In 1916, a group of about 15 families from Donora, Pennsylvania came together with one thought in mind: to organize a church community that would fulfill all of their spiritual needs. These people were immigrants, strangers to the English language and the culture of America. They were deeply religious and God-fearing people who wanted so much to build their own church and worship in their own language, as they had done in their mother countries.
Donora had recently constructed its steel mills and many immigrants flocked to this new town on the banks of the Monongahela River, seeking employment and hope for a better life. Among this group were men and women who were born in Russia as well as others who came from the Carpathian Mountains in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At that time, there was no Orthodox church in Donora. Many of the early settlers attended Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Charleroi, which was organized in 1901. And so, a small but united group of families began a spiritual journey that had such a powerful effect on all of us today. In 1916, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church held its first service in a very humble setting—the Zeffro building on Eighth Street and McKean Avenue in Donora. St. Nicholas Church’s first priest was the Rev. Nicholas Podlosky.
Because of the lack of financial means, the parishioners had to deal with serious problems. Fortunately, the church had a kind benefactor in the Russian Orthodox Mutual Aid Society, which provided St. Nicholas Church with its first donation in the amount of $400. This gift represented a substantial sum in those early days and enabled St. Nicholas Church to grow and flourish. In 1917, the church community felt strong enough to build and maintain a church of its own. The parishioners used the barest of necessities to accomplish their holy work. St. Nicholas Church was incorporated by the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County in Pennsylvania. The judge (who went by the name of “Irwin”), signed the charter on April 16, 1917.
Soon after, the parishioners purchased property located in the Heslep Plan of Lots. In April 1918, the first floor of the church was completed and a roof was placed over it. Then on September 17 of that same year, the congregation purchased a home on 809 Heslep Ave., which was used as a rectory until 1963. In 1951, under the leadership of the Rt. Rev. John Skvir, the new and present church was erected. Fr. Skvir not only served in the altar, but he also labored with the parishioners to build the church. Stephen Drake served as the Church Warden during this time and also was active in the construction.
This beautiful structure featured a bell tower flanked by two rows of arches and a large onion-shaped dome with a three-bar Russian Orthodox cross. It remains as one of the few existing styles of Old Russian Orthodox architecture. On May 18, 1952, the Rt. Rev. Bishop Vyiacheslav officiated at the Blessing and Laying of the Cornerstone. He was assisted by various clergy from the Mon Valley. The building of the church was truly a “labor of love.” Many men from the parish volunteered their services and labored ceaselessly on this project. These men typically came to the construction site after working a full-day shift at the mill, often with little rest in between. Harry Susko was devoted to this endeavor and played a major role in the building of the church. Of special note, no mortgage was taken out during the construction of the church.
Through the encouragement of Very Rev. Igor Soroka, a new colonial-style rectory was built alongside the church in 1963. Once again, Harry Susko volunteered his services and was assisted by John Mohan in such tasks as laying the bricks over the foundation. The Rt. Rev. Bishop Nikon officiated at the formal dedication of the new St. Nicholas Church and Blessing of the new Rectory on September 13, 1964. The burning of the Rectory Mortgage took place on Father’s Day, June 19, 1966, at a special church dinner. Then, on October 2, St. Nicholas Church observed its 50th Anniversary during a service that was officiated by the Rt. Rev. Archbishop Kiprian.
During the 1960’s, the Church hall and kitchen were renovated and outfitted with modern equipment. Also, during this time, landscaping and paving were completed on the church grounds. In addition, extensive beautification took place inside the church. The former St. Nicholas Club, which continuously assisted the church with various projects, donated the large imported chandelier that hangs in the Church. New stained-glass windows were installed in ’77 and new icons were painted on the side walls in ’83. In addition, the St. Nicholas Club generously paid for the purchase and installation of a modern air conditioning unit. The 80s also saw the purchased of property for the building of two parking lots; John Telleck was instrumental in making this project possible. He labored for several months in the building of the parking areas.
A vital part of the history of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church is its involvement and cooperation of its various church organizations and departments. The Parish Council has always played a central role in the life of the Church. John Hordoshensky served as the church’s first Warden (Council President), followed later by Nick Milchovich, the current Council President. It is also interesting to not that William Drahushak served as Council Treasurer for 45 years.
The St. Mary’s Altar Society was formed on August 28, 1936, under the guidance of the Very Rev. Evdokim Polevoy. Katherin Yuschak was the first president and Mae Ruev served as the last president of this society. Through the suggestion of Fr. Igor, a new organization called the St. Nicholas Society was founded in 2008. Under the direction of Pauline Petro, the St. Nicholas Society includes both men and women who work tirelessly to help the church. It is with deep gratitude that we remember all the good works, donations and labors of all those who served in the St. Mary’s Altar Society and the St. Nicholas Society. Indeed, they have played a significant role in the life of the parish.
Through the years, St. Nicholas Church has been blessed to have a Church Choir comprised of several generations of dedicated signers. The choir continues to sing praises unto God and to beautify the Divine Services with its prayerful responses. In its ministry of liturgical singing, the St. Nicholas Choir has played a key role in the liturgical life of St. Nicholas Church. Dr. Dimitri Petro has served as director of the St. Nicholas choir for over 50 years, carrying on a vital ministry of acapella singing during the liturgical services. In addition, he has freely offered his talents by participating at various services, such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals. He has also been so kind in assisting those who have taken ill at times, during the Church services.
