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.
With 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.
The 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.
The 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.
This 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.
This 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.
The 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?