Fr. Janok Arrives

Father Janok Arrives

Father Pikutis was transferred to St. Barbara’s Church in Bridgeville on September 29, 1937, and the following month Bishop Boyle appointed Father John Janok as his successor. Father Janok served until his death 24 years later, the longest pastorate in the history of St. Valentine’s Parish and almost half the entire period of its existence. In large measure, the parish is indebted for its strength today to this dedicated man who gave almost his entire priestly life to St. Valentine’s.

Father Janok was born February 11, 1911, in McKeesport. He and a brother, Joseph, two years older, were orphaned in 1915, and a grandmother took care of them. By hard work at school, young John caught up with his brother and they entered St. Fidelis Seminary together. They were ordained on June 16, 1935, as part of the same class with Bishop Vincent Leonard, who became ordinary of the Pittsburgh Diocese in 1969. The first assignment of Father John Janok was to St. Michael’s Church in Braddock, but at the early age of twenty-six he became pastor of St. Valentine’s Church. One accomplishment that made him particularly suitable for this parish was the ability to read, write and speak several languages. This would enable him, for example, to read the Gospel in Slovak as well as English, and to hear confessions in the mother tongues of many immigrants.

Father Janok won the love and admiration of his people, and they came to him for advice on health, legal and personal as well as spiritual problems. He was also gifted in athletics, and worked with the children to clear a ball field near the church, where he joined them in games.
When he first came to the parish, he had no housekeeper at the Rectory. Mrs. Stella Stemnock recounts:
“I took him to our house in Coverdale and gave him his supper, as he had no housekeeper. I did his laundry, altar robes, altar cloths, and when he had Forty Hours Devotion or special company, I would loan him my silverware and table linens, as he had none. I knew Father like my own boys, and he ate many meals at our house in Coverdale. He played a major role in laying the foundation for what our church is today. He taught my boys to be servers, and they served Mass until they were in their late teens.” He played a role in laying foundations literally when he joined with men of the parish in putting a foundation under the little frame church, which had initially been set on poles. He also worked with them to install a coal furnace and remodel and enlarge the church interior. A sanctuary, 17 feet by 35 feet, was added to the original building.

Shortly after the remodeling was completed, a disastrous fire ruined the little church, sending so many days of hard, dedicated labor up in smoke. It occurred during the benediction following a Sunday Mass, on July 19, 1942, and created panic among the worshippers. Though no one was seriously injured, several people required medical treatment. Many of the injuries occurred as a result of the banisters on the front steps collapsing during the hurried exit. The adjacent parish hall was also damaged, so badly it had to be torn down. The fire broke out in the sacristy, and perhaps started from a lighted match or candle since it was the area where altar boys lit candles for the benediction. The sacristy may have contained paint cans, brushes and other items left from the painting of the church interior.

On the day after the fire, the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph reported: “Despite a plea by the priest for calm and order, 200 worshippers rushed out of St. Valentine’s Church, Bethel Twp., when fire broke out during services yesterday, and about 35 persons were injured in the rush. Mrs. James Travers, of Bethel Twp., suffered a badly wrenched arm, and Miss Tillie Mahall of Lakewood, O., was burned on the face, hands and ankles. Attorney Martin Geary, 28, of South Park Road, was treated in Mercy Hospital for burns on the face, head and hands. Most injuries were minor. Dr. J. E. Kent, of Coverdale, set up an office [a First Aid Station] in the parish house and treated the victims, most of whom suffered only slight burns or cuts." The Rev. John J. Janok, 31, St. Valentine’s pastor, said: "We had finished our Mass and were midway through with benediction. As I turned around to put incense into the censer, I saw one of the women pointing to the sacristy. There was a little bit of smoke. I tried to get them to stay. I was horribly worried that somebody would be killed. But they all seemed to be in a panicky condition." The Telegraph continued: "The fire was believed to have started from a candle or a match in the sacristy. Damage of $15,000 was estimated by the Fire Chief John Miskunas. Some firemen were in the congregation and summoned help quickly, but the church was destroyed despite the efforts of the companies from Bethel Twp., Castle Shannon, South Park, Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair Twp. The church had two rear doors but they were cut off by the flames.”

After accompanying the people out, Father Janok returned and tried to save the Sacred Host in the tabernacle, but was unable to do so. He rescued only the chalice and the vestments he was wearing. He was apparently dazed by the smoke, and didn’t remember what happened after that, but parishioners reported pulling him out through a window. Father Janok announced the immediate launching of a campaign to raise funds for rebuilding, and despite the restrictions of wartime, the parish was able to move rapidly toward erection of a new building. Meanwhile, it held services in the Bethel Park Fire Hall.

