I had the most wonderful trip to Duquesne this week and last. It was all I expected and more. I was able to visit with family, reconnect with old friends, meet new friends and visit places that I haven’t been to in some time. If I had to describe how I felt all week visiting Duquesne, it would best be described as being similar to coming indoors on an icy cold winter night and being wrapped in a blanket that had just been taken out of the dryer. Every part of me felt the warmth of our hometown.
I arrived in Duquesne late in the day on Saturday, the 3rd of December, so my adventures didn’t begin until Sunday morning. I began my visit by picking up my 85 year old Aunt Peggy from her apartment in Munhall. It had been about a year since I last visited her, so needless to say, we were happy to see one another.
It was 8 a.m. and we headed to Duquesne to the 8:30 Mass at St. Hedwig’s on South 5th Street. It had been drizzling that morning, so the air was filled with the familiar smells of damp fallen leaves on the sidewalks and streets. I parked across from the church on 5th Street underneath one of the majestic sycamores that line the bricked streets. Churchgoers were filing into the church and it reminded me of an idyllic Norman Rockwell illustration from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
St. Hedwig’s is the smaller of the Catholic churches in Duquesne. It offers an intimate setting for all attendees but doesn’t compromise on pure beauty. Even though I grew up in Holy Name Church, I have become very comfortable at St. Hedwig. My dad liked attending mass there and since his death, I have continued to do so as well.
To tell you the truth, it wouldn’t really matter which of the church I went to that Sunday. Since all they all had Fr. Dennis as the celebrant, they all would have been equally inspiring. For those of you who have never had the opportunity to experience attending a mass being conducted by Fr. Dennis Colamarino, you definitely need to do so.
As I sat next to my Aunt Peggy during mass on that 2nd Sunday in Advent, a thought crossed my mind. I realized that the extraordinary sense of belonging, of faith and of reverence that I was feeling was EXACTLY the same as I felt as a child when I first understood what being a Christian and a Catholic was all about. I remember how my parents were so passionate about attending mass and always seemed to be so “connected” to what was occurring. THAT’S what I felt that Sunday morning with Fr. Dennis.
To say that Fr. Dennis is captivating as a celebrant is an understatement. His personality, positive demeanor, style and speaking ability is “over the top” in a very positive way. When you couple his talents with the extraordinary musical talents of the Music Ministry members, Debbie Walters, Ray Judy and Greg Lesko, you have an experience just this side of heaven.
Fr. Dennis’ sermon contained a story about a woman who was nearing the end of her life due to a health issue. She was having a discussion with her priest about her wishes for her eventual funeral. She told her priest that she wanted to be buried in the dress she wore when she was married. The priest indicated that it should not be a problem. She then indicated that she wanted to have the song, On Eagle’s Winds, sung at her funeral. Again, no problem. Her final request took the priest aback however. She told him that she wanted to be buried with a fork in her hand. The woman explained. “My mother once told me a story that I never forgot and I have tried to pass along its message to those I love and those who are in need of encouragement. Here’s her story:
“In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, I always remember that when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part because I knew something better was coming . . . like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful and with substance!’
So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder, “What’s with the fork? Then I want you to tell them, “Keep your fork . . . the best is yet to come.”
What a wonderful way to begin my visit to Duquesne. Thanks Fr. Dennis.
The remainder of that first day in Duquesne was spent with my Aunt Peggy. After mass, we decided to treat ourselves to breakfast. The final destination was “Eat n’ Park” on Lysle Blvd in McKeesport. I remember going to that same location as a child with my parents. We usually went on a Friday, and the customary order was one of their fish sandwiches. I was always fascinated by the larger than life-sized statue of “Big Boy” that greeted you on the outside of the building. Sadly, Big Boy is gone now, but the food was just as good. I recognized many people in the restaurant from St. Hedwig’s mass that morning, so this must have been the Hunky “go to” place on Sunday!
After a delightful breakfast, Aunt Peggy and I returned to her apartment where she quickly changed clothes to prepare for the “main event” that day. As in past years, my December trip to Duquesne included setting up and decorating her Christmas tree. Due to apartment regulations, Aunt Peg was forced to give up having a live tree each year and had to settle for a “faux” tree in its place. It actually works out better for her since she sometimes forgot to keep the live tree well watered and by New Year’s Day, it usually had morphed into a king size version of Charlie Brown’s tree.
The apartment building that Aunt Peg lives in is located directly behind, and affiliated with, St. Theresa’s Church on Main Street in Munhall. The residents are retirees, primarily female, and have mostly limited their Christmas decorating to a small tabletop tree at this point. However, Aunt Peg would have none of that, and insisted on a full sized tree in spite of the fact that she had limited space. Now, each year she invites her “lady friends,” as she refers to them, to enjoy some coffee, cookies and her tree. Apparently, it is quite an event for them.
