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Building repair costs can be burden for Western Pennsylvania churches

| Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Center Avenue United Methodist Church keyboardist Candy Holsinger, 59, of Wilmerding prepares the Pitcairn fire hall for Communion on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. The congregation closed its 106-year-old building this year because it couldn’t afford to make an estimated $400,000 in repairs.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Doris Reetz (left), 68, and Duane Sheffler, 69, both of Pitcairn and lifelong members of Center Avenue United Methodist Church, bow their heads in prayer during service on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014, in the Pitcairn fire hall.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
A wall of fire department patches hangs at the Pitcairn Fire Department, where Center Avenue United Methodist Church Pastor Cyndi Bloise of Monroeville speaks during service on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Frank Bloise, 55, of Monroeville takes communion with fellow members of Center Avenue United Methodist Church in the Pitcairn fire hall on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Bingo announcements are listed on a chalkboard behind Sally Wareham, 74, of Pitcairn as she sings hymns with fellow members of Center Avenue United Methodist Church during service at the Pitcairn fire hall on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Emma Holderbaum (left), 10, of Monroeville, finishes off the communion grape juice with her sister Ellie (right), 10, and sisters Jenna (center left), 8, and Jaycie Greenawalt, 11, of North Huntington after service on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014, in the Pitcairn fire hall.

Old churches across Western Pennsylvania are dealing with soaring maintenance costs, but declining membership in many of the churches often limits the work they can afford to do.

In Pitcairn, Center Avenue United Methodist Church closed its 106-year-old building this year because it couldn't afford to make an estimated $400,000 in repairs to fix problems with the trusses and roof.

“Given our blue-collar member base and small community, we couldn't see a way to get that much money in a short period of time. I'm afraid there's going to be more and more of that (across Western Pennsylvania) in the years ahead,” said the Rev. Cyndi Bloise of Center Avenue United Methodist.

About 40 members of Bloise's church now gather for Sunday services in a fire hall three blocks away. The old building was sold for $1 in August, Allegheny County records show.

Aside from keeping the church alive, rental rates at the fire hall are low — $25 a week — and the hall is on Pitcairn's Center Avenue, so the congregation gets to keep its long-standing name.

Church members try to cover up poker machines and a large bingo board before Sunday services to “transform the fire hall into a worship center,” Bloise said.

Funding for renovations from outside sources is hard to come by, local pastors and church officials say.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has offered grants since 1997 through its Historic Religious Properties Program. Individual grants are capped at $10,000, and the recipient must match whatever money it receives from the foundation.

That wouldn't have saved the Pitcairn congregation's century-old building, but the foundation's program has provided nearly 250 grants totaling about $1 million for exterior renovations — including restoring stained glass windows, replacing roofs and front doors, refurbishing steeples and repairing brickwork. The foundation provides technical support to help churches with everything from assessing repair needs to hiring contractors.

The foundation said its grants helped leverage an additional $2 million.

“It absolutely made our project possible,” said Richard Cummings, chairman of the stained-glass window restoration committee at Fairhaven United Methodist Church near Routes 51 and 88 in Pittsburgh's Overbrook neighborhood.

Fairhaven received a $10,000 grant this year and used matching funds to restore its first window. The work was completed in August. Sixteen windows are left to be restored. Cummings said the church plans to reapply for foundation grants annually and hopes to complete all the work within eight years.

Central Presbyterian Church in Tarentum also received a $10,000 grant this year for a window project at its 100-year-old building, church elder Dave Rankin said.

The grant money is helping with the restoration of a large sanctuary window and 11 smaller classroom windows. Three other large windows, 30 classroom windows and two large stained-glass skylights still need to be restored. Rankin said the church began raising money for the window project in 1999.

“The grant is a big plus. If we had to rely just on funding available to us through our friends and members, we probably wouldn't be able to do the entire project,” Rankin said. “When people see the results (of the first windows), they're going to go, ‘Wow,' and we hope they might be more likely to contribute more to the (rest of) the project.”

The foundation is looking to boost fundraising for the grant program. It recently assigned a full-time staff member, David Farkas, the foundation's director of Main Street programs, to oversee the effort.

Donations already appear to be on an upswing. From 2011 through 2013, annual giving ranged from $70,440 to $78,600. Last year, the program gave a combined $95,710 to 12 recipients. Fund-raising for next year's grants continues through Dec. 1.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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