Written by: Joanna Adams Sergent
Construction on the future town of Jenkins was in full swing. Homes, offices, and other vital construction projects were moving along at a record pace. Only two things were slowing the construction down. The need to level the hilly terrain, and an unskilled sparse population. This meant that besides importing the construction equipment and materials to the area. CONSOL was also having to import skilled workers for the construction crews. This would lead to the building of the St. George Church.
CONSOL sent out recruiters and men came from all over the country. A great number of these men were “new to the country” European immigrants. There was a huge Catholic representation among these migrants, but no Catholic Church. The Consolidation Coal Company decided to rectify that situation.
Mr. John Gordon Smyth, general manager of the Elkhorn division of the Consolidation Coal Company at Jenkins. Wrote a series of letters to Bishop Maes of Covington Ky. In the letters, Smyth requested that the Catholic Church investigate the spiritual needs of the miners and construction workers in the new town of Jenkins. Bishop Maes agreed to do so and sent Father Ambrose Reger of Corbin, Ky to Jenkins. Father Reger had instructions to investigate the men and the situation and then report his findings back to Bishop Maes.
There is a Need
While looking for an Italian priest for the parish, Bishop Maes came up with a temporary solution. He would arrange for a priest to visit the area once a month. In January 1913, Father James Massa became the first resident priest. Father Massa was from Levoni, Italy.
Father Massa immediately went to work with the Catholics in the surrounding areas. Serving an area of 1800 square miles. Father Massa’s territory included Letcher, Pike, Knott, and Perry Counties. By November of that same year, Father Massa was making monthly visits to Hazard, Kentucky.
The Church Is Built and Named
Constructing little frame buildings along Elkhorn Creek. The completion of the church and rectory happened in 1914. The property was close to town and it was private with enough room to build a school in the future. A donation of a smaller property to the church for the Holy Cross Cemetery. Its location is below the B & O section of town.
Dedicated under the patronage of St. George. The church was also named for Bishop George A. Carrell, who was the first Bishop of Covington. Bishop Carrell was an ancestor of the Jenkins family.
Father Massa Passes Away
Father James Massa continued to expand his work in the region for four years. Father Massa passed away at St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, on July 20, 1918. His burial plot is in Lexington, Kentucky. The work in the region continued until 1948. The priest of the diocese took charge of the mission territory. St George church after the passing of Father Massa also was in the care of the diocese.
New Catholic Churches Established
Two churches would establish themselves in the region. Later they would separate themselves from the St. George Mission. The first was the “Mother of Good Counsel Church” in 1939. Established in Hazard, Kentucky, and served the Perry County Catholic community. The second was the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Pikeville, Kentucky. Established in Pikeville, Kentucky, and served the Pike County Catholic community in 1949.
Two other churches would establish in Letcher County by the St. George Mission. The Holy Angels Chapel in McRoberts, Kentucky. And Our Lady of Fatima Chapel in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Letcher and Knott Counties remained as the St. George Mission Center. With the main parish continuing in Jenkins, Kentucky.
Two churches would be established in the region and would separate themselves from the St. George Mission. The first was the “Mother of Good Counsel Church” in 1939 that was established in Hazard, Kentucky, and served the Perry County Catholic community. The second was the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Pikeville, Kentucky which was established in Pikeville, Kentucky, and served the Pike County Catholic community in 1949.
Two other churches were established in Letcher County by the St. George Mission. They were the Holy Angels Chapel in McRoberts, Kentucky, and Our Lady of Fatima Chapel in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Letcher and Knott Counties remained as the St. George Mission Center with the parish continuing in Jenkins, Kentucky.
The Community Welcomes the Sisters
The Congregation of Divine Providence sent a small group of sisters. These sisters’ mission was to operate the Sharon Heights Hospital in 1946. This change came about when the Consol gave up the hospital as one of its owned properties.
Other sisters in the order opened a kindergarten the same year. Over the years the kindergarten expanded to an eight-grade school. The Sisters operated the hospital until 1962 and the school was open until 1971. St. George made Lether County history. They are the first school in Letcher County to integrate for the school year of 1963-1964. For many years, the sisters continued to teach religion classes.
The Church Changes Hands
The church changed hands several times over the next twenty years. Here is a listing of the Priests and Orders who took charge of the church.
1948 through 1958 Priests of the Third E‑2Order Regular of St. Francis
1958 through 1969 The diocesan priests again had charge of the parish.
1969 through Present. The church is under the charge of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This was by the request of Bishop Richard Ackerman.
Prominent Priests and Mother Teresa
Among the priests who have been at St. George are some prominent names. Among them are Father John J. McCrystal and Father William Gockel. Father M. Paul Spain, Father John V. Jegenauer, and Father Albert McCracken. As well as Father Raymond A. Baumann.
The Order of the sisters who are still at Jenkins, Kentucky. Were once under the direction of Mother Teresa who visited the area on June 19, 1982. She was there to open the first Appalachian mission. Established by her order the Missionaries of Charity.
The population inside the mining camps has always been transient. Work in different mines opens and closes. After the town construction finished. Many of the European workers left town or remained and worked for the coal mines or related jobs in the area. Others transferred to other towns to find skilled workplaces.
Even though the people who attend the St. George church have ebbed and flowed. The resident Priest and Sisters remain in Jenkins to serve the community.
We thank you for continuing to support Kentucky Tennessee Living. As we bring to you the history of the Appalachian Mountains.
For more information about the history of the St. George Church
St. George Catholic Church
By Mary Jo Wolfe
History of Jenkins, Kentucky
Compiled In Honor Of The Sixtieth Anniversary Homecoming Celebration
Sponsored By The Jenkins Area Jaycees
St. George, a Jenkins Independent school listed on p.128 in the Kentucky School Directory, 1963-64.
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When we forget our past and who we are as a people, then we become who “they” say we are. ~~ David Sergent
I have attended the University of Kentucky. I have an Associates Degree from Hazard Community College and Technical School. I have also attended the University of Pikeville. I have taken several classes in Journalism as well as in the Appalachian History, Literature, and Sociology during my time at those schools.
I was born in Florida and grew up in Burdine, Kentucky. I have been married to David W. Sergent since May 4, 2013. I have two children and four grandchildren from a previous marriage. I currently live in Tennessee but my hope is to one day come back home to live in the beautiful mountains once more.