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Log Cabin History 

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The Old Log Church | Chapel of St. Patrick, Sugarcreek

 

Church history tends to concentrate on the clergymen. However, in the history of the church in the United States, the laity generally have preceded the clergymen in most localities. The people of this country gathered into congregation the scattered flock that was already there, and built churches, meeting halls, and where possible, schools.

 

Historic Log Cabin ChurchThis fledgling country found itself home to many of the displaced worshipers of Europe and the rest of the world.

In 1776, Pennsylvania adopted a state bill of rights that embodied the principle of religious freedom. This made the state attractive to those who were not part of the national religions of European countries.

On March 1, 1785, the Father John Carroll estimated a number of Catholics in Pennsylvania to be at least 7,000. Of the priests in the mission he said there were 19 in Maryland and five in Pennsylvania, two of which were more than 70 years old.

 

With the adoption of the U.S. Constitution September 17, 1787, and the first 10 amendments put into effect December 15, 1791, the way was paved for similar action in those states who had previously withheld full religious liberty from their citizens.

 

The settlement that took place in the vicinity of what was to become Sugar Creek Church was unusual in that all of the settlers came exclusively from one geographic local, the county Donegal, Ireland.


The perilous journey from his point of view goes as follows:

 

On the fourth of June, in the afternoon,

We sailed from Londonderry;

Early next day we put to sea

Stations of the CrossTo cross the tedious ferry;

We hoisted sail with a pleasant gale

As Phoebus was arising,

Bound for New York, in America,

In the grand brig Eliza.

A British fleet we chanced to meet

On the twenty-fourth of August;

A man-of-war came bearing down

With crowded sails upon us.

Brave Knight, being true all his crew,

Advanced unto the captain,

And when he made a bow to him,

Showed America’s protection.

September ninth we took our leave;

Of captain, mate, and sailors,

Likewise of the Eliza brave,

For no less can we name her;

We gave three cheers for old Ireland,

It being our former quarter,

And then, like wandering sheep, we strayed,

And parted from each other.

 

This being the case, their area of settlement became known as Donegal Township. The pioneers’ voyage from the emerald isle in 1792 was documented in verse by a bard, Thomas Moore, who was traveling with them. 

The Eliza, which was bound for New York, never made it there. She sailed up the Delaware and her precious cargo disembarked near Philadelphia.

The settlers followed Braddock’s Road west, but were unable to continue to their final destination until General “Mad” Anthony Wayne defeated the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers along the Maumee River, essentially breaking their resistance. 

 

Sugarcreek GroundsAfter the Native Americans were subdued, these new Americans pressed westward. The group crossed the Allegheny River at present day Freeport, and settled west of Buffalo Creek reaching their final destination in 1796 eight to ten miles from the sight of the now Sugar Creek church.

 

In 1801, the late Father Lanigan was the first priest to cross the Allegheny River and visit the settlement, but it was only one visit. 

He held services in the home of the Dougan family as it was centrally located within the settlement. 

In 1803, the late Father Heilbron crossed the Allegheny to the Buffalo Creek Mission, baptizing 38 people. It was called the Buffalo Creek Mission because it was closer to Buffalo Creek than Sugar Creek.

 

Father Heilbron did not stay mainly because he spoke German, and the settlers were Irish.
 

Between 1805 and 1807, the late Father Laurence Sylvester Phelan became the first priest to take up residence in the Sugar Creek settlement.

 

With a priest came the need for a house of worship. Land was abundant, but money was scarce, so a collection took place on a grand scale. Four men set out over 15 square miles each responsible for 25 cents.

Casper W. Easley covered the southern district; James Sheridan had the south-west; Neil Sweeney canvassed the Butler area; and Connell Rogers McCue sought donations in Donegal Township. These diligent men accomplished their tasks; despite the fact the largest donation was $2.

 

Log cabin church windowsWith the money collected, a farm of approximately 200 acres was purchased. Construction of the church was novel in that it was done much the same as it was funded. 

The four men who had been responsible for raising the money each had responsibility for one wall. They were to gather as many men as they could and show up on a specific day to construct their assigned wall.

