A40-year ministry will draw to a close Oct. 9, when the Rev. Joseph Wargo, pastor of St. Andrew Orthodox Church, 201 Penn Ave., Lyndora will assist at his final service.
“I figure 40 years is a long time. It’s a good time for another person to come in to the parish,” said Wargo, a Pottsville, Schuylkill County, native who came to St. Andrew on Oct. 17, 1976.
“I gave them all I can give them. It’s an opportunity to have someone else take up where I left off.”
Archbishop Melchisidek of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania of the Orthodox Church in America will officiate at the 10 a.m. service.
“It will be the same liturgy, but the bishop will be the main subject and I will be assisting him,” said Wargo, 70.
Wargo and his wife, Jane, will be staying in the area — they have a house in Renfrew — but he said he won’t be attending services at St. Andrew in the future.
Wargo said “There’s an opening on Sundays to serve at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City. And I will be filling in on Sunday at other Orthodox parishes.”
Wargo said it wouldn’t be fair to his eventual successor for him to continue to attend St. Andrew.
“Once a priest petitions to retire, he does not have any business with the church he is leaving,” he said. “Of course, it will be hard, but I must abide by what the bishop wants in church protocol.”
“There hasn’t been a replacement decided, not that I’m aware of, not at this time,” said Archpriest Michael Senyo, the Archdiocesan Council secretary. “It will be about a month or so.”
In the meantime, Wargo said St. Andrew’s 70-member congregation will have a deacon leading services with a visiting priest coming in once a month for Communion.
Oct. 9 will mark the end of one leg of a journey that began decades ago and a half a state away.
Wanting to be a priest since before his graduation from Pottsville High School in 1963, Wargo attended Youngstown State University (where he met his wife) graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology/anthropology with a minor in Russian.
After graduating in 1974 from St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., Wargo was ordained Dec. 31, 1974, and assigned as rector at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Brick Town, N.J.
Wargo said, “The bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese at that time was at the graduation service at the seminary. He said, ‘I would like you in the diocese.’”
In 1976, “Bishop Theodosius told me, ‘In two weeks I have a parish opening up in Lyndora,’” Wargo said.
“He told me to get a map and follow Route 8 from Pittsburgh to Butler,” Wargo said. “Then get a magnifying glass and you’ll see a small place called Lyndora.”
Lyndora was close to Jane Wargo’s hometown of Campbell, Ohio, “so that was a kind of a blessing right there,” he said.
But he recalls his priestly duties commenced almost as soon as he and his family arrived in Lyndora.
“I arrived at 10 p.m. At 12:30 I got a call: a parishioner’s mother was dying, could I come and visit her? I’ve been doing that for 40 years.”
But the St. Andrew Wargo encountered in 1976 is vastly different from the one he is leaving in 2016.
“It was called St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North and South America,” said Wargo. “Three-quarters of the service was conducted in Russian. It had a Russian school and the older members spoke Russian.”
Wargo said the diocese brought him in as a young priest to keep young people in the church. The first thing that had to change, in his opinion, was the language of the sermons.
“If I wanted to keep youth alive, now it’s all in English. They even sing in English,” he said.
Longtime St. Andrew’s member Dorothy Hayes, 83, of Highfield, said, “In the early ’50s everything was in Slavoic. Now, everything is in English.”
“I know more about the Orthodox Church through him than I knew growing up as a child,” said Hayes.
Keeping younger members and drawing others back to the church is vital to keeping St. Andrew alive, Wargo said.
“The jobs are not in Butler and Lyndora,” he said. “The young are moving out. They don’t return to church every week on Sunday. I see them on Easter and Christmas.”
“We have an older element reaching the age of departure. We have middle-aged and younger elements dedicated to keeping their church open,” he said.
Bake sales and perogie sales are ways to bring people to the church.
“It’s word-of-mouth. People need to continue to talk to people about the Orthodox Church. Once they come to church, I take over,” Wargo said.
The church can provide many comforts he said: offering prayers for the sick, suffering and departed; providing preparation for Communion; for spiritual uplift; and for fellowship.
During his tenure, Wargo serves as a chaplain at the Butler VNA Hospice and the St. Barnabas Health System. He still performs chaplain duties at Forbes Regional Hospital in Pittsburgh.
He will continue to teach a once-a-year course on “Literature of Community Religions” at Butler High School.
Wargo also joined with the pastors of SS. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Lyndora and St. Anthony Orthodox Church in Butler for an annual Blessing of the Waters Jan. 6, or Epiphany, for the last five years at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park.
Wargo said the blessing is one of the most important traditions of the Orthodox faith, representing the feast of Epiphany when Jesus was baptized.
At the end of the ceremony, an ice cross was thrown onto the frozen surface of the lake.
“We bless the water. The water becomes holy through prayers made by the priest,” Wargo said.
“The holy water can be bottled and used when people get sick to help them heal faster.”
“I’d been wanting to do that for awhile but the other priests were too old,” Wargo said. “Recently they got younger priests in.”
The Wargos have three children, Nadine, Nicole and James and two grandsons.
Nadine and Keith Schorr of Penn Township, members of St. Andrew for more than 20 years, have more personal connection to Wargo than most.
“Actually, I introduced my niece when she was still a student in Pittsburgh to his son and they got married.”
“He is just a compassionate, compassionate man,” Schorr said.
Schorr said, “It’s his commitment in his 40 years of service is commendable and his love for his family is an example of what this world should be.”
Deacon Wayne Truckley of Cabot, has been a member of St. Andrew since 2009 and was ordained a deacon in 2012. Truckley said, “Father Wargo is a dear friend. We are together a lot for services and everything.”
As deacon, Truckley will hold services until Wargo’s successor is named. He won’t be allowed to perform weddings or funerals hear confession or confer blessings, however.
Hayes said, “No other priest has ever served us that long. We watched his children grow up and now he has grandchildren.”
Helen Dunda, 51, of Ambridge stopped by the church earlier in the month when she heard about Wargo’s imminent retirement.
Dunda said she became acquainted with the priest when she stayed with her cousin, Helen Blisack of Lyndora, when Dunda was 8.
“He brought so much youth and joy to this community,” she said.
“All of us growing up as children from the ’80s have fond memories of Father Wargo,” Dunda said.
Asked about what he thinks is his greatest accomplishment in his 40 years at St. Andrew, Wargo said, “I really feel my accomplishment is bringing all my parishioners into a close relationship with God and Christ. Getting them in touch with their spiritualness and getting a deeper spiritualness.”
Through his leadership over four decades, Wargo believed it was necessary to build up the living temple of God in people.
“It is relatively easy to build and beautify the external things which man can see in contrast to building the spiritual life which is intangible and difficult to measure,” Wargo said.