Silent sanctuaries full of stories: The Post Gazette chronicles Pittsburgh's golden era

Recently I stumbled upon a collection of photos and prose about my old stomping grounds in western Pennsylvania.

Few places shone with the lights of a thousand churches like Pittsburgh did when steel workers arrived by the boatload from Eastern Europe, bringing their beliefs and clergy with them. Today, many of these buildings are empty and forsaken.

Thus, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has put together a series of beautifully written stories and photos about an era whose “silent sanctuaries” still haunt us today. There are all kinds of fascinating trends stories hiding in these empty buildings and there is no way to talk about them all in this one post. Readers really need to click around and explore all of this.

In the early 1990s, I lived just north of Pittsburgh; a place where churches were named after saints I’d never heard of (St. Canice, anyone?) and there were churches founded by people groups (think Carpatho-Russians) I’d never heard of.

But even then it was clear that the tiny city I lived in could not support five Catholic parishes. Starting around 1993, the Diocese of Pittsburgh began closing churches, much to the dismay of many Catholics who didn’t want to see their beautiful, historic buildings shuttered. I remember attending one candlelight vigil for a closing church on the city’s South Side. My reporting on the closings nettled then-Bishop Donald Wuerl (now ensconced in Washington, D.C. as Cardinal Wuerl) to the point where he summoned me to his office to ask why I was so troublesome.

The parishioners left out in the cold deserved a voice, I told him; a voice he didn’t seem to be hearing. Nevertheless, churches continued to close and this fall, the Post-Gazette chronicled how these empty places symbolize a glory this part of the country once knew. The lead article begins thus:

As they gathered over a banquet of roast chicken and rissole potatoes on May 30, 1948, members of Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church had every reason to think the future of their Larimer parish would be as golden as the 50th anniversary they were celebrating that night.
In its first half century, the parish had been a spiritual and cultural hub for the Italian immigrant community, officially witnessing some 2,918 marriages and 1,3125 baptisms. And the landmark sanctuary -- with its deep, round-arched windows and its trio of golden-colored domes -- stood as a point of pride for the neighborhood. ...
But the parish would close its doors just over 40 years later, with many of its congregants having long since moved to eastern suburbs and blended into the American melting pot…
(After closing in 2008), the church has stood silent, its windows and doors boarded up like those of some other houses on its block. Ragged vines cling to the church walls, graffiti mars the Corinthian pillars and there’s more tarnish than gleam to the domes. Inside, the bare, cavernous sanctuary has been strewn with litter and marred by blasphemous graffiti.

The photos that go with this blog entry are of Our Lady Help of Christians. The lead reporter, religion beat veteran Peter Smith, reminds us that Pittsburgh’s story is not unique and the same story repeats itself across the Rust Belt. In other words, this is a story about religion, culture, demographics, economics and politics -- symbolized in these empty sanctuaries.

Inside Pittsburgh city limits alone, he located nearly two dozen former churches and synagogues in various stages of decay. Some have been re-purposed into restaurants, breweries, banquet halls and even a mosque. And not all unused churches are Catholic. He located Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and Eastern Orthodox churches in a similar state.   

One reason for this series is that the Catholic diocese is about to close even more churches on a scale similar to what I covered 22 years ago. Soon there will be more silent sanctuaries.

What interested me was the why churches have closed. Partly it’s because of the disappearance of the steel mills. Partly it’s the allure of the suburbs as the area about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh is where churches are expanding. In many cases, ethic congregations are failing to evangelize their second and third generations. Or it’s the whole trend toward more Americans simply not attending church.

Anyway, call up the story, then click on one of 22 photos of closed churches or synagogues. There appears several more photos, as well as a map to where the house of worship sits; the year it opened, the year it closed, what sort of architectural style it has and its denominational history.

There’s tons of historical tidbits. At Shady Avenue Christian Assembly east of downtown, we learn that when it was a Presbyterian church, novelist Willa Cather had a hand in its founding. At Torath Chaim, a disused synagogue east of downtown, its founders stipulated in the synagogue’s constitution that all financial accounts must be done in Yiddish. A decrepit Lutheran church on the city’s North Side once had a Bible study for 600 men.

So many powerful stories.

As you page through the different stories of each congregation, it’s clear the huge amount of work that went into compiling the statistics on these places, looking up property deeds, taking the photos, running down the current owners and making one last written record of when the enormous blue collar segment of this industrial city was in the pews.

Old buildings are notoriously tough to keep up, which is why many of these congregations figured they could save money by abandoning these places, move to a growing neighborhood and invest in more modern digs. But the warehouse experience of many of today’s churches will never carry the history in its walls for people to remember.

It is one thing to capture a trend. It’s another to portray the lack of a trend and; the people who aren’t in these churches and temples any more. The Post Gazette, through the work of many photographers, writers and editors, knew that Pittsburgh’s past was glorious, but on its way to being forgotten. Their presentation calls up the memories and puts them on the record.

The Post Gazette is not a huge paper, but its staff did a huge thing. Would that many more media would copy them.

Photos by Peter Smith. Used with permission. 

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