Although western Pennsylvania's small towns usually have several Presbyterian and Methodist churches, St. Mary's represents one of several Roman Catholic settlements in the northern tier. St. Mary's beginnings differ from those of other Catholic enclaves in western Pennsylvania, such as the Benedictine St. Vincent Archabbey in Westmoreland County ( WE26) and Loretto in Cambria County (see CA5, CA6, and CA7). Reacting to the campaign of the American Party and the Know-Nothings along the East Coast, Catholics formed the German Catholic Bund in 1842 and sent a committee to central Pennsylvania to find land suitable for a settlement away from the bigotry of the urban centers. Catholics from Baltimore and Philadelphia reached Elk County and settled on a 30,000-acre tract six miles north of Kersey on December 8, 1842, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, choosing St. Mary's as the colony's name. A Redemptorist priest visited the settlement and immediately sent for additional help from Colonel Matthias Benzinger of Baltimore, who purchased the land from the original group and gave each family twenty-five acres and one town lot. He hired Ignatius Garner as agent, who had roads built to supply the town and recruited more settlers directly from Germany. The two-story, gable-roofed stone house (44 S. St. Mary's Street) built in 1845 by George Weis in the city center remains from this era. The Benedictines took over from the Redemptorists in 1850 and built a monastery and convent in 1852, the first Benedictine women's community in the United States.
The land was not as suitable for farming as the original settlers hoped; it was marshy, hilly, and heavily forested with pine and hemlock. A set of surveys and street layouts were then made by German-born civil engineer Sebastian Wimmer, a nephew of the first Benedictine archabbott in the United States, Boniface Wimmer. However, the town plan was complicated by the convergence of five roads, two railroads, and a creek in downtown St. Mary's.
St. Mary's industries began with farming and water-powered sawmills and gristmills in the 1840s and gradually moved to lumbering, tanning, coal mining, and the brewing of beer in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. The Straub Brewery, founded c. 1870 as an outgrowth of an 1855 brewery, continues to offer tours at its headquarters at 303 Sorg Street. Since 1900, the manufacture of carbon-graphite products has grown to the point where today, 40 percent of the world's powdered metal parts are made in north-central Pennsylvania by companies that employ over 10,000 people. This industrial growth spurred the development of suburbs around the commercial core of St. Mary's. Combined with its suburbs in Benzinger Township in 1994, St. Mary's became the only city in Elk County.
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