 

The walls were oak trees felled and skinned by hand. All gaps were filled with clay and straw.  The three windows on each side were kept low to the ground so as to avoid any excess cutting of logs. 

The roof was the responsibility of Patrick McElroy, but due to difficulty procuring nails completion was delayed until the following spring.  When finally completed in the fall of 1806 the church building stood 35 feet high and 22 feet wide.


St. PatrickThe church was then dedicated to St. Patrick of Ireland.

With the Donegal citizens dedicating their new church to St. Patrick they became part of a small fraternity. At the time of dedication, around 1806, there were Catholic churches in Loretto, Latrobe and Brownsville, but none of those buildings are still standing presently. 

This makes the Chapel of St. Patrick, Sugar Creek, the oldest existing Catholic church west of the Allegheny Mountains.

 

Services were held once or twice a month. The lack of representation, even though they had a resident priest, was because Father Phelan was solely responsible for all of the Catholic missions west of the Allegheny River from Erie to the Ohio.

 

Original Brick ChurchThe good father was not the only person who had to travel. When services were held parishioners would travel from as far as 15 miles away on foot.

 

As if this itself were no easy task, add to it the fact that they were fasting prior to receiving the sacraments.

 

It did not take long for the congregation to outgrow the little church, and a new building was commissioned in 1840, but this did not end her service. 

The new church was a brick structure standing 80 feet by 45 feet and this too would almost seem too small.

In 1847, the congregation would be at its largest both past and present, with over 300 families.

 

This new structure would only stand for 32 years. In 1872, it burned to the ground. It was thought to be an act of arson, revenge against the congregation for some unknown transgression perhaps. 

During the interim the log church now known as St. Patrick, Sugar Creek, ceased its new duties as a school house and once again was called to service.

 

Log church after restoration in 1926This pattern of reuse after rehabilitation would prove hard to break.

In 1876, a massive Norman-Gothic structure was built atop one of the highest hills in Armstrong County leaving the little log church in its shadow. It was a doomed masterpiece visible from miles around. 

In 1904, a windstorm served as a precursor for things to come when it twisted the lofty Norman steeple, relocated the back wall, and raised the roof.

 

By the 1900s, the old log church had fallen into disarray. The late Father Edward J. Moriarty and the Sugar Creek congregation, with the help of local historians, set out to restore the landmark in 1926. The work was done much like it had been 120 years before with the exception of a scarcity of nails for the roof and much of the money came from the diocese. 

 

Brick church burned in 1929 fireThis restoration project had impeccable timing. On August 23, 1929, the second brick church was destroyed by fire. This time, however, it was an act of God.  Lightning brought the congregation to the log church once again shortly after its own revival. 

 

The final church to be constructed was moved down the hill, out of the way of wind and lightning.  This much smaller church was completed in 1930. 

It is a Romanesque structure made with native sandstone. It has undergone a few rejuvenations of its own over the past 76 years. A roof now shelters the porch from the elements.

 

A shrine to Our Lady of the Assumption, patroness of the Diocese of Greensburg, was dedicated in August 1975. It now stands as a solemn reminder of the two brick churches whose remains lay beneath her.

 

Other renovations range from the basement becoming a meeting hall fit for  instructing the children of the parish in the catechism of the Catholic faith to recent landscaping and sidewalk repair.

The log church was refurbished twice more, once in 1988 and again in 2005
.
 

In 1998, 200 years after the first burial, an abandoned cemetery in Donegal Township on the Dougan property within the original settlement was rediscovered and overhauled. 

 

Interior of present day log cabin churchThe cemetery was cleared of debris and rededicated to commemorate the Irish settlers who made this area their home and those who still lay there. Many of those interred in this original cemetery had been previously moved to St. Patrick Cemetery or various Butler area cemeteries.
 

The Chapel of St. Patrick and the old log church at Sugar Creek have stood the test of time. They are testaments to those who came before us and hopefully a legacy that we can leave behind. 

When sitting on the wooden benches of this historic structure listening to a well thought out homily your mind cannot help but to wander as you look around. 

 

Think of the long gone settlers whose determination made it possible for this little church in the woods to have survived 200 years. Just imagine you came from 10 miles away; would you have come if your car would not start?

Written by Sean Morrow


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