Though St. Valentine’s Parish was formally established in 1931, its history begins several years earlier. The Catholic population of the area had been growing since the turn of the century, when Italians, Poles, Slovaks and Lithuanians began moving in to work in the mines. For years, many of them spoke little or no English.
In the summer of 1922, Father Joseph Valentine Gerold, pastor of St. Anne’s Church in Castle Shannon, saw the need for children to receive catechism instruction in the mining community of Coverdale, a community that would later grow into Bethel Park. So he sought the assistance of two young women of the Community – Anna McMonagle, who later married George Sebolt, and Mary Bandi, who married Francis Wagner. Mrs. Nick Savage assisted them in identifying the Catholic families in the neighborhood of Mine #8 of the Pittsburgh Terminal Coal Company. The young women then visited each of these families and asked them to send their children to instructions. They held the first classes in a Coal and Iron Police barracks on South Park Road, on the old Courtney property near the intersection with Church Road. Approximately 70 Catholic families had been identified in the area, and on September 9, 1923, Father Gerold celebrated the first Mass for them in a storeroom next to the barracks where the catechism classes were held. A native of Brooklyn, born in the American centennial year of 1876, Father Gerold had been serving in the Pittsburgh Diocese since his ordination in 1901. While at St. Anne’s Church, he was particularly active in relief work for coal miners. After the Mass at Coverdale was initiated, he or one of his assistants –Father Herman J. Wilhelm or Father Pater J. Bernarding – would come to celebrate Mass once a month, often travelling by trolley.
Among the early parishioners were the Hogans, Minewisers, Rentons, Courtneys, Carrols and Usnicks. Some people subsequently said that the Mass was held in the home of Joseph Hogan, the pit boss at Coverdale Mine. But Marie Courtney Schmitt recalls: “The first Mass was not said at Hogan’s home, but in a black wooden shanty across the road where Courtney’s Nursery is located today. Father Gerold said the Mass and there were only a few people attending the service. After Mass, Mr. Hogan would take the ‘Mass Book’ to his home so the Protestants could hold their service. This building consisted of two rooms and had a small altar. I remember plain as day how I used to walk down South Park Road to the car stop and meet the Sisters who came to give catechism lessons. My family came to Bethel in 1922, and I was among the first to hear Mass here. Before that we walked to Castle Shannon to St. Anne’s for confession and Mass. I was about nine years old at the time.”
Seven children were in the mission’s initial First Communion class include: Albert Hanusovsky, Dorothy Hogan, Stella McGrosky (Trnosky), Margaret Minewiser (Zak), Hazel Wagner (Schoepflin), and Henry Wagner. Margaret Minewiser Zak recalls: “My parents worked around the barracks all the time. Mother laundered the altar linens and the priest’s robes. We had Mass once a month and would bring a thermos of hot coffee for the priest to drink after the service. My brother, Louis, would bring the nuns from St. Anne’s to teach catechism – this was before 1927. Louis later became a priest. I made my first Holy Communion in the barracks, and there were only six or seven of us in the class. I believe services started about 1922 or 1923, because we had just moved here after the strike in 1922. When we came, Joe Hogan gave my father the key and said he would be glad to give someone else a turn.”
Worshippers suffered during the cold months of winter because the only heat came from a pot-bellied stove, which was lit by Mr. Hogan. When St. Bernard’s Parish in Mt. Lebanon built a new church, he encouraged Father Gerold to buy the old building for use by the mission.
In July 1925, Father Gerold bought land for a church on the corner of West Library Avenue and Ohio Street – Lots 124-27 of the Tischler Plan. The following year, he borrowed $2,500 from Bishop Hugh Boyle, who served the diocese from 1921 to 1950, and in March bought the building from St. Bernard’s.
This first church was a frame building, 24 feet wide and 100 feet long, but was reconstructed on the present site so that half was used as a church, seating about 150 people, and half as a parish hall set alongside the church. Men of the mission were doing the work themselves, and one day two priests pulled up in a car and watched them awhile. One priest asked, “How are things going?” Margaret Minewiser’s father replied that they were doing the best they could with “this chicken coop that St. Bernard’s sold us.” It turned out that the priest was the pastor of St. Bernard’s, Father Bryson, and when he got home, he sent Father Gerold a receipt saying the debt was paid in full.
As the people were thinking about a name for the mission, they decided they would like to pay tribute to Father Gerold. So in recognition of his middle name, Valentine, they placed the mission under the patronage of St. Valentine, and it was given that name when it was formally blessed in the spring of 1926. Historical knowledge of the saint is limited. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the Roman Martyrology commemorated two martyrs named Valentine on February 14, and indicated that both were beheaded on the Flaminian Way – one at Tome and the other some 60 miles away at Terni. Valentine of Tome was a priest who is said to have died about 269 during the persecution of Emperor Claudius the Goth. The other was Bishop of Terni, but some historians suggest that they may have been the same person – that the bishop may have been brought to Rome and executed.
When Pope Paul VI revised the Liturgical calendar in 1969, he dropped a number of saints from the list of those with feast days set for observance by the universal church. St. Valentine was among those dropped, but his feast day is still observed locally.
After a long illness, Father Gerold died in 1930 at the age of 53. He was succeeded as pastor of St. Anne’s Parish, and thus of St. Valentine’s mission, by Father Aloysius Angel.