Over 50 years ago, a mine fire started below the small town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Some say it was caused by a pile of rubbish that ignited the coals in the pit, but no one knows for sure. Attempts were made to put out the fire, with about $7 million spent, but efforts were eventually discontinued. By the 1980s, the underground blaze had spread and dangerous gases started to seep into people’s homes.
At the time there were about 1,000 residents living in some 400 to 500 houses in Centralia. The government decided it would be more expedient to move out the town’s residents than spend the money to put the fire out.
Now there are only about six diehards left in the hilly coal country town. The streets are empty and bare. Very few houses are left standing, and the underground fire is still burning. There’s almost nothing left in Centralia—except a white church with a blue dome that rises above the trees.
When the fire started, there were five churches in town. One by one they disappeared, but in 1986, at the height of the crisis, archbishop Stephen Sulyk ordered a survey. The survey team discovered solid rock, not coal, lay under the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Ukrainian Catholic church. Thus, the building was saved.
In 2015, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, led a pilgrimage to the curious Pennsylvania church while he was on tour in the U.S., and more pilgrimages followed.
Now the salvaged structure is the only church that remains in Centralia and one of the only buildings at all. Former residents come back to Centralia to attend services at the church, where pastor Michael Hustko offers doughnuts and coffee to parishioners afterwards, because there’s nowhere else to go.
Meanwhile, though the government says the fire could burn for 100 more years, some locals don’t believe it poses a threat at all. The Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church continues to stand on its solid rock foundation as a symbol of resilience and steadfastness. Father Hustko thinks it will outlast him.