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The legacy of fr. joe

The Hazleton Philharmonic Society was created by the late Reverend Joseph J. Ferrara in October 1953.  That year, “Fr. Joe”, as he was known, was assigned in Lattimer Mines by the Diocese of Scranton to tend to the spiritual needs of St. Mary’s R.C Church in Lattimer and St. Nazarius R.C. Church in nearby Pardeesville.

Within months after his arrival the new pastor had convened a Boy Scout troop, a theater guild, a small parish choral group, and had begun an instrumental music education program under the auspices of the Hazle Township School District.  The district was comprised of many patch town “Little Yellow Schoolhouses” around the outskirts of the Hazleton city limits.


By 1956 his vocal group had grown to 100 voices.  The group was so large it needed the Hazle Township High School gymnasium to accommodate it. In 1957 the Philharmonic Society chorus would present its very first in a long series of “Spring Concerts.”  In 1958 the chorus was joined in its Spring offering for the very first time by a 40+ member orchestra—largely trained by Fr. Joe himself.  He did all these things and still did a masterful job of tending to the spiritual needs of the two parishes. 

Receiving special permission from the Scranton Diocese to celebrate 3 Masses on Sunday mornings, instead of just two, and with the assistance of other local priests, he was able to provide the two Masses each Sunday at each of the two parishes and in between daily Masses, confessions, funerals, weddings, choir rehearsals, and parish building projects he could be found conducting orchestra and chorus rehearsals in preparation for his annual Spring presentations. He was once referred to in a Standard-Speaker article as a “human dynamo”.

That was just the beginning.  By the mid-1960s Fr. Joe’s mind was working overtime.  In an idea he pitched to all the local Catholic parochial schools in the Hazleton area, he proposed the introduction of a music education program that would involve all grade levels and be administered by Philharmonic staff members.  When all was said and done, nearly all schools went along with the revolutionary idea.  With the aid of two innovative mobile classrooms that were towed to each school site, the program eventually tended to the needs of 2800 students across all the schools. There was more to this program, however, than met the eye.

While designing the grade school program, Fr. Joe had another program up his sleeve that he had started experimenting with in 1965.  He had gathered some of the young musicians from Lattimer that he had started to train on string instruments. 

To supercharge the education process, he gathered together the budding young musicians for a high-intensity program that took place in a summer camp-type environment.  The pilot program was tried during three successive summers and for two weeks each time.

The enrollment for the summer program was about to explode but the facilities that had been tried were already too small and inadequate to handle a coeducational group.  Though the summer program was promising, it was in danger of failing simply because there was no local facility that could handle the burgeoning youth program—or so it seemed.

One Fall afternoon in 1967, Fr. Joe and the proprietor of the downtown restaurant engaged in a serious conversation. It pertained to the inability to find a suitable place to serve as a venue for the “Summer Music Workshop”. On sheer happenstance, a young cook who was on duty that afternoon overheard the conversation and felt compelled to chime in.

He lived in Drums and he and his dog liked to walk out in the wooded areas around his home.  On one occasion he and the dog ventured up a deer path and to his surprise, came to a building complex.  It was almost completely obscured by underbrush and a line of about 8 or so evenly spaced, spruce trees that made it almost impossible to be seen from any vantage point.  By the Spring of 1968, the Philharmonic had determined that it was owned by Luzerne County and had put in place a secure lease on the property that was to last until the end of the millennium.

Were it not for that coincidence, that place in the woods called Ferrwood for the last 54 years might never have existed at all.  In 1974 the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra was selected by the newly formed Friendship Ambassadors Foundation to go on a 3-week concert tour of Romania.  Of the 72 members of the orchestra that made the trip, more than 2/3 of them were teenage string players who had honed their musical skills at Ferrwood—they were that good!

So, in the end, it is thanks to the determination of one “man of the cloth” who wanted to give any interested young person a chance to succeed musically. Today there are any number of musicians who still play or perhaps have earned a living in the field of music and that can trace their lineage back to Ferrwood…because all children deserve the opportunity to succeed.

A note about the camp... The facility that Fr. Joe discovered in the wooded area was built in the 1920s with funding from Luzerne County and medical professionals.  The Luzerne County Fresh Air Camp was designed and constructed to protect children pre-disposed to Tuberculosis.  In 2004 the CAN DO Community Foundation was successful in having the facility listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

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