Saturday, January 30, 2010

Clairton Churches

Welcome to Clairton, City of Prayer

So says the sign:
We have written much regarding Clairton. The sign that welcomes one to town has long read, “Welcome to Clairton, City of Prayer.” The sign did not read, “#1 Coke Producer in the World.” Clairton has always been proud of its churches and has embraced the parishioners. But churches are made of brick and mortar and although they might stand for decades or even centuries, as the complexion of a town changes, and as its demographics change, so must the churches change to keep up with the needs of their flocks.

St. Mary’s Serbian Orthodox: Several years ago I was visiting my mother in Clairton. Both my parents were born there and both attended school in Clairton. My mother, as a child, attended St. Mary’s Serbian Orthodox church on Reed Street. That building had a fascinating history. The Serbian Orthodox church started out as a Presbyterian church located on the corner of Fifth Street and Large Avenue. The well to do Presbyterian congregation wanted to build a new church several blocks away on the corner of Fifth Street and Mitchell they sold their existing building to the Serbians. It was moved several blocks down Large Avenue and over to its current location and christened St. Mary’s Serbian Orthodox Church.

On this particular occasion the Serbian Orthodox church was celebrating its eightieth birthday. Mt mother, then in her mid 80s attended the festivities with me at her side. Together we walked down the stairs toward the basement hall and she commented that these were the very stairs she ran up and down and played on as a little girl. That day she needed my arm to help her negotiate the stairs. The Serbian church recently closed its doors for good due to a dwindling congregation. There is not telling what will happen to the beautiful edifice.

The City of Prayer: Clairton’s motto is apt. The Clairton Silver Anniversary book published in 1947 lists, in no particular order, the following houses of worship in a city of some 10,000 souls: Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Paulinus Roman Catholic Church, First Presbyterian Church, First Methodist Church, United Free Gospel Mission, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Wilson Presbyterian Church, Clairton Christian Church, St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, Morning Star Baptist Church, Pine Run Methodist Church, The First Slavish Roman Catholic Greek Rite Church, St. Clare's Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Christian Missionary Alliance, Mount Oliver Baptist Church, Church of God in Christ, Greek Church, Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Fast forward 60 years: A regular reader of this blog sent me a news article that appeared in the Pittsburgh newspaper a couple of years ago. It highlighted St. Paulinus church and one of its parishioners who had attended the church for some 60 years. For the past 20 of those 60 years she had volunteered to clean the church, dusting and polishing the pews and interior. St. Paulinus was hand built by parishioners and community members during the height of the Great Depression. It is a beautiful stone building perched proudly on a hill overlooking the Monongahela River in the Wilson section of Clairton. Two years ago the church saw its last mass preached and it closed. Of the remaining parishioners many switched to attend St. Clare of Assisi, formerly St. Joseph. Shrinking finances as well as a shrinking congregation made helped the Diocese of Pittsburgh make the decision to close St. Paulinus.

St. Paulinus Parish was small and without enough money for a professional architect or builder in the midst of the Great Depression when the bishop gave it permission to build a church. The pastor at the time, announced that the parishioners would build the church themselves and brought stone for construction from the “nearby New England Hollow,” according to church history.

The building committee studied the architecture of many European churches and eventually came up with a design. Several facets of the architecture of the works of Medieval craftsmen were replicated during church construction. The bell tower was modeled after the towers of the walled city of Carcassonne, France, and the ciborium, a wooden canopy over the altar, was said to be made of the wood from abandoned riverboats and decorated with designs copied from a cathedral in Sicily. Church members made the ciborium, the altar railing, candleholders, sanctuary and sacristy, according to church history.

The women of the parish stained the church’s pews and are also credited with embroidering the altar linens and making the vestments for the altar boys. The church was blessed on Sept. 6, 1937, and the building was renovated in 1976 to accommodate changes in the liturgy.

First Presbyterian:
The “new” Presbyterian church that was built at the corner of Fifth Street and Mitchell Avenue had its largest congregation during the 1950s. That congregation included many movers and shakers in the town and that in turn led to the expansion of the church building. Church offices and a large hall were added during the 1950s expansion addition. The church served as the location for teen dances held weekly after home football games, as well as many other cross-denominational activities throughout the years. But the effects of changing demographics in Clairton have affected First Presby as well as the aforementioned churches. The building is deteriorating, donations and the congregation is small. The pews that once sat hundreds of Sunday worshipers now seat a handful.

Still the City of Prayer: As one door closes another one opens. The 1947 Silver Anniversary booklet lists 20 churches in Clairton. A listing of churches in Clairton today shows 20 active churches. Some of the older buildings might have needed updating and others might have closed. But new congregations sing and pray just as loudly today as they did 60 years ago. Clairton is still the City of Prayer.

A little blogging music Maestro… “Onward Christian Soldiers,” by any church choir.

Dr. Forgot

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