It is not that Sacred Heart Church’s Msgr. John Grabish has a lot of time on his hands.
From the first Mass in the morning through hospital rounds, funerals and community meetings, he is busy until after midnight, overseeing one of the oldest Roman Catholic parishes in Allentown and Lehigh County. “Some evenings if I get a chance I try to sneak a nap in between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.” he says, “and after that I am working most nights until 2 a.m.”
It is in those quiet hours between midnight and 2 a.m that Grabish transcribes the notes he has been gathering on an informal history of not just the church but the many Sacred Heart institutions, like Sacred Heart Hospital, Central Catholic High School and the various social clubs that in the early 20th century made the area now known as the Jordan Heights Neighborhood a thriving, ethnic community of German Austrian and other Roman Catholic European immigrants.
Today most of that community has been largely replaced by immigrants from Latin America. And Grabish feels sometimes he is in a race with time to preserve its history before it slips away entirely. “A lot of the people that I see and interview are in their 80s and 90’s,” Grabish adds. “They have the precious memories of that way of life that is passed of people like Msgr. Fink and others that are gone. If we don’t get it down it will be lost forever.”
Grabish was not raised in Allentown. His Polish-American roots are in the coal region town of St. Clair, a small “patch” neighborhood known as “Arnott’s Division.” Although his family was Catholic, he attended public grade schools. But his Polish ancestry was something that he never forgot.
“My mother knew Polish but did not speak it around the house. The only place she would use it was saying her confession. She just seemed to be more comfortable praying in the language she grew up in than in English,” says Grabish who is fluent in Spanish, the language of many of his parishioners.
In 1994 after his mother’s death Grabish and his sister traveled to Poland to trace their family history. It inspired for him a new appreciation of the immigrant experience in America. “We forget about these ethnic churches and the contributions that were started by many of these same immigrants,” he says. “So much of that gets lost.”
In doing his work Grabish is conscious of the great contributions made by Msgr. Leo Gregory Fink, the pastor of Sacred Heart for most of the first half of the 20th century. A larger than life figure, Fink was probably the best known Catholic in Lehigh County. A personal friend of General Harry C. Trexler, after whose death he wrote a laudatory biography, Fink was responsible for developing and growing many of the area’s Catholic institutions.
The picture of Fink that emerges from Grabish’s interviews is of a pastor of the old school. He was both a strict disciplinarian and a cultured scholar, as comfortable dealing with building contractors as he was writing a history of the region's early Jesuit missionaries or playing his beloved violin. Perhaps it was Fink who General Trexler was thinking of when he told his aide Nolan Benner in the 1920s, “the Catholic Church is one of the greatest business organizations in the world and after that I would place AT&T.” One of Grabish’s interviewees said his father had always said Fink should have been a contractor rather than a priest.
But Fink was not a businessman but a priest. Sacred Heart Hospital was first of all a Catholic institution, as was the high school. He wanted it to both defend the Catholic faith and point of view and aid the many immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants who were a part of that ethnic community in which they were based.
At the same time Fink always seemed to have been aware of another role he played in Allentown: a representative to the suspicious non-Catholic America who doubted the allegiance of Catholics to the country rather than to the Pope.
Several of Grabish’s interviewees noted that Fink would almost always wear a World War I era military chaplain’s uniform in parades or other public events. They also recalled his use of the words “God and America” or “God and Country,” with which he closed every letter.
In his long term as Sacred Heart’s pastor, Fink was the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s informal representative to Allentown and Lehigh County. Several interviewees told Grabish they believe Fink was devastated when the Diocese of Allentown was created in 1961 and Fink was not selected as its first bishop. “He never said anything about it, that was not his way,” one told Grabish, “but it seemed to me that it took all the fight out of him.” At Fink’s death a rifle squad fired over his grave. One of Grabish’s interviewees noted they still had a shell casing from it.
Grabish’s interviews also dwell on the history of the many types of unique businesses that the community around Sacred Heart included in the pre-World War I era. “There was one that dealt in steamship line tickets from an office on Hamilton Street,” he says. “White Star Line, Red Star Line, Cunard Line, North German Lloyd Line, Hamburg America Line, you could get a ticket in Allentown on them.”
These are just a few of the interesting things from the past that Grabish has uncovered. There were also the various social clubs that each ethnic group maintained and the interaction between them. Some of the interviewees recalled that although they spoke the same language, Germans and Austrians had different cultural outlooks and developed rivalries with each other.
“There are just so many wonderful untold histories out there,” says Grabish.