Extraordinarily fine churches can be found all over region
Pittsburgh has always been a city of fine churches.
We are unusual in having four in our region designed by Ralph Adams Cram of Boston, probably the most famous church architect of the 20th century. These are his Gothic-inspired East Liberty Presbyterian Church — which Cram considered his masterpiece; Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside; Holy Rosary Church in Homewood; and First Presbyterian Church in Greensburg.
Local architects have contributed many equally distinguished church buildings, too. Sacred Heart Church, by Pittsburgher Carlton Strong, with one of the longest and highest naves in town, sits quite comfortably across from Calvary Episcopal in a setting that is a little like a village green.
And the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will soon erect one of its roadside historical markers in front of St. Agnes Center at Carlow University to commemorate John T. Comes, a Pittsburgh architect who designed dozens of major churches here and across the country in the early 1900s. It's believed to be only the second state historical marker honoring an individual architect.
These churches — and others — are justly famous, but there are extraordinarily fine churches in almost every neighborhood in our region.
So, with Christmas upon us, let's take a look today at four area churches, considering how the buildings shape feelings during worship — how they create spaces that are spiritual.
The four I've chosen are within three miles of each other on or near a stretch of Washington Road (Route 19), south of the city in Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park.
Perhaps the best-known is St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church in Mt. Lebanon, which some call “the cathedral of the South Hills.” It is one of three big churches clustered on one of that town's highest hills, and it was designed by William Perry of Dormont, who succeeded John Comes after he died.
It is spellbinding from the outside — an immense Romanesque mix of brown and red-brown stone, a multicolored tile roof and a massive bell tower. Inside, it illustrates well the humbling feeling — the awe — that you feel in large cathedrals everywhere. The scale is enormous. You can't take all of it in at once, and that's part of its effect and appeal.
As in all cathedral-like churches, there is a long nave and a high roof with imposing stone arches overhead. The central aisle leads to a large high altar eight steps up from the floor. As you walk down the aisle, you find yourself under the bell tower, where the interior ceiling is almost 80-feet high.
St. Bernard's is elaborately decorated — full of sculptures, mosaics, murals, stained glass and symbolism. The murals are by Jan Henryk De Rosen — who similarly painted murals at the National Cathedral in Washington and for the pope's private chapel in his summer residence at Castel Gondolfo in Italy.
The lavishness of the artwork, and the textures of the stone and rich marble throughout, create a setting for ritual and liturgy.
You won't find any of that, though, when you go down the street to Mt. Lebanon's First Church of Christ, Scientist. Here, the church has little in the way of decoration. Its much-smaller interior is restrained, intimate and serene. There is no altar at all, but rather a platform simply furnished with chairs and a large double-pulpit at the center front from which two readers conduct most of a service.
This is a Colonial-style church, and its simplicity is intended to emphasize the reading of scripture, rather that ritual or liturgy. Its windows are plain glass — slightly frosted to look antique — and the interior always has a feeling of bright openness.
Charles Draper Faulkner, a Chicago architect, designed this and some 140 other Christian Science churches around the country.
Both St. Bernard's and the Christian Science church are traditional, albeit in different ways. But churches in modern styles can be spiritual, too.
St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church on Fort Couch Road in Bethel Park (just off Route 19, across from South Hills Village mall) was among the first to be built in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. The council promoted bringing the altar and priests closer to the congregation.
As a result, this uncompromisingly modern church is octagonal in shape with the altar in the middle, thrust forward on a low platform only two steps high. Congregants practically surround it on three sides. Though it's a large church, nobody sits more than 14 rows away from the altar, giving a large congregation a strong sense of being a spiritual community.
The church is dramatic in structure with a central clerestory that washes the sanctuary with daylight. A two-story-high woodcut behind the altar shows an image of the risen Christ that gives the church an overall feeling of optimism.
A sense of community also is emphasized at the modernist Mt. Lebanon United Lutheran Church on Washington Road — but in a special way rarely seen elsewhere. The sacrament of communion is central to Lutheran worship, and, here, the communion rail is on all four sides of the altar, contributing to a strong feeling of togetherness as congregants gather facing each other for the sacrament.
Spirituality, of course, depends on the people, as any pastor will tell you. But churches have been designed with spaces that facilitate that spirituality for thousands of years — sometimes with great simplicity, sometimes with elaborate decoration or soaring structures — but always with feeling in mind.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.