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St. Agatha Catholic School - Ellwood City PA

In the fall of 1895 the new St. Agatha Catholic Parish/Church was founded in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. A small wooden frame church, located on Spring Avenue, was soon opened and the Reverend William Dwyer was assigned as the first pastor. The Reverend Robert Wilkey (1880-1949) took over as pastor in 1914 and faithfully served the congregation for the next thirty-five years.

Work on a new church building on Fifth Street began in 1915, but a delay was encountered when the significant Italian faction of the congregation broke away in 1916 to form the foundation of the new Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Parish/Church. The new St. Agatha Catholic Church, its congregation essentially cut in half, was finally completed and dedicated on Sunday, July 28, 1918.

Wilkey passed away in 1949 and was succeeded by the Reverend James A. Byrne, who would lead the congregation for the next eighteen years. It was under the guidance of Byrne that plans for a parochial school, a longtime dream of the congregation, commenced in the late 1950’s. A successful fundraising drive began in September 1958 and over $101,000 was raised in the first six weeks. Four acres of undeveloped property were soon acquired at the intersection of Bridge Street and Hazen Avenue, and local architect Nelson D. Kennedy (1906-1961) was contracted to draw up plans for a 12-room school building. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on August 23, 1960, and afterwards the general contractor, John Untch Jr. (1905-1980) of New Castle, started work on the structure. Kennedy and Untch had previously collaborated on the construction of the Jefferson Court Motel in New Castle in 1955-56.

The St. Agatha Catholic School, which cost about $189,000, was dedicated on Saturday, September 9, 1961. The Most Reverend John J. Wright, the Bishop of Pittsburgh (from 1959-1969) was on hand for the ceremony. The New Castle News of Monday, September 11, 1961, reported, “Architect Nelson Kennedy presented Rev. James A. Byrne, pastor of St. Agatha Parish which financed the construction, with a golden key to the school. Bishop Wright who is noted for his humorous quips said: “Father Byrne will probably have to melt the key down to pay part of Mr. Kennedy’s bill.” The bishop lauded contractors for finishing the school to be opened for the new term after vacation. Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary, New Bedford, who are teaching the first through third grades at the school were recognized by the bishop.”

There was apparently some animosity between the members of the Catholic Church and the Ellwood City School Board, as St. Agatha’s new school would be taking more students out of the local school system. The same article mentioned, “Bishop Wright was critical of “those who draw a line of distinction between those children attending parochial schools and those who are not.” He gave a brief outline of struggles dating back 70 years ago for the right to open up parochial schools and provide education along spiritual lines… Mayor Joseph McCandless congratulated St. Agatha Church parishioners and their pastor Rev. Byrne on the completion of the school… No school board members were present at the dedication.”

Classes opened soon after for about 180 students from kindergarten up to the third grade. The Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary, based at the Villa Maria Convent in New Bedford, supplied the teachers for the new facility. Alma Siffrin, a native of Canton, Ohio, who was better known as Sister Anna Rita, served as the first principal of the school.

Grades four and five were added to St. Agatha’s in 1962 and an additional grade was added each new school year until the eighth grade was opened in the fall of 1965. The New Castle News of Monday, June 6, 1966, mentioned, “Thirty four eighth grade students will participate in the first graduation exercises of St. Agatha Parochial School tonight… The first graduating class will be honored at a mass in St. Agatha Church at 7:30 tonight. Rev. James Byrne, pastor, will celebrate the mass. The graduates and their parents will be entertained by the Parent – Teacher Guild of the school at a reception after the ceremony in the church social hall.”

The Reverend Byrne retired at the age of seventy in June 1967 and was succeeded as pastor by the Reverend Edward H. Cole. Cole was reassigned in January 1970 to take up the helm of the St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in New Castle. The Reverend Donald L. Voelker soon took over as pastor and served in the capacity for the next seven years.

Due to dwindling attendance the school shut down its seventh and eighth grade classes in 1970. The school was merged with the fellow parochial school of the Purification of Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic School in July 1971 to form the new Ellwood City Catholic School.

The New Castle News of Friday, July 16, 1971, reported on the merger with, “The Rev. Donald Voelker, pastor of St. Agatha Church, was elected chairman of the newly-formed Ellwood City Catholic School Board last night. He was administrator of the St. Agatha School Board prior to the merger of that parish school with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary School earlier this year. Joseph May was elected vice-chairman and Mrs. Linda Ramon secretary of the new board. Both were members of the St. Agatha school board before the merger. BVM school had no school board.”

Attendance picked up in the early 1970’s and both grades were resumed at the St. Agatha’s building by the fall of 1974. The upward tick was short-lived and the school was closed for good in 1978. The building was subsequently leased out or utilized by the parish for various purposes in the coming years. Religious classes were held there for many years, and the Ellwood City Children’s Center, a day care and early learning facility, occupied space in the building in the 1990’s.

St. Agatha Church and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church were officially merged in early 2000 to form the new Holy Redeemer Parish in Ellwood City. Both churches remained open for the time being until St. Agatha’s was officially closed in September 2007. In April 2008 the former St. Agatha’s school building became the new home of the Holy Redeemer Social Services, a non-profit organization that provides valuable support and services to less fortunate members of the local community.

The 12-room St. Agatha Catholic School, designed by local architect Nelson Kennedy, was opened for classes in September 1961. The school was later merged with the Purification of Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic School in 1971 to form the new Ellwood City Catholic School. Classes were held at both sites until St. Agatha’s was closed down in 1978. (Aug 2012) Full Size

Since April 2008 the former school has been home to the Holy Redeemer Social Services, a non-profit organization that provides financial and other valuable support to less fortunate members of the community. (Aug 2012)

The cornerstone of the former school. (Aug 2012)

When the school first opened it initially served children only in grades 1-3. An additional grade was added every year until eighth graders were admitted beginning in 1966. (Aug 2012)

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The school is situated on a hill and commands a great view of Ellwood City. (Aug 2012)


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