Extraordinarily fine churches can be found all over region

John Conti
| Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

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.

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