Minding a legacy of faith In an empty town, a shrine still shines

Posted: October 21, 2008

BYRNESVILLE, Pa. — A shrine made of cinder blocks and old bathtubs is virtually the only thing left standing in this small coal-mining town.

Byrnesville was once a two-block community just down the road from the underground fire in Centralia. That simmering inferno, burning since the 1960s, turned what was a community of 60 families into little more than a slope of trees.

But the shrine to the Virgin Mary still stands, thanks to a family with roots that go back to a grandfather who fled the Irish potato famine and found a living in the mines.

"People came to light candles there, and they prayed there," said Mike Reilley Jr., 72, of nearby Elysburg. "Many a time, I had a problem, and I came there to ask for help, some way, somehow."

Reilley's family built the shrine in the early 1950s and still tends it today, a decade after the last family moved away from Byrnesville.

Mike Reilley and brothers Ray and Jim, who are all in their 70s, cut the grass, keep the flowers fresh, and make sure the solar lamp that lights the shrine at night is still working.

It is their way of preserving a monument first developed by their father, and preserving the memory of a town that was abandoned after the 1962 eruption of the mine fire, which continues to burn.

Tourists visiting Centralia sometimes stop at the shrine. The stark-white monument is nine feet high and has a center window, behind which stands a statue of Mary draped with a rosary supplied by Mike Reilley's wife, Brunina.

Two upright bathtubs flank the center window, which is locked. Yellow chrysanthemums sit in the tubs' crevices, where statues of other saints stood before they were stolen.

Michael Reilley Sr., who built the shrine, spent 56 years in the mines. He raised six children with his wife, Elizabeth, in a three-bedroom house two doors from the shrine.

"He was a man of few words," Mike Reilley said. Most of the time, "we didn't know what he was thinking about."

Michael Reilley Sr. was a religious man who grew up in Byrnesville and started working in the mines when he was 9. He was a leader in the community, with the kind of ingenuity it takes to start a general store in his living room during a time when he was too sick to work in the mines but still needed to support his family.

During World War II, he spearheaded the building of a small veterans memorial in the place where the shrine now stands. When the wooden memorial deteriorated, Michael Reilley formed a committee to replace it with a shrine.

"People donated money for it, even though they didn't have much," said his daughter Elizabeth Birney of Amissville, Va.

The family hauled cinder blocks, and Ray Reilley built the window frame. All the children helped out, including daughter Theresa and son Bill. The two tubs were added later. Michael Reilley Sr. just showed up with them one day, leaving his family bewildered.

"The next thing we know, they're up on cinder blocks at the shrine," Ray Reilley said.

The monument became an integral part of life in a small town founded in 1856 to house the families - many of them Irish Catholics - who came to work in the mines. The priest of the community's St. Ignatius Church led Masses at the shrine. There were prayer vigils for sick residents.

"Byrnesville was on a hill, and the schools and stores were in the next town and we walked there," Birney said. "You had to pass the shrine. So you walk by and say a prayer. It was like, she's watching, you better behave."

Residents even helped with the shrine's upkeep by donating to the Reilleys' electric bill. The family had dug a ditch from their house to the shrine, and laid an electric cord to the monument.

Michael Reilley Sr. died at age 89 in 1975. Members of the family continued to live in Byrnesville, but by the mid-1980s, everyone in the family had moved away.

"We loved it there," said Ray Reilley, 79, who, like his brother Jim, lives in nearby Aristes. "But pretty soon, we felt like we would be the only ones left."

Eventually, they let go of the town, if not the memories of growing up there: sledding down the hill to Ashland, picking blackberries, and playing with a neighborhood boy, Junior Kripplebauer, who grew up to be an infamous second-story burglar and one of the leaders of the K&A Gang, a band of criminals named for the Kensington and Allegheny intersection in Philadelphia.

Byrnesville's last resident moved out in 1996. The houses were razed. All that's left are the shrine and a dilapidated storage shed in which miners charged their lanterns overnight.

Mike Reilley has created a Web page chronicling Byrnesville's history to make sure that the town is not forgotten. He has contributed artifacts and photos to the nearby Ashland Area Historic Preservation Society, which has a display on Byrnesville.

He and his family worry about the future when they are no longer around to be Byrnesville's biggest cheerleaders.

"Hopefully, some of our kids and grandkids will keep it up," Mike Reilley said. "All we can do is hope."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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