Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite (or hard coal) region traces its rich religious diversity to the late nineteenth century, when many newly-arrived ethnic groups established their own neighborhoods and communities, giving rise to a large number of Catholic, Greek, Byzantine, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. The first wave of immigrants, the Welsh, was largely Protestant, but later groups, such as the Irish and Southern and Eastern European immigrants, were mostly Roman Catholic.

By 1900, the anthracite region counted more than 300 Protestant churches and an equal number of pastors as well as 143 Roman Catholic churches with 182 priests. With some exceptions, the ethnic groups generally tolerated one another, but disagreements among Polish parishioners of Roman Catholic faith led to the formation of Polish National Church parishes around Scranton, Lackawanna County, in 1900, led by Bishop Francis Hodur (1866–1953.)

Unbeknownst to many today, in the early twentieth century one Scranton resident was named a papal countess. On September 23, 1928, Pope Pius XI conferred the title upon Annie E. Coroner Wills (1854–1935), widow of prominent liquor dealer Robert C. Wills (1858–1924) for her generosity to a number of charitable institutions. Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice (“For Church and Pope”), established by Pope Leo XIII in 1888, is the highest honor awarded by the papacy to a member of the laity for distinguished service to the church.

On view at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton are an altar, baptismal font, lighting, and pews from the Immaculate Conception Church’s former building at Mulberry and Cemetery Streets in Berwick, Columbia County, founded in 1902. The church’s second pastor, the Reverend Joseph J. C. Petrovits, spoke nine languages to be able to minister to a congregation of many nationalities. Upon moving to a new church building on Fowler Street, the parish donated a number of objects to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1977 for exhibit at the museum and at Eckley Miners’ Village, near Hazleton, Luzerne County. Many of the objects were used to return the village’s 1861 Catholic church — originally also named Immaculate Conception — to its early twentieth-century appearance.

Through 2011, during which PHMC is observing “William Penn’s Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity” as its annual theme, the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum is highlighting three exhibition panels addressing the anthracite region’s development, diversity, and religious heritage. Immigrants in the Catholic Tradition recalls the ritual and language that preserved European traditions. Immigrants in the Jewish Tradition discusses the history of Jews in the region, beginning in the 1830s when the first known Jewish settlers arrived in the Luzerne County seat of Wilkes-Barre. Immigrants in the Protestant Tradition illustrates how churches helped newcomers integrate into church life or establish their own congregations. The three panels represent the major faiths in northeastern Pennsylvania during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period during which “King Coal” reigned supreme.

To plan a visit to the museum, write: Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, McDade Park, 22 Bald Mountain Rd., Scranton, PA 18504; telephone (570) 963-4804.