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Monroeville offers melting pot of faiths

| Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, 7:21 p.m.

Most Sundays, Dr. Tejinder Singh Bal travels from Youngstown, Ohio, to Monroeville with his wife and mother to attend services at the Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara — the nearest place of worship for Sikhs living in southwestern Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and southeastern Ohio.

“If more people settled in Youngstown, it is possible we would have started one here instead of three hours going back and forth,” Bal said.

The Monroeville area is a local hub for members of many non-Western faiths, such as Sikhism.

The area has houses of worship for a mix of religions, and the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium has 18 member groups in Monroeville and adjacent communities.

“Repeatedly, even from people in (Pittsburgh), we're praised because we have not only Christians and Jews and Unitarians, but Sikhs, Hindus, Jains and Muslims,” said Rabbi Barbara Symons, president of the ministerium.

Earlier this month, Monroeville Council approved a Shia group's application to build a mosque on Old Haymaker Road, as the congregation looks to replace a building in Plum that was damaged a few years ago when its sprinkler system broke.

The Imamia Organization of Pittsburgh, founded in 1999, is one of two Shia groups in the Pittsburgh area, said Saad Ali, a member of the Shia community who lives in Monroeville.

Shia are a minority outside Iraq — where Ali was born — and Iran.

He said it's easier to be a member of a minority in a place that already has a mix of faiths.

“For me, specifically, I would like to be in a multicultural area,” Ali said.

“Here in Monroeville, people are familiar with the other cultures, other religions.”

Local historian Louis Chandler said the Monroeville area's variety of religions has followed the country as a whole, with successive waves of immigrants building their own houses of worship.

The first Europeans to settle in the area were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians.

Larger numbers of Lutherans, other Protestants and Catholics came following the Civil War.

He said most towns in the Monongahela Valley can trace their mixed-faith populations to the legacy of steel mills.

In and near Monroeville, the Pitcairn Yard of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which used to recruit skilled workers from Italy, was a major draw for immigrants.

Westinghouse Electric Co. played a role in attracting Indian immigrants who settled in the area, starting in the 1960s.

“In our area, it wasn't so much the steel mills as it was Westinghouse and the railroad,” Chandler said.

Westinghouse's headquarters now is in Cranberry.

Chitratan Singh Sethi of Wexford, a member of the gurdwara in Monroeville, said Sikhs, Hindus and followers of other religions that originated on the Indian subcontinent worshiped at the Hindu Jain Temple, a converted church building on Illini Drive.

Later, members of the different faiths founded their own temples nearby.

Two other Hindu Temples — Sri Shirdi Sai Baba, on Abers Creek Road, and Sri Venkateswara in Penn Hills — also were built.

Bal, like many original members of the gurdwara, is a physician. He lived in Pittsburgh for several years in the 1970s during his residency at Allegheny General Hospital.

His family was among the 24 families that founded the gurdwara, on McKenzie Drive, which held its first service in 1984.

About 250 to 300 families attend the gurdwara now.

Sethi described Monroeville as “saturated” with development and said if the gurdwara were to expand today, leaders likely would build elsewhere.

Symons, rabbi at Temple David on Northern Pike, said her work in the ministerium has allowed her to learn from the diverse faiths represented in it.

Recently, she gave a presentation at a Lutheran church alongside representatives from the Hindu and Muslim communities — faiths that, like Judaism and unlike Christianity, use a lunar calendar.

“It highlighted our connection to each other,” she said. “In a sense, we were the majority in the room.”

Gideon Bradshaw is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2369 or gbradshaw@tribweb.com.

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