Historical Marker Commemorates Sisters of Saint Joseph Legacy in Altoona-Johnstown


By Tony DeGol

On a beautiful summer day in Gallitzin recently, Sister Sharon Costello, CSJ, remarked that her community – the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Baden – did not set out to make history.

But make history, they did!

It all started when the community was founded in Ebensburg in 1869. In the early 1890s, six sisters taught in the Gallitzin public school.

An anti-Catholic group contended that the sisters’ religious habit was an expression of sectarian teaching, which was prohibited in Pennsylvania public schools.

The case went to trial, and the court found nothing illegal in the arrangement.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld that decision in 1894, however, the case was overturned a year later when the Pennsylvania Legislature approved the so-called “Garb Act,” which banned public school teachers from wearing religious attire and insignia.

To commemorate the 1894 State Supreme Court ruling – Hysong versus Gallitzin School District – a state historical marker was unveiled recently in the Gallitzin Tunnels Park, not far from the site of the former public school at Convent and Foster streets.

“For the sisters, it is something that they always recognize in their history,” informed Kathleen Washy, archivist for the Sisters of Saint Joseph.  “It is part of who they are, part of their time from up here in the mountains. The ramifications of this was beyond this area. The reason behind it was an anti-Catholic movement. Beyond this, 21 other states added on similar provisions to their public school codes.”

The ban on wearing religious attire in Pennsylvania public schools has endured. In fact, Pennsylvania is the only state where the ban remains in place.

“Historically, all of these laws were driven by anti-Catholic bias,” said Nathan Walker, Executive Director of 1791 Delegates, a nonprofit public charity named after the year the Bill of Rights was ratified. “They are unpatriotic, and they are un-American.”

Recently, efforts have been made to repeal the law here in the Keystone state.

“In April, Pennsylvania’s senators unanimously voted to repeal an anti-religious garb law, and now the bill resides with the House’s Education Committee,” Walker continued. “We hope this marker will inspire Pennsylvania to contact their state representatives and ask for the repeal of this unconstitutional and harmful law.”

As the saga continues to unfold in the state legislature, this newly-erected historical marker stands as a reminder of the ongoing battle to preserve and protect religious freedom in our land, and of the enduring legacy of the beloved Sisters of Saint Joseph here in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

“Many of our sisters have taught here, they were born here, they came to us from these mountains, this is a dear place to us,” commented Sister Mary Parks, CSJ, a member of the community’s leadership team.

“We have been called to serve wherever needed, to respond to the urgent needs of the times,” added Sister Sharon Costello, CSJ, another member of the leadership team. “We have remained faithful and committed to humbly serving God and every dear neighbor without distinction.”

[Photos: (Top) Sister of Saint Joseph of Baden Leadership Team members (left to right) Sister Mary Parks, CSJ; Sister Jean Uzupis, CSJ, Sister Lyn Szymkiewicz, CSJ, and Sister Sharon Costello, CSJ, stand by a newly erected state historical marker commemorating the case Hysong versus Gallitzin School District. (Inset) A group photo of all of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Baden present at the marker unveiling at the Gallitzin Tunnels Park.]