By Perry West
(CNA) - Centralia, Pennsylvania, is on fire … literally: a coal fire has been raging underneath the town for more than 50 years, but a century-old church still stands, drawing hundreds of Catholics for an annual Marian pilgrimage.
“The town is essentially gone, for all intents and purposes dead, but the Church is what gives life,” said Father John Fields, communications director and vice-chancellor for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia.
“Jesus Christ gives life to the whole location,” he told CNA.
On August 26, four bishops and more than 500 pilgrims gathered to celebrate the Feast of Assumption of Mary, known in the Eastern rites as the Dormition of the Theotokos.
Pilgrims came from nearby and as far away as Texas and Florida for the third annual pilgrimage at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Centralia, a nearly deserted town where a fire still burns up to 300 feet underground.
Believed to be from an attempt to burn trash in a former strip mine, the fire began under Centralia in 1962. The fire stretches 8 miles and could last up to 250 more years, according to the Smithsonian Institute.
Most of Centralia has evacuated, Fr. Fields told CNA, but added that the church still stands on the solid rock upon which it was built by Ukranian miners in 1912. He said that tests have shown the church to be safe from the fires.
The Marian pilgrimage was coordinated by Father Michael Hustko, the pastor of the Ukrainian church, built on a hill overlooking the now smoldering town and which still has about 50 families who are parishioners.
Also in attendance were Bishop Kurt Burnette of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, Bishop John Bura of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, and Bishop Andriy Rabiy, apostolic administrator of the same archeparchy.
The event began with the celebration of Divine Liturgy, followed by the Akafist hymn, a poem of 24 stanzas composed by St. Roman the Melodist, which reflects on the earthly life of Jesus and the Mother of God, and the theological reality of the redemption of humanity.
Later in the day, a procession of candles was held as attendees prayed the Moleben, an eastern liturgical service of thanksgiving. A healing service was also held.
Participants were also welcome to pray a living rosary, which used a large set of beads held by numerous people. The rosary was prayed in front of an 18th century copy of the Icon of Our Lady of Pochaiv.
Divine Liturgy was led by Bishop Rabiy, who compared the pilgrimage to the mountain parish to the Transfiguration of Christ in the New Testament.
“Our Lord went up the mountain with Peter, James and John and was transfigured before their eyes. They experienced something special,” he said during the homily.
“Today, during this pilgrimage, gathered on this holy mountain, may each of you encounter the Divine. You come here to seek God’s grace. Say to Him, 'I am here to listen. Lord, what do you have to tell me?'”
Bishop Burnette led the Moleben, reflecting on the theme of forgiveness and especially Mary’s willingness to forgive those who killed her Son.
“If Mary could forgive those people [who crucified her Son], you and I could forgive anyone,” he said, and prayed that this time be one of “fresh beginnings” for the pilgrims.
“Ask God’s help for the forgiveness of sins and of each other. Ask God’s help, pray for others and ask the Mother of God for her help.”