The Senior “R” Club, now known as the “O” Club (the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians in American), was formed in 1929 with Paul N. Barna, Esq., as its first president. The club played an important role in the building of the present church by purchasing all of the bricks needed for the construction. For the past 65 years, the club has also sponsored a graduate’s dinner program to honor the young people of the church. In addition, the “O” Club sponsors a coffee fellowship hour following the Divine Liturgy each Sunday. The departed Irene Sabol served as president of this organization for many years and helped to implement many other important projects.
Young people have always been vital to the life of St. Nicholas Church. Although our enrollment is smaller now, the St. Nicholas Church School Program continues to provide our students with studies and activities that nurture their spiritual development. Matushka Sandy Motichak and Tamara Chacko graciously volunteer their time each Sunday to work with our current group of students. All parishioners are also welcome to borrow from an excellent selection of biblical and Orthodox books that are now housed in the Church hall library.
Our church has also been blessed to have church council members, readers and holy feast day singers who have been deeply devoted to serving our Lord, as well as individuals with certain skills and talents who always freely responded to unexpected repair work when needed. Throughout the years, Saint Nicholas church strives to maintain a strong sense of community involvement. The church is proud that two of its former members – the Very Rev. John Nehrebecki and the very Rev. Nicholas Yuschak, now both reposed in the Lord. Both were ordained to the holy priesthood and offered long, distinguished service in the holy vineyard of Christ.
Also of special note, four members of Saint Nicholas Church went on to graduate from West point (the United States military Academy), including first Lieutenant Michael Drake, Colonel Nicholas Kuzemka, first Lieutenant Daniel Priatko, and Lieutenant Colonel David Priatko. During World War II, Nicholas Mychalishyn, Seamen Second Class, was lost at sea and was one of the first US Naval casualties.
First Lieutenant Daniel Priatko has been a special inspiration for our parish and many beyond. After graduating from West Point in 1984, Dan was about to take on his first assignment overseas when he was involved in a serious car accident in Pennsylvania. Dan suffered devastating injuries and was in a coma for seven months. Although he recovered, Dan was unable to pursue his military career because of a permanent disability. Ultimately, he decided to spend his life helping others. Dan has touched the lives of many people, both young and old. He also devotes much of his time to the church, where he is most active in its liturgical life. Dan’s love for his Lord and family gives him great joy.
Father Igor Soroka served as the pastor of Saint Nicholas church from 1959 until his retirement in July 2017, at which time the parish held a beautiful retirement banquet honoring Fr. Igor’s dedicated service to the parish. He also served as the dean of the Mon Valley deanery for many years. Fr. Igor was a trained musician who labored much in translating, composing and directing music for the Orthodox Church in America. As the longest serving pastor of St. Nicholas Church, Fr. Igor was dedicated to serving into old age— for his final liturgy in October 2017, he did the service without any deacons, servers or assistance.
As a loving priest who baptized, married, and buried multiple generations of the St. Nicholas community, his service is unparalleled and will not be forgotten. His wife of blessed memory, Matushka irene, fell asleep in the Lord 2004. She devoted a great part of her life to the church. Her concern and love for other people exemplified her spiritual qualities and character.
The most Reverend Archbishop Melchisedek, our beloved leader of the archdiocese of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, officiated at the 100th anniversary Hierarchical Divine Liturgy in 2016.
After Father Igor's retirement, the parish underwent a transition period; this was the first time in decades the parish had been without an attached pastor. Several priests filled in periodically for the Divine Liturgy, including retired priest Fr. Bob Propelka, Fr. Steveb Shuga, and Fr. Andrew Nelko, the Dean of our deanery (c 2019). Finally in June of 2019, the parish council moved to receive Fr. John Parker, a recent graduate of St. Tikhon's Seminary in South Canaan, PA, as the incumbent Priest of St. Nicholas.
On June 22nd, His Eminence Melchisedek ordained Fr. John to the holy priesthood at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, after which the parish hosted a wonderful welcome banquet at the Donora Borough. For many this was the first ordination ever witnessed, and it was a grace-filled event, as well as a beautiful starting point between the parish faithful and the new priest. Father John Parker and his wife, Matushka Nadia, began settling into parish life in early July, after Fr. John's altar training at St. Tikhon's monastery. The young couple is excited to be in Donora at such a historic parish and to minister to the many faithful who still give so much time and devotion to the Church, even during the transition period after Fr. Igor's retirement.
We are also grateful to Deacon Rodion Motichak (attached) for his prayerful service to the church over many years.
As we look back on our past history, we realize the deep love that many of the faithful showed for their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and his holy church. It was this love that enable them to overcome so many obstacles and to be true to their calling as orthodox Christians. To all of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord, “memory eternal!“ And to all the living members of Saint Nicholas church, may God guide and inspire you to live a life worthy of his divine love. May the blessing of the Lord be upon each one of you!