St. John the Evangelist has been called “the jewel of the Scranton Diocese,” but last year, when the Rev. Joseph Elston, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, looked up at the ceiling of the church’s altar, he joked with the staff to pray the cracking plaster did not fall on him during Mass

Though a fall wasn’t likely, the plaster ceiling in the 166-year-old church was in rough shape. On May 31, 2019, Elston issued a call for a capital campaign he called “20/20: Bringing our Faith into Focus,” with a goal to raise $450,000 for a restoration project.

With pledges in place, in January, scaffolding filled the church and Masses were moved next door to the Monsignor Bendik Pastoral Center at the former Seton High School auditorium.

The contractors were tasked to complete the restoration in time for Easter on April 12. The corona virus restrictions added two months to the project, and St. John’s didn’t reopen until July 18, after mandatory COVID closure.

Brandon Jopling, pastoral associate, who Oblates helps with public relations and technology at the church — and who also writes a community column for Greater Pittston Progress — said parishioners were awed by what they saw.

The first thing they saw was the baptismal font at the head of the center aisle. Elston asked that it be moved there to remind parishioner of their baptism and their faith.

They saw refinished pews, beautiful faux marble floors, clean icons, bright gilding and restored and repainted ceiling and walls.

Elston said the painting contractor saw 90 substantial cracks looking up from the floor. But while up on the scaffolding, workers found hundreds throughout the church.

Jopling said parishioners he talks to love the new old church.

“People stop and talk. Feedback is very, very positive,” he said.

Elston hopes the restored church will be inviting for new parishioners. Jopling described the church interior as “grand and welcoming.”

The sights were different after the church remodel, as were the sounds. The century-old 2,051 pipe Kilgen Organ was sent to New Jersey for restoration and Rock Street Music installed a new sound system.

“2020,” Elston said, “was to be a year of great events. COVID changed everything. It’s an entirely different ball game.”

Among the cancelled events was a concert by Lyra, a Russian a cappella singing group. But Elston has faith the 2020 great events will be even greater in 2021.

St. John’s was built from 1889-93. At its dedication in 1893, Bishop William O’Hara called St. John the Evangelist “the jewel of the diocese.” He may well have been looking up at the 152-foot steeples when he said it.

The paintings of the Crucifixion above the altar, the Annunciation to one side and the Nativity to the other, are by Lorenzo Scattaglia (1841-1931). A native born Italian with a studio in Philadelphia, Scattaglia called his Crucifixion at St. John’s his “masterpiece.”

Other artwork in the church, including the gilded ornamentation, is by famed artist Professor Gonippo Raggi, a graduate of St. Luke’s Royal Academy in Rome.

Masses are ongoing, subject to COVID restrictions, with masks and social distancing. Mass attendance is limited and reservations must be made. Communion is distributed after the dismissal as the parishioners are exiting.

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