St. Mary in Sharpsburg to celebrate 100 years
When June Balzer steps beyond the massive wooden doors at St. Mary Church in Sharpsburg, she imagines herself as a young girl in a white satin Communion gown marching slowly down the long, green aisle.
The Shaler resident, 65, went to elementary school at St. Mary and helped her grandmother clean the church rectory. Her mother served lunches in high school cafeteria and her grandfather was a lifelong member.
“It's home to me,” Balzer said. “When I come here, I picture myself as a little kid, and it's good memories.”
St. Mary — a sister church of Madonna of Jerusalem and St. John Cantius in the St. Juan Diego Parish — marks its 100th anniversary Mass on Sunday.
Bishop David Zubik will preside over services at the building where spires rise above Penn Street and are easily recognizable from Route 28.
That St. Juan is thriving — there are about 900 families — is a testimony to the faith and dedication of the people, said the Rev. Michael Decewicz, pastor.
Since the parish was first founded in 1852, there have been three St. Mary buildings built on the same block, which sits near the 62nd Street Bridge. The first church was destroyed by fire; the second didn't offer enough space for a growing congregation at the turn of the last century.
Construction on the current baroque-style building was launched by German immigrants in the spring of 1916. The cavernous hall with the pitched ceiling, pipe organ and vibrant stained glass windows took only a year to erect.
It cost about $114,000.
“You can't buy a home for that now,” Decewicz said, laughing.
Dedicated in October 1917, statues that flank the altar weren't installed until 1919 because they were imported from Germany.
“They had to wait until the (World War I) armistice was signed,” Decewicz said.
The structure was threatened by the St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936, when water reached 25 feet and easily covered the rows of wooden pews, but survived.
For Balzer, and many others, the church is a connection to the past and a symbol of the unwavering Catholic faith in Sharpsburg.
“I never really thought too much about how old the church is until other churches started closing,” she said.
“In today's world, it's something that we've made it this long.”
Patty Markelewicz, 68, grew up in Sharpsburg but attended Mass as a child at St. John's.
She went to St. Mary High School and sang in the school choir, but “back in the olden days, you went to your own church based on your ethnicity.”
As an adult, she joined St. Mary because its beauty stirred her.
Bronze filigree chandeliers hang above paintings of prophets that replicate those in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Marble columns and a gold-trimmed circular staircase line the altar.
“It is the jewel of Sharpsburg,” said Evelyn Shoop, 81.
The retired florist said “people can't help but fall in love.
“It reminds you of a Bavarian church. People don't realize the beauty we have in here.”
Lou Borowski and Joe Zaborowski each started volunteering at the church more than 40 years ago. Borowski was a retired teacher for the Catholic Diocese and Zaborowski was a retired engineer from Spang Steel and Iron Co. in Etna before they started spending free time as the quasi church maintenance team.
They are the “go-to” pair when anything needs to be done, whether its three weeks of decorating for Christmas or patching a leaky roof.
Zaborowski once carved an old pew into a panel front to disguise a radiator.
“I like to spend my time here,” Zaborowski said. “It's restful, meditative.”
“I don't think there's any church as beautiful as this in Pittsburgh,” Borowski said.
Norm Bohr, 69, agreed. Having spent his entire life celebrating baptism, confirmation and high school graduation in the building, he said one of his fondest moments is one that he actually missed at church — his first Holy Communion in the mid-1950s.
“I had a sore throat so I'm not even in the class picture,” Bohr recalled. “But they had a make-up session for me, so that's pretty special.
“I pray that this building stays open.”
Decewicz said Sunday's service is expected to be a beautiful celebration and he's grateful to begin the next chapter in this borough institution.
“This is a magnificent building and it shows a presence of faith,” Decewicz said.