On Sunday afternoon, June 4th, the Hazleton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (HPSO), under the direction of Mr. Bob Lagana, will perform a concert in conjunction with the re-dedication of the newly refurbished and updated band shell at Ferrwood Music Camp in Drums, PA.
Coincidentally, the Hazleton Philharmonic Society, the creation of the late Reverend Joseph J. Ferrara, will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding in October of 1953. In that year, “Fr. Joe”, as he was affectionately called, was stationed 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 then Hazle Township School District. The district was comprised of many patch town “Little Yellow Schoolhouses” around the outskirts of the Hazleton city limits. This new music education program was aimed at any students who, at that time, were being bussed to the nearby Oakdale and Jeddo schools in the wake of the closing of the Lattimer and Pardeesville elementary school buildings a year or two earlier.
By 1955 his Drama Guild put on “The Song Of Bernadette” and by 1956 his vocal group had grown to exactly 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 of these things and still did a masterful job of tending to the spiritual needs of two distinct parishes.
He had received special permission from the Scranton Diocese to celebrate 3 Masses on a Sunday morning (the usual limit was 2) and with the assistance of other local priests, he was able to provide two Masses each Sunday at each of the two parishes. Yet, sandwiched 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-1960’s 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 totally by Philharmonic staff members . When all was said and done, almost 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 as many as 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 3 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 had promise, 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 that had supplied the catered meals for the experimental summer programs were 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”, as Father liked to call it. On sheer happenstance, a young male cook who was on duty that afternoon overheard the conversation and felt compelled to chime in.
He lived in Drums which was located down in the valley just to the north of Hazleton. He had a dog and liked to walk it out in the wooded areas around his home. On one occasion he and the dog ventured up a deer path in one of the fields 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, very old and very tall spruce trees that made it almost impossible to be seen from any nearby 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 that has been 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 that 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 that 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.
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