Pitcairn congregation trying to return home

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When the Rev. Cyndi Bloise arrived six years ago at Center Avenue United Methodist Church in Pitcairn, she answered concerns that the church might close, as several others in the borough had closed their door.

“I said, ‘I'm not going to be a church-closer,' ” she recalled.

That changed in November, but not because of dwindling membership or consolidation.

Contractors came in to replace the 106-year-old church's roof but, concerned about one of the Gothic-style structure's trusses, they encouraged church officials to call structural engineers to look at it.

The engineers' inspections changed the church's course. One of the building's trusses was so unstable that the church had to be closed immediately.

“It was hardly holding up the roof at all,” Bloise said.

The building was vacated. Children in a Head Start program were awakened from naps so their parents could take them home, and church services and numerous outreach programs were shuffled to other locations.

“There were no meetings, no final farewell, nothing,” Bloise said.

The 150-member congregation is trying to raise money for repairs so it can return to the building. Fixing the 58-foot truss might cost three or four times the expected $25,000 for the roof, church officials said.

Time is of the essence. Church Mutual, which insures the church, will cover the cost of the scaffolding that supports the three-story brick church from basement to ceiling only for about three more months. After that, the church would have to pay $56 a day.

“We hope it's a matter of reinforcing what's there,” church trustee Bill Decker said of the project. “The (truss) has lost its integrity and now has to be re-engineered.”

Another option is to take off the roof and put in a new truss system, he said, but the cost isn't feasible.

The church's problems are not unique, said Carole Malakoff of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. She administers the foundation's religious properties preservation program.

“It's becoming more prevalent. Churches are being vacated every month,” she said. “Hopefully, it will not continue because our religious properties — not just churches, but synagogues and mosques — are some of the most architecturally significant buildings in the area.”

Financial support to repair religious buildings can be found, Malakoff said, but churches have to “get creative.” One option is to form a nonprofit that could receive donations.

Bloise said her church is doing that, but it takes at least six months to secure nonprofit status. Applying for grants takes more time.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks provides grants of as much as $10,000 for construction on religious buildings with historic value. Center officials say they haven't approached the foundation, and the deadline for 2014 grants has passed.

Architect David Vader, chairman of the foundation's historic religious property program, said a well-constructed church building that is 100 years old can be made stable again.

Without knowing more about the Pitcairn church, he said, he can't offer specifics but, “There are many old buildings that have been maintained over the years or repaired and retrofitted that are able to go on serving for another 100 years.”

Church services are held in a nearby school. A Boy Scout Troop, Lions Club and social outreach programs such as the Circles/Bridges Out of Poverty initiative and Naranon had to relocate.

“We were getting some young members, helping to bring young people to the church,” member Ellis Michaels said. “Most of the church members I know are very adamant about doing whatever we can to save the church.”

Julie E. Martin is a freelance writer.

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