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. ...