Northside home to diverse religious community


St. Peter Church is the oldest Catholic church on the Northside, and used to be the Diocesan headquarters. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)

The Northside has almost too many churches to name, and many have been around since before Allegheny City’s annexation to Pittsburgh in 1907. 

These institutions have provided immigrant and minority groups with community centers and safe places, and they’ve taken an active role in developing the area into a comfortable place to live.

The Catholic Church is one of the oldest religious presences in the area, and traces its clerical ancestry back to the apostles. 

With a German parish, an Irish parish, a Croatian parish, a Polish parish and even a Bohemian parish, Northside Catholic churches gave immigrants a place to gather and preserve their cultural heritage.

Of course, not all of those have survived into the 2000s, and Bohemians as an organized, political group don’t even exist anymore.

Father Joseph Scheib of the Diocese of Pittsburgh said that the Catholic Church has served many purposes throughout its history in the city, and constantly evolves to meet the needs of the community.

By the 1840s, Scheib said anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments ran rampant in the United States.

“[The Church] was a refuge from prejudice and support in dealing with prejudice,” he said.

The early church also supported general education in addition to religious education before the government mandated that all children go to school, and some had a “lyceum,” or social athletic club.

“The core element is the same in terms of a place to worship and teaching of religion,” Scheib said.

Today, many churches have youth groups or casual athletic leagues, and are still involved in the community, even if they are no longer at the center of it. 

Of course, that doesn’t make the Church any less important. “Roman Catholocism is the largest of the Christian religions,” Scheib said. “It tends to be more diverse. We have members of all races and nationalities.”

According to Rev. Lawrence Thompson, Brown Chapel A.M.E. is the oldest African American church on the Northside.

“We’re a proud church, we’re a kind church, we’re a caring church,” Thompson said. Brown provides food for the homeless and gives away a $500 stipend to cancer patients and a $500 scholarship to congregants on their way to college. 

Thompson knows $500 isn’t much, but the church does what it can to support its community. “We are an integral part of this Central Northside neighborhood,” he said.

Likewise, the Avery Memorial A.M.E. Zion church in Brighton Heights is an integral part of its community. Rev. Booker Betts called it a “house of refuge” and said that congregants pass out fliers on a regular basis.

Avery partners with Risen Lord church to discuss community needs, and offers information and programs to help. It also shares space with a Hispanic congregation from the Shepherds of the End Times denomination.

“We’re just open there for the needs of the community as far as worship,” Betts said.

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church is another Northside church that celebrates cultural and ethnic diversity and traces its clerical ancestry to the apostles.

Father John Touloumes said that while the main purpose of the church is to bring worship to the surrounding community, it also practices a mission of service by feeding the homeless and sending mission trips to Montana and Mexico.

“[Christian Orthodoxy] is a very broad ranging experience,” Touloumes said, since it includes all branches of orthodox faith under one umbrella.

Although Holy Trinity plans to move off of the Northside, it’s been the center of the Greek community here for 87 years, since 1923. Each year for the past 40, the church has hosted a Greek festival, with food and other activities.

“That gives us a chance to share our heritage,” Touloumes said.

Down the street from Holy Trinity stands Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. While the two churches might be physically close, their philosophies and theologies are wildly different.

Rev. David McFarland, Allegheny Unitarian’s openly gay pastor, characterized his congregation as “spiritual” but not necessarily “religious.”

The Unitarian faith has its roots in Jewish tradition, and unity and simplicity with God was the most important concept to early Unitarians. The Universalist aspect came in later, and is based on the concept that there is only one god, but that the god is love, and therefore there’s a potential for god in all things.

As part of its spiritual calling, the congregation participates in events concerning social justice, neighborhood and community development and outreach.

McFarland said AUU held services for victims of AIDS and HIV when other churches might not have, as well as holding a vigil each year for local victims of violence and community events like workshops dealing with racism.

“We think there needs to be a church in the inner city,” McFarland said. “There’s some things we can do that a lot of other churches can’t.”

Many of AUU’s congregants come from other faiths or ideologies, such as atheism, Buddhism and Wicca.

Wiccan High Priestess Lady Annabelle, an active member of AUU and founder of the Grove of Gaia coven, works to educate the community on her Pagan path.

Twice a year, at Samhain (or Halloween) and Yule, Grove of Gaia holds public rituals in Allegheny Commons or in the AUU church building. Annabelle also gives informational sermons about Wicca at AUU a few times a year to educate congregants about its Sabbats, or holidays.

“It’s actually kind of cool to do [rituals] out in the open because people watch, they learn how peaceful it is,” she said. “The thing that sets Wicca apart from other Pagan practices is we do worship the goddess and god. We stay open to all the manifestations of the goddess and god.”

That openness allows Wiccans to attune themselves to divinity and nature and use that energy to work for the greater good.

Although her coven usually meets at her home in the South Hills, as an AUU member, she believes a commitment to the Northside is important, which is one of the reasons she holds Grove of Gaia Fest at the church.

“We’re not just renting the space, we’re adding to it,” she said. And through interfaith relationships, she hopes to “keep that door open for positive community building.”

Allegheny Center Alliance Church, part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, is also very interested in positive community building. ACAC is a relative newcomer to the Northside, with a building that’s only about 35 years old.

It purchased Rebel’s Bar in 2009 with the intent of turning it into a place for the community, has helped out many a fledgling East Ohio Street business owner.

But ACAC hasn’t always been a center for change. Pastor Blaine Workman said that 25 years ago, the church’s congregation was moderately sized and composed mostly of elderly suburbanites who used to live in the city.

“It’s really been wonderful to see how god has transformed this congregation,” Workman said about its current diversity and size.

He attributes the growth to ACAC’s commitment to presenting the gospel in a way that encompasses not only spiritual needs, but physical and mental needs as well.

“We see our role as not only building up the congregation, but touching our community with the Good News, and the whole world,” Workman said.

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