The tree is packed full of ornaments that she has collected over the years. The oldest, dates back to 1913 and was used on my grandparents tree when they were first married. Aunt Peg had a story for each and every ornament and remembered in vivid detail, the circumstances of its acquisition. She reveled in their history, and every year, I patiently listen to the stories all over again. It’s like hearing a familiar Christmas story year after year and I look forward to not only the tale, but her thrill in retelling it once again. I recognized so many of the ornaments on the tree from the time I was little and seeing them on the tree in her living room.
Among Aunt Peggy’s ornaments, there were a few that I recall seeing on MY parent’s tree. When my kids were small, I went on a mission to try to locate vintage ornaments that matched those when I was a child. I must have searched on the web for over six months to locate them. Finally, I was able to locate the exact ornaments that were on the trees that stood i our living room each year. There were wax ornaments of Santa, a snowman, an angel and a drum major. Also, silver plastic filigree bells that brightened our tree each year. Who would have thought that I would be able to find the identical items at least 50 years later? These little pieces of my childhood now adorn our current Christmas tree.
After finally finishing my aunt’s tree, I was ready to get some well-deserved rest. I traveled back to my hotel and took in all of the individual home decorations along the way. I have to give the current Duquesne, Munhall and West Mifflin residents credit, they sure know how to celebrate the season. Everything from “over the top” displays of lights to very simple and traditional examples could be seen throughout the area. Once I settled in for the evening, I kicked back and enjoyed the local news and prepared myself for another day of adventures, back home in Duquesne. Stay tuned folks, there’s more to come.
What a great article! I am originally from McKeesport but my wife, actually from Burgettstown, knew Father Dennis from her youth and has always spoke highly of him. Your article does a great job of talking about one of these towns that were “larger than life” years ago and most likely thought of in a negative manner now, so it really great to read about the warmth and happiness of the “real” people who still live and celebrate their home town today. Great job! I’ll spread this around for others to read and I look forward to more. Enjoy the season!
David, Who was your wife from Burgettstown? To hear or see the name Burgettstown is a rarity in and of itself, as most people have never heard of it. Anyhow, I am from Burgettstown, and was just wondering if your wife may know me, and also if I may know her. My name is Ray Simpson and I graduated from Burgettstown Union High School in 1962. My wife was Debra(Debi) Dluski and she graduated in 1967. I received this article via e-mail from a friend, and even though I was not from the Duquesne/McKeesport area, I am really enjoying these articles. Hope to hear from you. Take care, and have a very Merry Christmas.
I have come back to the area because I lost my job in Florida…and being here for Christmas is truly wonderful…the memories are springing back to life….I will be attending my first midnight mas in the area….McKeesport….since 1981…..I have fond memories of Kenneywood and the surrounding areas….the people..the food.,,the warmth of the people…..the closeness of a community that I remember fondly.
Welcome home Deb. I’m jealous!
Deb, Could you possibly be a Snow Bunny?
Attended Catechism at St Hedwigs also was an alter boy for Father Kupiac – Sister was married in that church in 52 – and they are still happily married, still living in PA but not Duquesne. I left there in 1958 and got to Az in 1961 and been here ever since – Father, Mother, oldest brother all laid to rest at St Hedwig’s cemetary – but I believe it is not called that now.
Thanks for your article. I can relate so very well, since I am struggling with our move to Florida over a year ago. Christ The Light of the World was my parish. Fr. Dennis was my priest and we had a special bond. And, I was a huge part of the the music ministry there, with Debbie, Greg & Ray. I knew leaving my church and choir buddies was going to be hard, but never did I guess it would be like this. I will definitely be ‘home’ for Thanksgiving & Christmas next year. I don’t ever want to be away for it again. Also, I was a 1968 DHS graduate.
They say “you can’t go home again.” Jim, you obviously have. It’s wonderful to read something nice about Duquesne when so many of us lament the deterioration of the city. Several things you wrote struck a chord with me — like Fr. Dennis. We had a requested a certain priest for my mother’s funeral three years ago at Holy Trinity since Fr. Grosko was away that week. Instead of our requested priest, we got Fr. Dennis. He was amazing, making my mother’s funeral Mass so special for our family. The other thing was Eat’n Park. Growing up, we never ate out because of the size of our family, but later it became my mother’s favorite place to have dinner at when I would come to Duquesne to visit her.
Looking forward to reading more about your visit. You are right about attending a Mass with Fr. Dennis it is a spiritual event. I have recently attended a few funeral Masses at Holy Name and he is inspiring. He is awesome.
I have filigree balls that match your bells. They were my Grandma’s & Mother’s & now they are on my tree. I also have some other old ornaments that were various relatives mixed in with some new stuff that I have purchased. My feeling is you can never have enough tree ornaments!
The old & the new blend in together quite nicely.
One of my favorite childhood memories of the Christmas tree were plastic icicles that glowed in the dark & tin spiral ones in red/silver & green/silver & yes they are on my tree also.
I can’t wait. Brings back grand memories of Christmas at our homes in McKeesport and Buena Vista. Thanks for the memories.