The cornerstone was laid on October 18, 1942, and the first Mass in the new church was held on Easter Sunday, April 25, 1943. The Solemn Blessing took place on May 31. Andres Pyzdrowski & Son served as architect and general contractor. Since the rebuilding had to be done under the limitations imposed by World War II, shortages of building materials created a number of problems, but these were all satisfactorily resolved. The parish had about 300 families at this time, and though building and furnishing a new church left them with a debt of $25,000, they paid it off before the end of 1943.

For some time, Father Janok had been thinking that the parish needed a school, and as the decade of the 1940’s passed, the need became more urgent. Some 500 children were receiving weekly instruction from the Sisters who served Saint Francis Academy, but space for these classes was inadequate. They were held in the fire hall, the rectory basement and garage and even empty store rooms. Another factor adding to the urgency was that schools of neighboring parishes, which many St. Valentine’s families had been using, became overcrowded and were restricting enrollment to their own children. With parents becoming more and more concerned, Sister Gabrielle called a meeting of mothers in February 1950 to discuss what they wanted to do. They formed the St. Valentine Catholic Women’s Club and chose Mary Diederich as the first president. The Club’s purpose was to raise funds for construction of a grade school and the Catholic education of parish children. Over the next three years Club members held many fund-raising events, and their dedicated work was crowned with success. In February, 1953, the Women’s Club became affiliated with the Confraternity of Christian Mothers, and this dedicated group of women continued serving the parish by their support and fund-raising activities.

Andres Pyzdrowski & Son drew up plans for a school, and these were approved by Bishop John F. Dearden, who had become ordinary in 1950 and served until 1959. The firm of Didion Brothers, who were members of the parish, was awarded the contract, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in June 1952.

The school, with eight classrooms plus offices and other facilities, was dedicated on August 23, 1953, and Sister Mary Laura became the first principal. For the first year, only three grades were offered. Then one grade was added each year until it had the full eight grades.
Enrollment the first year was 240, and it became immediately apparent that the parish would need more space for its school. So plans were drawn up for a second building with another eight classrooms, and it was completed by the contractors, John Deklewa & Sons of Bridgeville, in 1954. By 1961, with the full eight grades in operation, St. Valentine’s School had an enrollment of 756.

When Father Pikutis was transferred in 1937, his housekeeper went with him, and that meant the loss of the parish organist. A young member of the parish, Marie Schoepflin, then took her place. Choir membership at this time included George Sebolt, Sr., Phil Didion, Joseph Didion, Walter Rausch, Charles Meyers, George Matyk, Alex Stemnock and George Fialko. During this period, a boys’ choir was also started, with two young brothers, George and High Sebolt, as leaders.

The organ was destroyed along with everything else in the 1942 fire, and another reed pump organ was secured. The choir met at the organist’s home to continue its rehearsals while the parish was without a church. When the new church was built, the choir and organ was placed in a room adjacent to the altar. Later an Orgatron, an electric single manual instrument, was placed in the new church.
Marie Schoepflin resigned as organist in 1945 and was succeeded by Genevieve Didion, who served a quarter century. The Orgatron was eventually replaced by a double manual Wurlitzer.

Among the memories that parishioners treasure when they recall Father Janok is that of his cocker spaniel, “Taffy”. She would sometimes come into the church during Mass, greet him excitedly and then sit or lie beside him at the altar. He also taught her to “say grace” before meals, putting her front feet up on his chair and then laying her head over her paws. When Father Janok was sick, Taffy kept a vigil beside his bed. But one day while waiting for him in a car, she jumped out a window and was hit and killed by a passing vehicle.

In the years following World War II, the parish grew rapidly and its original ethnic, immigrant character was gradually modified. Bethel Park had ceased to be a mining community, and was becoming a suburban, bedroom community such as were developing around all major metropolitan areas of the nation.

After the construction of St. Valentine’s School, there was an influx of parishioners, and the little church soon became too small. Father Janok dreamed of building a larger church, but serious illness began to weaken him and eventually prevented him from realizing his dream. He sometimes would say Mass holding onto the altar with sweat streaming down his swollen face. One Sunday he collapsed and had to be carried into the sacristy.

The growing demands of the parish, combined with Father Janok’s health problems, led to appointment of the first assistant for St. Valentine’s – Father Paul B. Conroy, who served from 1953 to 1958. He was followed by Father Eloy Grundler, and on April 8, 1961, it became Father Grundler’s task to tell the people of St. Valentine’s parish that their pastor had died the previous night. Father Janok was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Port Vue, with his parents and grandparents. The marker on his grave reads simply: “Father John 1911-1961.”