, St. Mary's School at 12th and Spruce streets, closed. Enrollment had dropped 45 percent since 1998. In its last year, St. Mary's had only 76 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. At its peak, in the 1920s and 1930's, the school had nearly 900 students. When the school started holding classes in 1888 in the basement of St. Mary's Church, 250 S. 12th St., about three dozen Polish children were in attendance.
Father Stajkowski arranged for a St. Mary's parish rate that enables school children from the parish to attend the Catholic school of their choice from the schools operated by other parishes in Reading and surrounding communities. With the departure of the Bernardines, the convent stood empty for a period and then became a home for unwed mothers called Mary's Shelter.
Father Stajkowski recently, in 2009, was given a dinner at Schmeck's Villa by church staff and parishioners in celebration of his 25 years as pastor of St. Mary Parish.