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Church members celebrate centennial

| Monday, April 18, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

Singing the words "Christ is made the sure foundation," the parishioners of First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh on Sunday opened a centennial celebration of their Downtown home.

The Sixth Avenue stone church has survived floods and depressions, rising numbers in the pews that drove expansions and dwindling ranks that left seats empty. About 200 people gathered to mark the passing of history and to pledge themselves to the future.

"Many of us believe God has always allowed the church to exist and brought us through the trials and tribulations," said Shirley Starrett, of Scott, a member since 1985 and the church's volunteer historian.

The church with its two-story stained-glass windows and its dark wood balconies first opened on Palm Sunday 1905. Built on land purchased in the 1780s from the family of state founder William Penn, the structure is the fourth for a congregation dating 230 years.

The Rev. Dr. Maitland Alexander first dedicated the church -- and the congregation rededicated it yesterday -- with the hope that it would serve as a "refuge for all the storm-tossed, a shelter for the shelterless -- as a great rock for rest for the weary and as a stream for refreshment for the thirsty."

So, on the anniversary of its building, the congregation of First Presbyterian honored not only the bricks and mortar, but the many who had passed through the building and the work that has been done there.

Besides the weekly church service in the morning, First Presbyterian offered guided tours throughout the afternoon and table displays of old photos and historic records. The church will host an organ concert at 12:10 p.m. today.

Yesterday was a day to imagine the many thousands of baptisms, weddings and funerals that have taken place at the stone altar and for individual members to recall their own special moments there.

"It just reminds us of that great day every time we come," said Leon Perez, of Ross, who married his wife, Robin, in the church 17 years ago.

He sat in the vestibule during the service, feeding a bottle of formula to their 16-month-old son, Landan, who was baptized in the church. Their other sons, Evan, 10, and Jonathan, 8, sat in the balcony with their mother.

John and Kavitha Amaresan, of Flint, Mich., had been planning a getaway to Pittsburgh this spring, and they made their trip to coincide with the anniversary service. They were moved enough to extend their stay through today's organ recital.

"We thought, 'It should be a wonderful thing for us to be a part of it,'" said Kavitha Amaresan, 26, originally from southern India.

Jeff Adams, 22, of Arlington, said he understood their feelings of comfort in his church home. He only started coming there last year but counts himself as a longtime member.

"From the first second I entered the doors here, I have felt like I've been here my whole life," he said.

Even as the church marks its anniversary, the building needs work to repair leaks in the roof and basement and keep up with the ongoing maintenance of a historic structure, said business manager David Lacinski. First Presbyterian kicked off a yearlong drive yesterday to raise money for the building.

"It's a 100-year-old building, and the architecture is very ornate," Lacinski said. "When things do break, it costs a good amount of money to fix them."

Church members should be proud of reaching such an important milestone, but they must also remember their worship does not start and end with the building itself, said the Rev. J. Kevin Livingston, a visiting senior minister from Toronto, who gave the sermon.

He encouraged the congregation to continue taking its work out into the public and carrying its ministry throughout the week.

"I urge you just not to look back," he said, "but to look forward in faith."

With that message fresh in their minds, parishioners stood for one final hymn that started with the familiar words, "The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord."

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