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Divided Pittsburgh Episcopal dioceses team to support ministry for homeless, hungry

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Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Two factions that divided the Episcopal church in Pittsburgh four years ago as part of a national schism have agreed to work together to support a ministry for homeless veterans and others in need.

An accord between the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh clears the way for Shepherd's Heart Fellowship to take title to all property at its Uptown location and to seek a more favorable financing of its debt.

The Episcopal Diocese considers the ministry of paramount importance, spokesman Rich Creehan said.

Attorney Andrew Fletcher, representing the Anglican Diocese, could not be reached for comment.

Shepherd's Heart, which joined the Anglican Diocese, feeds the hungry, homeless, poor and addicted. The second floor of the church at Pride Street and Forbes Avenue includes 15 beds, a kitchen, living room, showers and a computer room. It provides transitional housing for homeless veterans.

An estimated 500 to 600 veterans are homeless on any given night in Allegheny County, said Michele Margittai, director of development and community relations at Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, a South Side nonprofit that helps veterans and their families.

Theologically conservative members of the Episcopal diocese left to form the Anglican diocese in 2008 because of the church's stance on abortion and the ordination of a gay bishop.

“Fights in the Episcopalian/Anglican world are increasing, not decreasing,” said Bryan T. Froehle, professor of practical theology at St. Thomas University. “But doing things together like this is a good sign. … Doing some common outreach/community service efforts is terrific and to be celebrated.”

A joint statement from the two sides said the agreement shouldn't be interpreted as a step toward mending their rift, and they continue to resolve property issues on a parish-by-parish basis. The agreement needs court approval.

The Episcopal Church USA contends parishes that leave forfeit control of church buildings and other assets. Those who broke away from the church argue that diocesan property belongs to the people who built and maintain it.

Courts have upheld the church's position.

Shepherd's Heart began in summer 1993 as a mission program without a home. The Rev. Michael Wurschmidt, then a seminarian at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, was taking food, coffee, blankets and clothing to the homeless and needy.

The first Sunday night service was in a storefront in 1995. Shepherd's Heart moved to its current location, a former Roman Catholic Church, in 1999.

“More than 140 community partners, including 100 churches of all denominations, work alongside us in this ministry,” Wurschmidt said in a statement.

Though the Episcopal Diocese no longer will guarantee payment of Shepherd's Heart loans when refinancing is completed, the diocese will leave its equity in the property in place as an investment for as long as the homeless ministry continues, the diocese said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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