In the late 1800's, tens of thousands of immigrants flocked to the shores of the United States. Misled and enticed by over-optimistic newspaper advertisements distributed throughout Europe by unscrupulous factory and mine owners, many people crossed the Atlantic, hoping to find fame and fortune. Political unrest and religious intolerance were among the motives that prompted them to seek refuge in a new land. Some of these immigrants came from Poland, a country that at that time only existed in their hearts (it had been wiped off the map after a series of partitions among Russia, Prussia, and Austria back in the 1700's). A large number of them found their way to the small village of Priceburg in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The lure of the Scranton area was in the work that was readily available in the anthracite coal fields.
Handicapped by the inability to speak and understand English, the Polish immigrants were often exploited and given menial tasks to perform in the mines. Yet, they sustained themselves by their ethnic pride and their deep faith in God and His Blessed Mother. For these Poles, fulfillment of their religious obligations was very important. In 1890, when the need for a house of worship became pressing, the future parishioners of St. Mary's Church purchased three parcels of land for $400.00 (lot #'s 19, 20, and 21) from Eli K. Price, Jr. These parcels were conveyed in trust to Right Reverend William O'Hara, Bishop of Scranton, for what was originally called St. Joseph's Polish Congregation of Priceburg. The name of the parish was not changed to the Polish Roman Catholic Congregation of the Blessed Virgin Mary until 1922.
The parishioners literally built their house of worship with their bare hands. This was done in their "spare time," often after a long shift in the mines. The result of their sweat, tears, hard work, and sacrifice was a church that seated 200 people and cost $4,000. This first church stood at the site of the present rectory garage on Carmalt Street. The basement housed the parish's first school. On July 4, 1890, Bishop O'Hara consecrated the building. Father Bronislaus Iwanowski became the first resident pastor of St. Mary's on July 4, 1892, and resided with the Thomas Krajnik family on the Carbondale Plank Road & Turnpike - today's Main Street. His brother, Constanty, a professional sculptor and carpenter, sculpted the altars in the church.
The first parish cemetery dates from this time period. It was a four-acre property on the lower left side of Pancoast Street, just above Rear Dundaff Street. The earliest tombstone in the cemetery dates back to 1871. The majority of tombs are from the late 1800's and very early 1900's.
In 1899, Father Joseph Dudkiewicz, coming from Holy Trinity Church in Nanticoke, became pastor of St. Mary's. He understood the plight of his parishioners because he himself had only recently arrived from Kielce, Poland, in 1896. During this time the influx of immigrants was rapidly increasing, leading Fr. Dudkiewicz to conclude that a larger edifice would soon be necessary. In the meantime, an additional $4,000 was spent to beautify the existing church. A small 21-inch-diameter bell weighing 175 pounds had been donated by Vincent Smarowski, a recreation hall owner, and was placed in the single steeple of the structure. In 1903, three additional bells were purchased from the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, MD. The largest bell weighed 1500 pounds, had a diameter of 41 inches, and was named "Maria." This bell had to be recast January 1, 1939. The second bell weighed 750 pounds, had a diameter of 32 inches, and was named "Joseph." The third bell, named "Michael," was 26.5 inches in diameter and weighed 450 pounds. These bells, along with the unnamed Smarowski bell, are still housed in the current church. To this day, when the church bells chime, they are rung in the following repeating order and with the given musical tones: Maria (F sharp), Joseph (B flat), Michael (C sharp), and the fourth (F). The control console after this paragraph will play an MP3 audio clip of this chime series.
As the need for a larger church grew, the dedicated character of the Polish parish shined forth again. The Fraternal Society of St. Joseph, whose membership included both men and women, sacrificed their time and energy by walking as far as Forest City to solicit funds for another church building. Most ethnic groups in the early 20th century organized themselves into religious societies to accomplish major goals, and so it was in St. Mary's parish. The St. Stanislaus Kostka, Dzieci Marji (Children of Mary), St. Michael the Archangel, and Bartoscz Glowacki Societies were among the earlier societies formed. In later years St. Marcina's, St. Hedwig's, St. Theresa's, St. Anne's, the Third Order of St. Francis, the Men's Retreat League, and the Tarcisians were also organized to help meet the service needs of the growing parish. The names of several of these societies can still be seen in window and statue memorials throughout the church building, as seen in these examples.