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A Lenten Visit To St. Al’s

The smell of Lent comes wafting past my nose as I take a seat in the back row. I detect the faint scent of incense. From this vantage point I can take in most of the important sights I came to see.

St. Alphonsus Church in Center Wheeling is one of the oldest and most beautiful Catholic churches in West Virginia. I am not a parishioner but an admirer of the architecture, religious artifacts and traditions found here.

It was my father’s childhood church. The school and rectory have since met the wrecking ball and he would probably have mixed feelings about that. He often talked about his days attending the “Dutch prison” as he and his classmates called the parish school.

Maybe the nuns were tough on their students, but he also spoke fondly of some of the events of his Catholic upbringing during a time when many people struggled to feed their families.

The church – the people and the building – were most important to him and to the German-populated Center Wheeling neighborhood in which he lived. Beer-making in the alley was put aside on Sundays when you dared not miss morning Mass. My father was an altar boy (there were no women on the altar in those days) who took his job seriously even if it meant serving early Mass on school days.

While I belong to St. Michael Parish in Wheeling, I make a yearly pilgrimage to St. Al’s during Lent as a sort of tribute to my dad and his childhood tales. It isn’t merely the church building with its saintly relics, impressive statues and highly-polished floors that I enjoy during my visit. The church allows me to share in what my father lived and loved.

I sit in quiet thought trying to imagine how that skinny kid named Harry climbed those steep steps into the church, and how his faith never wavered during poverty, while dodging bullets in World War II or as a young newspaper editor, taking on the city’s criminal underworld via the editorial page.

I believe all those steps and kneeling and prayers gave him a leg up in life. He didn’t always have it easy but I don’t recall him complaining even when his knee would bleed from the shrapnel that continued to work itself to the surface decades after the war. If he and my mother imparted anything upon their 12 children, it was the need for faith in God.

As their children, we grew up knowing Sunday was a special day that always began with going to church. When the family got so big, my parents would take us children to church in shifts so that one of them was always home with the babies too young to sit quietly through a High Mass.

Plenty has changed since my dad knelt in prayer at St. Alphonsus. The house where he grew up is long gone, but his beloved church and the nearby Centre Market buildings are still standing. And, in many ways, he is still there, too.

Heather Ziegler can be reached via at hziegler@theintelligencer.net.