“Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.
Drive through Homestead, McKees Rocks or the Hill District, and you can see a dozen houses of worship within just a few blocks’ radius.
Why? How did these dense religious landscapes come to be?
The answer pivots on a uniquely Pittsburgh mix of immigration and migration patterns, racial divides, industrialization and geography.
Factor #1: European immigration
In the mid- to late-1800s, economic hardship forced people from all over Europe (Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Slovenia and Romania, among others) to leave their homes and seek better opportunities. Pittsburgh, with its growing mills and mines, made an attractive destination.
Many of the immigrants who came to Pittsburgh settled near industry along the riverbanks. Property amid the industrial pollution was cheap, and, besides, they could walk to work.
Ethnic enclaves arose quickly.
“Once the first ship came [and] they saw the different opportunities, they wrote back home to say, ‘Look, you need to come here,’” said Rev. John C. Welch, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church and former instructor of a seminary course on Pittsburgh’s religious history.
Where the immigrant communities built their homes, they also built houses of worship. At this point, most of the immigrants were Catholic, Protestant, Christian Orthodox and Jewish; the major waves of Hindu and Muslim immigrants to Pittsburgh wouldn’t begin until the mid-1900s.
These houses of worship had distinct religious but also ethnic identities. In fact, sometimes the ethnic differences outweighed the doctrinal ones. In the case of the Catholic Church, for example, you might have Irish, Polish, German and Italian congregations practicing similar versions of Catholicism all in the same neighborhood.
The churches and temples were central to their respective immigrant communities. They were spiritual centers and more. They provided medical support, social services, youth programs and sporting leagues. They also created groups to help orient and welcome new immigrants to the area.
“There weren’t government programs like we have today,” said Tammy Hepps, a historian of Pittsburgh Judaism. “Every single one of these little communities had to figure out, ‘How are you going to look out for your own?’”
For many folks, especially those coming from more rural societies, that meant a life organized around a church or synagogue — one that spoke your language, practiced your traditions and gave you a glimpse of home.
Factor #2: Southern migration
The experience of Black migrants from the South was similar, to a point, Welch said.
In the aftermath of the Civil War through the early decades of the 1900s, Black Southerners came fleeing racist violence and seeking economic opportunities. Like Pittsburgh’s European immigrants, they were attracted to jobs in the steel mills and mines and settled near industrial areas.
Yet the experience wasn’t all the same. There was a social hierarchy among the immigrants and migrants working in the mills, and Black people were at the bottom of it, Welch explained.
In many cases, they moved into settlements that white European immigrants had vacated once they could afford to move farther up Pittsburgh’s hills (above some of the air pollution) or outside the city. In the mills and mines themselves, Black migrants often were assigned the dirtiest, most degrading jobs.
Religion offered solace amid these oppressive conditions, as it had for many enslaved Christians in the South.
“We got our hope from the delivering power of God,” Welch said. “If God could deliver the Israelites, if God could deliver Daniel in the lion’s den, then certainly God could deliver slaves from their enslavement.” The motif survived “throughout generations within the Black church, even during Jim Crow.”
Although there were Black churches in Pittsburgh as early as 1808, Black Southerners’ religious practices were often different than those in the North, University of Pittsburgh archivist David Grinnell explains.
Then, too, some Northern Black churches weren’t welcoming to Southern migrants. The Northerners discriminated against the newcomers for being generally less educated and having different worship styles.
The result was a “sudden explosion” of Black churches in the early 1900s, Grinnell said. (And African American Muslim communities, too, as local historian Sarahjameela Martin explained.)
They added yet another layer to the thick religious tapestry of Pittsburgh’s industrialized lowland areas.
Factor #3: Rivers, hills and trees
One additional factor contributing to the religious density of neighborhoods like the Hill District or Homestead was Pittsburgh’s geography.
Immigrants from the same homeland who settled in different parts of town could, and sometimes did, pool their limited economic resources to build one shared church between them. Still, rivers, trees and hills — all barriers to transportation, especially for 19th-century mill and mine workers who were often traveling on foot — made it difficult.
The result? A riverfront Pittsburgh skyline studded with steeples, domes and spires.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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