Friday, April 13, 2001

To Barbara Oravic the big, bound volume is simply ``the book.''

Oravic is the secretary at Memorial Presbyterian Church of Wilkes-Barre. As she turns the pages, she recites the long, rich history of the congregation, from founder and original member Calvin Wadhams (whose name is at the top of the first page) through increasingly informal-looking handwriting to the latest baptism and marriage.

The scarcity of those later entries doesn't bother her.

``This church will be the last one to go in the Valley,'' she says.

In one way, time has been kind to the brownstone house of worship that looks like the hull of an inverted square-rigger. Dedicated stewardship has kept it as strikingly attractive a local landmark at the top of the West North Street hill as it was when it opened its doors to a group of families (led by Wadhams) that migrated from First Presbyterian Church in the 1870s.

But, like many other urban churches in recent decades, it has seen a serious membership decline as downtown housing vanished and families moved to outlying communities, or left the area altogether.

None of that bothers Kim Davis, a 12-year member of Memorial Presbyterian who enjoys showing visitors the old building's glories. She points to the immense vaulted ceiling, the three Tiffany-style windows that memorialize founder Wadhams' children and the soaring spire, made of stones hauled from Campbell's Ledge and meticulously cut to fit.

``There were actually a lot of wealthy people who used to come to this church,'' she marvels.

That's what the record shows. Old Wilkes-Barre City Directories and an odd little volume called a social ``Blue Book'' indicate that West North Street was once a pretty ritzy place to live.

Coal barons, lawyers and department store magnates owned elegant homes in that area. They sent their sons to Yale, designated special at-home days for their wives and (many of them) worshipped at Memorial Presbyterian. On the tree lawn there is even a big stone block that looks like the one churches used to have out front to make a descent from a high carriage easier.

Today's congregation is more modern and modest. ``Cutting potatoes'' for fund-raising pasty sales is a major preoccupation, Davis laughs. And the church shares its pastor, the tireless Rev. Andrew Pillarella, with several other congregations.

Davis is the tour guide. She knows where to find the semi-hidden Franklin stove that warmed a now-vanished study where a succession of preachers wrote their sermons, and she can tell you which buckling window is next to be restored - if only the money can be found.

Oravic is the keeper of the spirits of members past. To her, many of the names in the book have faces and personal histories, and she often answers questions for out-of-area descendants. She even has on the wall a 19th-century pew chart, showing who paid for and sat where on those long-gone Sundays.

If a ghost ever appears at Memorial Presbyterian, one of those two will likely be first to spot it.

``This is one place that just grows on me,'' said Oravic.

For information on ancestors, contact Barbara Oravic at (570) 822-8826 or write to her at 29 W. North St., Wilkes-Barre, PA 18701.

Genealogical Society News: The four-volume listing of burials at St Mary's Cemetery has sold out, project directors Dean and Marjery Sawyer report. St. Mary's, in Hanover Township, is the area's largest cemetery, with nearly 60,000 graves.

But don't despair. ``The way it's going, we're going to have to double our printing,'' said Dean Sawyer, a former president of the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society. What's remarkable is that the advertising and direct-mail campaigns for the books have not even begun.

The St. Mary's books are just the latest volumes in the society's long-term project of indexing all burials in all Luzerne County cemeteries. For information on ordering the St. Mary's books or earlier volumes, contact the Sawyers at (570) 288-7609.

In other news, next month will see the society begin a series of genealogy seminars at the area's 16 senior citizen centers. Watch the Times Leader for dates and places.

The society's monthly meeting will be at 7 p.m. on April 24 at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, near Wyoming Valley Mall. Bring your genealogical questions and you will find plenty of people eager to help. You don't have to be a member to attend.

Queries: 1) Judith Horton of Spring, Texas, is looking for information on Alexanderia E. ``Elsie'' Barysefski, who was born in Reynoldsville in 1894, was living in Nanticoke by 1940 and died about 1952. Her married name is unknown. Her family might be connected to a Christine Witinski, who lived in Wilkes-Barre about the same time. Contact Horton at

2) Steven Edwards is trying to find a John Richard Sisco, a Wilkes-Barre man who was a private in the 1st Marine Division during World War II. It is understood that Sisco survived the war and possibly returned to Wilkes-Barre to work at his family's machine shop. Contact Edwards at

3) Roman Motychak of Ukraine is trying to trace his great-great-grandfather, Fedir Motychak (with possible variant spellings) of Nanticoke. He believes his ancestor died between 1950 and 1956. A possible connection is that letters to the ancestor's family in what was then the Soviet Union were written by a friend, John Chromey/Chornej of Nanticoke. Contact Motychak at

Local History Moment: Any time your children or grandchildren complain about homework, tell them they should be glad they weren't students at an early Wilkes-Barre private school known as the Harry Hillman Academy. This small institution on Terrace Street followed the British model, with a tough, classical curriculum and with senior students known as ``sixth form.'' What subjects did the kids study? How about the works of Cicero and Virgil in the original Latin, plus Homer's ``Iliad'' and ``Odyssey'' in the original Greek, along with plenty of other college prep courses. The Hillman Academy later merged with the Wilkes-Barre Academy, which in turn merged with Wyoming Seminary. Hillman's old building is now an apartment complex.

News Notes: The Luzerne County Genweb, long known as the area's one-stop shopping center for genealogical information, continues to expand. Webmaster Tammy Lamb has added more town histories and coal mining accidents to the already extensive listings, vital for local genealogists.

Remember Sans Souci Park? If you do, C. Charles Ciesla, who is writing a book about Sans Souci, would like to hear from you. Ciesla is looking for people's recollections of the once highly popular amusement park.

Sans Souci stood in Hanover Township from the turn of the last century up through the 1960s. It had rides, a swimming pool, picnic grounds and a dance hall that was a magnet for generations of Wyoming Valley teenagers (including your parents and grandparents).

The buildings of the Hanover Area School District now stand on the site.

Contact Ciesla at RD#3, Box 3168, Wapwallopen, PA 18660.

Remember, this column is now accessible through your computer at

Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711. Email is