Gary Scott Smith: Pittsburgh a city of faith
While Pittsburgh is known for its steel industry, sports teams, ethnic diversity, and recent physical makeover and cultural renaissance, it is much less recognized as one of the nation’s most religious metropolitan areas or for its fruitful faith heritage. The Pittsburgh area has hundreds of thriving congregations and parachurch ministries.
Pittsburgh’s first synagogue opened in 1855, and a major branch of the Jewish faith — Reform Judaism — grew out of a conference held in the city in 1885. Today, large Hindu temples grace Penn Hills and Monroeville, and Muslims worship at mosques in Oakland and the Hill District.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which began in the Hill District in 1808, is the oldest black congregation in Pittsburgh. African-Americans founded dozens of congregations (45 in the Hill District alone by 1930), which provided social, economic and spiritual benefits. Many African-American congregations participated enthusiastically in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and after.
The first Catholic mass was held at Fort Duquesne in 1754, and Pittsburgh’s first Catholic church (St. Patrick’s) began worshipping in 1808. A diocese was established in 1843, headquartered in Pittsburgh, to serve Catholics in a six-county region. The Pittsburgh metropolitan area today is home to 650,000 Roman Catholics.
Beginning in the 1880s, Pittsburgh became one of the largest American centers of non-Roman Catholic parishes, most notably the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church. The city also became a major hub for Eastern Orthodoxy after 1890.
A weekend retreat in February 1967 involving 25 students, two professors and a chaplain at Duquesne University gave birth to the Catholic charismatic renewal movement. Today, an estimated 120 million people around the world participate in this movement.
Pittsburgh has been home to five seminaries — three Presbyterian, one Episcopal and one Byzantine Catholic, four of which are still operating. United Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Byzantine Rite Catholics, the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America, and the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America have all had their national headquarters in Pittsburgh.
In the 1970s Pittsburgh experienced a religious renaissance. During this pivotal decade, the Coalition for Christian Outreach, the Pittsburgh Offensive, Trinity School of Ministry, Summer’s Best Two Weeks camp, the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation and the Labor-Management Prayer Breakfast were created.
Thanks to the success of its three major sports teams, Pittsburgh has been called the City of Champions; a sizable number of Christian Pirates, Steelers and Penguins have been vocal about their faith, including Clint Hurdle and Mike Tomlin.
Hundreds of thousands of Pittsburghers have worked, in the words of Samuel Shoemaker, the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, to make the city “as famous for God as for steel.” They have helped build a city in which compassion, righteousness, respect for differences and generosity have flourished. Their zealous efforts have produced much good fruit: transformed lives, innumerable acts of kindness, improved institutions, and a more just society.
Gary Scott Smith, Ph.D., is the author of “A History of Christianity in Pittsburgh.”