Share This Page

Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Overbrook last vestige of coal mining patch town

| Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, 12:04 a.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Historian Rich Cummings stands outside the Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Overbrook near the intersection of Routes 51 and 88, Thursday, October 3, 2013. The city recently awarded the church historical landmark status.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Overbrook is near the intersection of Routes 51 and 88, Thursday, October 3, 2013. The city recently awarded the church historical landmark status.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Overbrook is near the intersection of Routes 51 and 88, Thursday, October 3, 2013. The city recently awarded the church historical landmark status. n undated painting shows the church's original structure.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Historian Rich Cummings stands in the sanctuary of the Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Overbrook near the intersection of Routes 51 and 88, Thursday, October 3, 2013. The city recently awarded the church historical landmark status.

Fairhaven United Methodist Church might be a place of worship, but it's the last known visage of an old coal mining patch town known as “Hell's Hole.”

An anomaly along congested Saw Mill Run Boulevard in what is now Overbrook, the white clapboard church with a square bell tower and stained glass windows hugs the narrow artery amid commercial buildings, an auto dealership and streams of traffic.

It has survived for 106 years despite numerous floods, financial hardship, a condemnation by Pittsburgh and occasional attempts by the state to take it for highway improvements.

City Council last month designated the church as a historic landmark, meaning the city's Historical Review Commission and council must approve before anyone can alter its exterior or tear it down.

“It's my second family, extended second family,” said Ken Kohley, 75, of Overbrook, a member since 1965. “We have open arms for anybody that comes in.”

In the 1880s, the Fairhaven section was known as “Hell's Hole” for the barrooms and brothels that lined its streets, according to a church history authored by Rich Cummings, 50, of Shadyside, a longtime congregant.

Coal miners organized the church in 1881, and it serves to this day as a community and faith center. Original membership was 10; it's now about 170.

Its Sunday school educated children, who were working in the mines at age 5 or 6, after work, Cummings said. Literacy rates among the young improved from about 10 percent in 1880 to 85 percent by 1910, he said.

“We always give credit to the big folks, the wealthy,” he said. “It's important to sort of bring to the attention of people the importance poor people had in the history of Pittsburgh. This was a poor church.”

Fairhaven members first met in a school house, according to the church history. In 1890, members moved to a building they built on Glenbury Street. The congregation outgrew the building, and the current church was dedicated on Dec. 8, 1907.

Cummings said the church was supported by miners who made 8 cents for every ton of coal they dug.

“People who were poor were giving 10 cents a week,” he said. “That was a huge amount. You see in church records people giving 2 cents a week, 5 cents a week.”

It was difficult to maintain the building under those financial conditions, and annual flooding on Saw Mill Run, which continues to this day, took its toll on the building's foundation.

In 1939, a city building inspector condemned the church, fearing the walls were not strong enough to support the roof.

The congregation had a new foundation installed, as well as steel supports through the top of the sanctuary to shore up the walls.

The state Department of Transportation threatened eminent domain several times, and took 12 feet of front lawn for a highway widening project in 1931.

In 1959, threats of eminent domain prompted members to buy property for a new church, but they sold it after PennDOT scrapped the highway project.

“The fact that it is still around is sort of a testament to the people who live there and go to the church,” said City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who grew up in nearby Carrick and represents Overbrook. “It's amazing when you consider how so many churches are really struggling right now, but Fairhaven just keeps on going.”

The church provides space for Narcotics Anonymous meetings and religious services for a group of Spanish-speaking people, Kohley said. It's also a polling place, offering meals on Election Day.

“It's the only building left along Route 51 that was part of the original Fairhaven community,” said Carol Anthony, president of Overbrook Community Council. “The church is really the center of the community.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.