Saint Thomas Catholic Church was built in 1906, is the oldest church building in Gassaway. Richard C. Kerens from St. Louis was the moving force behind this effort, in partnership with Henry Gassaway Davis. Richard C. Kerens was born in Ireland in 1842. As an infant, his parents brought him to America. While in the Union Army during the Civil War, he became interested in transportation and afterwards was greatly involved in the development of railroads in various parts of the United States. Mr. Kerens, with Senators Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins, worked for the development of the West Virginia Central and
Pittburgh Railway and the Coal Coke Railroads of West Virginia. Together, they helped to produce coal and lumber in West Virginia. Richard Kerens died in Marion, PA on September 4, 1914.
Richard had St. Thomas church was built as a memorial to his father, Thomas Kerens. The exterior stone was quarried just over a half mile from the church site. This is the same quarry from which the stone of the present Community building was made. The wood in the interior of the church was all cut from the local area as well. The workers on the building were mostly from Italy. They were the expert stone masons and carpenters who gave the church its solid and beautiful appearance. It is claimed that the church cost $30,000 at the time it was built.
According to an early Diocesan directory, St. Thomas Parish was established by the Diocese in 1908 as a mission of Richwood, WV. It wasn’t until July 15, 1908 that ownership was accepted by the Diocese of Wheeling in the name of Bishop Patrick James Donahue. An announcement in the Catholic church calendar, June 1909, stated that arrangements for the dedication of St. Thomas Catholic Church were underway. There was a great outpouring of Catholics and non-Catholics from Elkins, Charleston and other points along the Coal and Coke Railroad for the event. His Eminence Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop’s Ireland of St. Paul, and Glennon of St. Louis were expected to be in attendance. According to parishioner, John Taylor, the opening celebration of the church was a large
affair. All four restaurants in town were crowded and food was served at the church. The Marist Fathers from Richwood were the first Pastors to serve St. Thomas. They did so faithfully and with great sacrifice until November 1973. Only then did St. Thomas get its first permanent priests, Father Ken Reed, and Fr. Ed Daschbach, who were Divine Word Missionaries. In the beginning of the mission of St. Thomas (1908), more than 100 people attended Mass as many Irish and Italian Catholics lived in the area due to the building of the railroad. With the completion of the railroads, however, the Catholic population decreased. At one time, there was speculation that the parish might close. The remaining members petitioned successfully to keep their church open. Mass was celebrated once a month. It was later celebrated every other week. Then, when the Depression hit in Central West Virginia most of the people left to seek employment elsewhere. Thus the number of Catholics in Ithe area diminished radically. St. Thomas limped along with a small community of not more than 10 or 12 attending Mass. Some of the Catholics fell-away. This seemed almost inevitable. Most of the local people were of a staunch Scotch-Irish background. They always tended to have strong suspicion of the Catholic church. Its practices, and its leadership were “foreign”. Even the church members in the early years were foreign, Irish and Italian.
The Divine Word Missionaries (SVD)
Before the Divine Word Misisonaries (SVD) came, the people had taken great leadership in keeping the mission alive themselves. Again, there was speculation that St. Thomas might close because of the small numbers, and again the people worked very hard to keep the church open. The family of P.D. Hickey gave the Diocese the one priest from Parish, Fr. Paul Hickey. One of the faithful parishioners, Mary Ellen Bridge was always most welcoming to the Marish priests and brothers who served St. Thomas from Holy Family Parish in Richwood. Mary Baily Fisher, and her sister Helen used their time, talent and treasure to keep the church in good repair. (Although she died in 1973, the Mary Bailey Fisher Trust Fund continues to be instrumental in our rehabilitation and maintenance efforts.) Dick Minnich and his wife Katherine who moved here to open a Flourish Shop became very active in the maintenance of the church. In the summer of 1973, the Divine Word Provincial approached the Bishop for possible work in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The Bishop took into consideration the extensive size of the Holy Family Parish in Richwood, along with its four missions and decided to “break off” St. Thomas and make it a Parish in its own right. At the request of Father Barrett, the Marist Provincial, Fr. Donald Ehr, SVD (Provincial) touring the Holy Family Parish agreed that the SVD community take both Gassaway and St. Anne in Webster Springs.
In October 1973, Fr. Ken Reed, SVD and Fr. Edwin Daschbach, SVD became the first resident priest in Gassaway. They lived in a house on Elk Street in Gassaway which was owned by Dick Minnich family. In the beginning of their residency, the priests alternated the weekly service responsibilities between Gassaway, in Braxton County and Webster Springs, in Webster County.
In June 1977, the house in the rear of the Church was purchased as a Rectory. Then, two months later, in August, the first religious Sisters came to the area, Sr. Camille Baker and Sr. Marie Rose Charpentier, Sisters of Notre DAme de Namur (Connecticut Province). The took up residence in the Mary Bailey Fisher home in Sutton. The Sister’s residence was later purchased from the estate of Mary Bailey. (adapted from the Centennial Program)