Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.

I’ll admit: ethnic rivalries grade the terrain of Pittsburgh Catholicism in ways hard for me to understand.

I suspect I’m not alone. I suspect other descendants of Pittsburgh Catholic immigrants might relate. 

But let me back up.

I grew up wishing I were from Pittsburgh. 

Most of my extended family on my mother’s and father’s side were from the Pittsburgh area. My maternal grandmother — my Baba — lived in McKees Rocks, where my siblings and I visited every summer. 

By the time I was in the picture, my grandmother lived in the “nicer” part of McKees Rocks, across the street from St. Mary’s Help of Christians Church, a gray stone cathedral-sized building so skyscraping it makes a convenient landmark for airplane descent into PIT.

St. Mary’s was built for German Catholics who, in the mid-19th century, felt their needs were not entirely met by the area’s Irish clergy. At the start of the 20th century, their current building on Church Avenue was erected, the massive Gothic I recall from my childhood. 

During the rest of the year, when I was not at my grandmother’s, I went to Mass in an upstate New York college town with priests whom we addressed by their first names and nuns who never wore habits. 

Church life at St. Mary’s with my grandmother was another world. The altar gleamed marble and metal. Older women covered their heads. The bells pealed out every hour.

Every weekend there was a wedding to watch, hundreds of people hailing the new couple through the triple doors and down the staircase. Watching someone else’s wedding was one of my favorite entertainments. Sometimes I would grab a handful of rice to throw and hope no one noticed I was not wearing wedding garments.

Agnes Howard’s mother, Rose Murcko Sagan, was married at St. Mary’s Help of Christians Church in McKees Rocks in 1960. Although Howard’s grandmother attended St. Mary’s, she always felt her home church was St. Mark’s Catholic Church, the Slovak church “down the Bottoms.” (Photo courtesy of Rose Murcko Sagan and Agnes Howard)

St. Mary’s was huge, beautiful and right there. But her church, my grandmother made clear — the church that felt like home — was not this but “St. Mark’s down the Bottoms.” 

Life down the Bottoms

My grandparents, whose parents were born in Slovakia, came to the Pittsburgh area in the early 1940s to work in wartime industry. Like many compatriots, they found jobs in steel mills and factories. They lived in the poorer, northern part of McKees Rocks, “The Bottoms.” 

A few decades before, Slovak immigrants would have to travel to St. Elizabeth’s in the Strip District if they wanted to attend a Slovak Catholic church. 

That changed in 1906 when 300 or so Slovaks in McKees Rocks got the diocese’s sanction to start a congregation of their own. 

Families were asked to contribute $50 each for the new church’s construction — no small sum against earnings from steel mills or railroads. Some parishioners donated extra for stained glass windows to be inscribed in their honor, in Slovak. 

The block on Munson Avenue where the new St. Mark’s sat housed a world within a world. Church, parish house, school and convent — all were connected by passageways, a hub of the community that had built it.

Slovak immigrants in McKees Rocks built St. Mark’s Catholic Church (far left) in 1906. Visible next to it are St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church. (Photo courtesy of Don Presutti, McKees Rocks Historical Society)

As my mother remembers, most of the neighborhood women belonged to the Christian Mothers group, the men to the Holy Name Society, the children to the parish school, clubs and sports teams. 

At Christmas, she recalls, all the girls from the congregation dressed as angels for a procession. An eighth-grader would head up the line, carefully carrying the baby Jesus to the manger at Midnight Mass. Every girl had a long satin robe in a different color, with wings made from the stiff white stuff that composed the collars of nuns’ habits. 

My mother and aunt remember feeling angelic — wings on their backs, arms crossed in front, brand new slippers keeping silent the procession to the manger.

Ethnic textures

The Bottoms never looked glamorous to me. By the 1970s, the heart of my childhood years, the area was in decline. 

But it seems like a good place to have grown up. 

When my mother aged out of St. Mark’s school, she climbed the bridge to take the crosstown bus and streetcar to Mount Assisi Academy in Bellevue, run by the same Franciscan sisters. The whole family moved on up when, in 1954, my grandfather found a fixer-upper in the nicer part of McKees Rocks, on Church Avenue. That’s how they started attending St. Mary’s.

My grandparents’ relationship to St. Mark’s and St. Mary’s was complex — in ways that I think are illustrative of the ethnic terrain of Pittsburgh Catholicism.

St. Mary’s Help of Christians was built by and for German Catholics in the mid-19th century. In the early 1900s, their current building was erected, a massive gray stone Gothic photographed here for a jubilee celebration in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Agnes Howard)

Nearly every other block in McKees Rocks was anchored by a house of worship: the Slovak church, the synagogue, the Russian Orthodox church, the Ukrainian church. 

There were ethnic rivalries and allegiances between them, finely textured and inherited across generations. 

But it wasn’t just, say, Czechs distrusting Hungarians, or Irish people resenting Germans. It was also about pride, about immigrant communities having something to call their own, about people using their scanty savings (and sometimes their actual labor) to build churches, convents, schools and rectories around which they could orient their lives. 

The Catholics in McKees Rocks would attend one another’s bazaars and work together in the steel mills. While St. Mark’s building was being constructed, St. Mary’s even let the congregation use their worship space. But the churches knew best how to dilute old-world hatreds when they each had their own base. 

Of churches and bridges

It galls my relatives that St. Mark’s Church is now an art auction house. (Although maybe it offends less than the temporary fate of St. Elizabeth’s, which got turned into a nightclub.) 

The congregation dwindled when I was in college, the proud parishioners suffering what they felt was indignity after indignity as they were consolidated with other parishes. 

On the part of their immigrant families, whose savings and labor had built these big brick and stone churches, they felt slighted by the suggestion that it was just congregations that mattered and not buildings, or that they all shared the same Catholic faith, so it didn’t matter which ethnic group each came from. 

When my grandmother died at 101, she would have liked her funeral to be at St. Mark’s, but it had closed in 2006, the previous year. She asked my brother to play the Slovak national anthem — or at least the anthem she and other immigrants of her generation knew when they thought Slovakia would become a country. 

Her service was held instead at the big church she and I knew as St. Mary’s. By that point, it had been subsumed into St. John of God Parish, a merger between most of the parishes in McKees Rocks. After another consolidation in 2020, it’s now called Archangel Gabriel Parish.

It strikes me that the very success of the parish social structure perhaps helped to undo it. 

Supported by their parents’ labor, plus parochial school systems, plus functional American institutions, the children of my grandmother’s neighborhood got to choose lives far from that of their parents.

As a kid, the only time I was taken to an amusement park was for the annual Slovak Day at Kennywood. Now, about the only time some people observe ethnic customs, full-on, is Slovak Day at Kennywood. 

In such a climate, parishes could no longer populate schools or fund churches. Churches themselves had to give way. 

Asking faithful, aged members to sit in someone else’s pews in an artificially bonded parish — well, I see why that could sting. 

Perhaps, though, a new fellowship could grow out of the very fact of that resettlement, that drawing together of people into unfamiliar spaces. 

Strangers in a new land once built churches to bridge gulfs between known and unknown worlds. Churches may again play that role, offering a bridge between the familiar past and untold visions of new fellowships.

Agnes Howard teaches in the honors college at Valparaiso University in Indiana. She is author of “Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human.” If you want to send a message to Agnes, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

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