Journey to Bobtown, Pa.

The words conjure up youthful memories at best, bad movies at the worst.  

I was heading out on a road trip a few weeks back, going from downtown Pittsburgh to the farthest end of the diocese in a little place called Bobtown. No relation. 

With me was the head of the diaconate program in the diocese, and our goal was to visit a parish named for St. Ignatius of Antioch.  

My mother used to describe remote places as “the back of beyond.” Bobtown is in back of the back of beyond. It was the kind of trip that took us along roads named Rocky Ridge and Rocky Run, Pump Station and Bald Hill Church.  

It was the kind of trip that got you lost and had two grown men actually stopping at a gas station to get directions. And it took two locals to explain where we were and how to get to the “Catlick” church.  

When we left the gas station, I asked the deacon if he thought those guys were laughing at us. “Sure,” he said, “but we deserve it.” 

The sign on the outskirts of town was barely legible. But we were there. This is Bobtown, a place that began as a home for the workers digging coal out of the surrounding hills. It’s still made up mostly of coal workers — active and retired — and the rest earn a living at the prison not far away. 

We found our church named after Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, student of John the Apostle, martyred in Rome less than a lifetime after Jesus. It was a small church, but only a few decades old. It had a little hall attached that served as an all-purpose gathering place for everything from the kids’ catechetical instruction to the parish council meetings.  

The rectory was nowhere to be seen, so we called the pastor. In his official listing of appointments on the diocesan computer, it actually reads that for 13 years before coming to Bobtown he was the pastor of a mission church in “Unknown, PA.” 

The cellphone reception died, but not before he knew who we were and why we were calling. He came by with his car and we followed him the three blocks home. 

The rectory was built like a child’s toy, one block of rooms on another. The pastor explained that the coal company made them that way. “You can always tell a coal-worker’s house,” he said, “tiny square rooms one after the other that are filled with doors.” 

The pastor was heading toward the end of his eighth decade. He had started out as a young man wanting to be a Trappist monk, and he had Father Louis for his novice master. Father Louis was better known to the outside world as Thomas Merton, author of “The Seven Storey Mountain” (Mariner, $16), which made National Review’s list of the 100 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century. He died in 1968. 

The young man was ordained in 1962 but was not incardinated into the Diocese of Pittsburgh until 1977. He was a missionary and served for a number of years in Africa. He ended up in Bobtown when the millennium turned.  

He says that today he doesn’t baptize too many babies, though there is a public elementary school in Bobtown (“Closed for 17 straight days after the big snow storm two years ago.”) Just a handful of weddings. But he’s probably buried about a third of the parish since he came. 

Still, he gets about 130 people at three Sunday Masses. And the Church keeps going. 

I think about the things that make us Catholic. Notre Dame in Paris, St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Patrick’s in New York. 

Then there is a church named for St. Ignatius in Bobtown. And a priest who came there from Unknown, Pa., to save souls. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.