- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

NEW BALTIMORE, Pa. (AP) - For years, Diane Zelenak looked with curiosity at a sign inviting travelers along a remote stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Somerset and Bedford to climb a steep set of concrete steps leading to St. John the Baptist Church.

“I used to travel to the beaches in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey back in the 1980s and early 1990s and always saw that sign, but never turned off,” said Zelenak, 60, of Hempfield.

Then one day she stopped to visit the 190-year-old Roman Catholic church that towers high above the nation’s first superhighway.

“I fell in love with the place and have been visiting ever since,” she said.

For more than seven decades, travelers from around the world have been drawn to the steps and the church - known by many as the Church of the Turnpike - about 80 miles east of Pittsburgh in the village of New Baltimore.

But the steps - one set for eastbound traffic and one for westbound motorists - will soon be removed, a victim of progress as the turnpike commission demolishes them, along with a nearby bridge, as part of a $200 million project to widen the highway to six lanes.

Weather permiting, all lanes of the turnpike in both directions will be closed from midnight to to 6 a.m. Nov. 2 for demolition work.

When the steps are gone, motorists will have to travel more than 30 miles out of their way to reach the church.

‘A bit of heaven’

With 175 residents, life in New Baltimore revolves around its farms and its church, said Mayor Anna Hankinson.

“We have the church, a post office and a bar,” she said.

It’s a simple way of life that’s kept families there for generations, she said.

And it’s what has kept outsiders coming back year after year.

“When you stand in front of St. John’s and look out over the highway at the mountain … you really do feel like you’ve found a bit of heaven,” Zelenak said. “It’s out of the way, it’s peaceful.”

But when the steps to the church are gone, many residents feel the town will lose part of its identity.

“It’s sad. We’ve been known for the steps,” said Patty Gardner, 63, who has lived in New Baltimore most of her life. “The whole town is very upset and saddened.”

Petitions have been circulated asking that the steps be saved, but state officials say federal regulations prohibiting pedestrians on the highway will permanently separate the church on the hill from the turnpike that has run below it for 74 years.

A log book in the back of the church tells the story of those who have visited the red brick sanctuary, with its 14 Tiffany stained-glass windows and intricately carved wooden accents.

Travelers such as Don and Louise Dow of Kill Devil Hills, N.C., have been visiting the Church of the Turnpike for 40 years.

“It’s a beautiful church, a beautiful Mass,” Louise Dow said. “It makes me feel bad to lose (the steps) … it’s part of the history of the church.”

The town’s founder, a wealthy Baltimore merchant named Michael Riddlemoser, envisioned New Baltimore as a safe haven for Catholics.

“This is truly the middle of nowhere,” said Thomas Beavers, 50, of Central City, Somerset County, who in 2008 became deacon at the church. “That’s why they put it here.”

The steps and a red neon cross atop the church steeple are the only indication to motorists that there’s life atop the hillside.

The town was settled in 1829, incorporated in 1874 and 16 years later, the Carmelite religious order opened a monastery there, staying for 100 years. They moved to Mount Carmel College in Niagara Falls, so novices could have more opportunity for outside work.

“They loved the Carmelites here,” Beavers said. “The whole culture of the town is wrapped around it.”

The monks at St. John’s had few possessions and lived a life of piety.

“They had maybe two habits. They were poor,” he said.

Their well-worn footprints from twice daily praying the Liturgy of the Hours remain etched in the wooden floor of a small chapel at St. John’s.

In 1937, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s original plan for the highway ran right through New Baltimore and St. John’s cemetery where many of the Carmelite priests were buried.

The Rev. Sebastian Joseph Urnauer, pastor at the time, struck an informal, unwritten deal with turnpike officials: Carmelite monks would move the graves if the commission would help make the church become “a flag stop for all” by building the stairs that travelers could climb to reach St. John’s from the turnpike, according to historical accounts of the agreement.

Hitting the highway had a different connotation in 1940 when the 160-mile turnpike opened between Irwin and Carlisle.

“People used to picnic in the 10-foot grassy median just a few feet from the road,” said turnpike commission spokesman Carl DeFebo. “It’s a different turnpike today. There’s all-new design criteria that wasn’t around in the ‘30s and ‘40s.”

Over the years, plans to develop New Baltimore fizzled.

But the steps and the church thrived, holding a sometimes inexplicable attraction to outsiders who stopped their cars to make the climb.

“That church holds a special place in my heart,” said Barbara Rossi, 65, of Altoona, who began going there in the late ‘90s.

The people of New Baltimore are “otherworldly,” she said. “They seem to breathe a holier air… It’s an age that’s drawing to a close.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1w8RejP

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com


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