NEW BALTIMORE — The British author, William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), said, “You cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren.” My optimistic and wise father said to me, “If you can LEARN to fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren, you can find your utopia right where you hang your hat.”
Nowhere do I find this to be truer than in New Baltimore, within the county limits of Somerset but just over the county line of Bedford, 11.7 miles west of Manns Choice off Route 31.
The Milligans Cove Historical Society held its final meeting of 2019 on Aug. 22 at the historical, architectural and cultural treasure of the town — St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and Retreat Center.
The church was built by German immigrant craftsmen who immigrated there in 1820 to build a social, economic and cultural Catholic community, the first of Somerset County, founded by Michael Riddlemoser, a wealthy German Catholic merchant from Baltimore. Initially, the village was called Moserburg, but later was changed to New Baltimore.
Riddlemoser, a man of vision and generosity, came to the area in the late 1700s and purchased land with patents that had been given to others or unclaimed land with patents in a picturesque valley of the Allegheny mountains called Harmon’s Bottom after Harmon Husband, an early Bedford County settler who became famous for being arrested during the Whiskey Rebellion.
Having given land he had purchased to German and Irish immigrants from Baltimore to settle in Moserburg, with the stipulation that they pay the church an annual lease of 99 years with what we would consider today an extremely nominal amount of money, Riddlemoser then designated an additional number of acres to be used to build a Catholic church, rectory and monastery for the village and hopefully, eventually a school and university to rival Georgetown University (founded in 1789). A church was built in 1824, a second church in 1870 and eventually the present church in 1890. Parochial and public schools were also established but the hope for a university never materialized.
In searching for a site for the church, history says Riddlemoser and several other villagers were walking through the wooded area around the village and suddenly an albino deer appeared drinking from a spring. Inspired by the biblical verse of Psalm 42: “As the hart thirstiest after the water brook, so thirstiest my soul for you, Oh Lord,” Riddlemoser chose the site to place his church. This spring still runs year-round and is located under the chapel of the former monastery.
The village flourished and prospered and became self-contained and incorporated between 1820 and 1908 with three grist mills, two sawmills, a tannery, a cooper shop, two blacksmith shops, four stores, two hotels, several distilleries, a bar, a furniture/woodworking/altar manufacturing shop, a parish hall and a post office. A covered bridge was also constructed in 1879 within the town, crossing over the Raystown branch of the Juniata River and connecting to the road to New Buena Vista. When the church was constructed in 1890, local craftsmen dug the clay, fired the bricks and prepared all of the interior woodwork and hand carvings from the altars to the ceiling, to the walls and furnishings within of local wood—hickory, chestnut, walnut, maple and oak—which are still there today and give the church a cathedral-like appearance, especially with the 14 stained glass windows, made in Germany of Tiffany style.
Many travelers from all over the world have heard of this church as the “church on the ’pike,” the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which has passed in front of the church property since Oct. 1, 1940, when the toll road construction was completed.
The lighted cross of St. John’s has served as a beacon, landmark and lodestar for travelers on the turnpike for years, and by special arrangements made with the church at the time of the turnpike’s construction, signs along the shoulder indicated times of Masses, and travelers could pull off along the side of the highway, park and walk up more than a dozen concrete steps with wrought-iron railings on both the east and the west sides of the turnpike to attend Mass, visit the church, or simply enjoy moments of respite they could not find at the crowded, noisy Howard Johnson restaurants.
Once when the signature red-lighted cross of the church went out, the priest at that time supposedly said, “Hallelujah,” because he thought it was tacky, but truckers immediately began to call the church and send letters en masse, offering to pay for repairs and electricity to re-light the cross. In another interesting story, an engineer traveling from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh for 50 years on the turnpike, always noted that the clock in the church tower was stuck at 6:25. A clock aficionado, when he retired he offered to fix the clock for free. However, when he and church officials climbed up into the 70-foot brick steeple, they were surprised to discover that there never was a clock mechanism, only a clock face.
The engineer then constructed a clock using materials from an old IBM cash register, a cuckoo clock, lawn mowers, bicycles, go-carts, a service station gong and a 10-pound sledgehammer to ring the 500-pound brass bell in the belfry.
Known for religious celebrations, annual fish fry suppers during Lent, weekly bingo games, sports and social gatherings and an annual 4th of July picnic, St John’s church activities are open to people of all faiths. Currently an attached retreat center, a former novitiate for Carmelites for over 100 years, is also open to church groups for rest, study and meditation.
It is very difficult if not impossible to separate New Baltimore town from St John’s church. The residents there, many who are descendants of the original settlers, are very supportive of both their town and their church, the center of social and spiritual village life since 1820. Friendly and hospitable, they exhibit what an American small rural town was, is and should be. Nestled in a peaceful valley between two mountains, “This is a prayerful place,” one of the town’s residents recently said.
It was a kind of pre-centennial event for the town, which plans to celebrate its 200-year bicentennial in 2020. Everyone enjoyed a potluck meal prepared by society members and parishioners and served to approximately 70 people. The historical presentation of the church and the town of New Baltimore in the church sanctuary was attended by more than 125 people. Father Mark Pattock, Thomas Wambaugh and Mary Annette Palmer-Garland provided historical comments and showed a power point of old church and town photos. The society thanked the church members for their hospitality and enthusiastic participation.