Graves of Tamaqua priests moved
A heavy duty crane from Smith Hauling, Tamaqua, hoists a 6.5-ton solid concrete vault containing the remains of the Rev. Henry W. Baker from the front terrace of former St. Jerome’s Catholic Church early Saturday, 92 years after the parish priest was laid to rest. See tnonline.com for a photo gallery of the move. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Workers level a massive concrete vault holding the remains of the Rev. Henry Baker on Saturday as they guide it onto a flatbed headed to St. Jerome’s Cemetery, Tamaqua. Parish priest John Frink is seen on the background terrace recording the process for archival purposes. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Workers remove their caps and lower their heads early Friday morning in Tamaqua upon discovering that wooden coffins from 1881 had rotted away, exposing the remains of two parish priests at a front lawn burial site at former St. Jerome’s Catholic Church. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A crane from Hope’s Collision and Towing, Tamaqua, helps workers reinter a burial vault containing the remains of the Rev. Henry W. Baker at St. Jerome’s Cemetery, Tamaqua, early Saturday. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
The Rev. Henry W. Baker
An ambitious, three-day process of exhuming and relocating century-old graves of three Tamaqua priests concluded Saturday morning after several surprises.
The remains of the Revs. Henry W. Baker, Joseph Bridgman and M.A. Ryan were reinterred near a large cross at the center of St. Jerome’s Cemetery, Jerome Street, after carefully being removed from separate resting places on the front terrace of the former St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church, West Broad Street.
“We’ll have a ceremony probably in the fall,” said the Rev. John Frink, pastor, St. John XXIII, at the conclusion of what was at times an intense, nail-biting experience.
Those involved in the delicate procedure of recovering decomposed remains felt it was a lesson in memento mori, or a tangible reinforcement of the nature of mortality.
Workers gingerly used an assortment of hand tools and equipment, going about their tasks in a mode of reverence. The experience proved to be a firsthand exploration into funerary customs of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“This one will be heavy,” said contractor Dan Farber of Newkirk on Friday, as he strategized how to lift a buried vault holding the body of Baker, in repose on the east side of the church’s front terrace since early May 1927.
But even Farber wasn’t prepared for what was found. A crew operating a heavy duty crane from Smith Hauling, Tamaqua, discovered the vault weighed 6.5 tons. It suggests that Baker’s remains are fully encased in solid concrete. Baker’s vault appeared to have been permanently sealed. No attempt was made to open it at any point in the process.
However, the job of recovering the remains of Bridgman and Ryan proved much more challenging in terms of approach and sensitivity.
The men had been buried for 138 years and were subject to reclamation by forces of nature.
Upon site excavation, workers discovered two 1880-era, sturdily built brick vaults with slate lids 3 inches thick.
The top of the Ryan vault was divided into several large pieces; the top of the Bridgman vault, one solid piece. Although located side by side, the graves had been dug at different depths, with the Bridgman grave about a foot or two deeper than that of Ryan.
On lifting the lids, workers discovered that wooden coffins once inside had virtually disappeared, clearly exposing what was left of the remains. In a show of respect, they removed their caps and bowed their heads.
Frink noted that Bridgman appeared to have been laid to rest wearing a green burial vestment. Interestingly, his remains were found covered by a glass panel.
According to Frink, it suggests that Bridgman’s coffin featured a partial glass lid “so that they could keep it closed and still have a viewing.” When the wooden portion rotted away over the years, the glass panel sank down.
Workers gently transferred the remains into carefully marked vessels to await reinterment at the parish cemetery about six blocks away. All the while, Tamaqua police controlled traffic on Route 209, which had to be blocked for a short time while the heavy vault was lowered onto a flatbed.
While some parishioners and area residents have expressed sorrow or dismay over the decision to disturb the final resting places, a passer-by said he understands the situation.
“I think it’s great they’re moving them to the cemetery because this building is no longer a church,” said Matt Yeager of Tamaqua.
On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., a large recovery crane from Hope’s Collision and Towing was called into service to lower the massive block of concrete holding Baker’s remains into its new resting place.
Baker’s name is legendary in the community, and his 15 years of service at what was the second-largest Catholic parish in Schuylkill County are well-documented and highly revered.
He is credited with reinvigorating a struggling church during World War I and helping to raise $100,000, more than $1.2 million now, to build a large school. It opened in 1922 to serve all grade levels.
In fact, in 1928, just one year after St. Jerome’s High School held its first graduation, the “Lions” began competing successfully in scholastic baseball, football and basketball, sharing a tie for first place on the gridiron for the Catholic Championship of Schuylkill County.
The school, today serving students up to eighth grade, moved to Hometown in 2018.
Also, in 2018, the 1859 church building was abandoned following consolidation four years earlier of St. Jerome’s and SS. Peter and Paul churches into one parish, St. John XXIII.
All three properties are for sale and recently have been surveyed to facilitate subdivision. Although on the market, the future of all three buildings is uncertain.
The church and school structures are both examples of Gothic Revival architecture. The rectory was built to honor the Classical Revival style. All of the buildings were officially identified as strong contributing resources to the Tamaqua National Historic District in 2001.
The district encompasses 55 blocks of central Tamaqua listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.