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Migration causing Pittsburgh congregations to dwindle

| Monday, May 2, 2011

The enormous stones that make up West End AME Zion Church in Elliott look like clumps of burnt sand.

Years of soot stained the 124-year-old building, giving the Romanesque church located off the West End's main drag a distinguished look.

Eight-foot red doors welcome parishioners; a green and yellow Howard Hanna Real Estate sign welcomes potential buyers.

"The building is just too much for us to handle," said the Rev. Gerald D. Akrie, the church's pastor since 2004. "We've had some people move out of town, some newer members and younger families join. We're about averaging the same amount of people as the last seven years.

"It's just maintaining a building of that size has gotten to a place where it's more of a burden than anything else."

Church officials say the decades-long population shift from Pittsburgh to its suburbs and surrounding counties drained the city of many faithful churchgoers. Officials said the city's population decline left once-cherished and flourishing churches behind to languish in disrepair as congregations moved to newer quarters.

Suburbanization and "white flight" have caused attendance at urban churches to drop, said Stephen Merino, a research associate for Penn State University's Association of Religion Data Archives.

"Downtown churches have shrunk to where they got closed down or demolished, or they're now just tiny congregations that are just holding on for dear life," Merino said.

The exodus

In Pittsburgh, dozens of churches once supported a population of nearly 700,000 after the arrival of Czech, German, Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants in the early 20th century.

With the collapse of the steel industry, however, the city lost an estimated 250,000 people by 1980. From 40 percent to 50 percent of them were Catholic, said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"We lost a large number of people," Lengwin said. "And the population has continued to dwindle."

Marie Kopchinski, 72, once regularly attended services at St. Michael the Archangel along Pius Street in the South Side. The church closed in 1993 and then became Angel's Arms Condominiums.

"I grew up in that church. I think the whole neighborhood was sad to see it go," Kopchinski said. "Now, my home is my church. My Bible is my pastor."

On especially significant religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, she attends a church in White Oak with her family.

"Some of my friends went to other churches nearby, but even they say it's not the same," she said. "It's never the same when it's been your only church."

About 54 percent of people who claim a religion in Allegheny County identify themselves as Catholic, according to Penn State's Association of Religion Data Archives. Nineteen percent say they are mainline Protestant, 10 percent are evangelical Protestant and 6 percent are Hindu. The remaining 11 percent follow other faiths.

While Pittsburgh's population continued to decline in the 1980s and '90s -- falling almost 9 percent from 335,000 to 306,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to the Census Bureau -- the population in northern Allegheny County and southern Butler County grew. Cranberry, for example, increased by nearly 19 percent, from 23,625 in 2000 to 28,098 in 2010.

"The demand there is very heavy," said the Rev. Kris D. Stubna, diocesan secretary for Catholic education.

In 2008, St. Kilian Parish School in Mars became the first school to open in the diocese since 1964. A capital campaign is under way to raise $54 million to $60 million to build Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry to house 1,000 students.

"Most of our schools in that area have waiting lists," Stubna said. "We're moving to where our people are."

A strong job market coupled with public amenities, good housing stock and high-performing school districts are pushing population growth in northern Allegheny and southern Butler counties, said Susan Balla, executive director of The Chamber of Commerce Inc., which serves northern suburbs including Cranberry, Mars, Marshall and Franklin Park. Window manufacturer Traco Inc., purchased by Alcoa in August, plans to hire 300 people in the next three months at the company's Cranberry location; last year, Westinghouse opened its global headquarters, with about 5,000 jobs, at a 1-million-square-foot facility in Cranberry.

"It means the communities are expanding and the businesses have more customers," she said. "It also means it brings businesses, not only expanding business for the existing ones. Churches and schools are attracted by population growth."

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church is selling its North Side building, which it has occupied since 1958, and moving to McCandless on property it purchased from La Roche College. It will become the 14th church located in McCandless.

"We believe people move to McCandless because of the quality of life here, and certainly church life is a part of it," McCandless Manager Tobias Cordek said.

In addition to Catholic churches, other denominations are moving to suburbs -- or flourishing there.

Hillcrest Christian Academy off Bethel Church Road in Bethel Park hopes to add five to 10 classrooms in the next few years to address two years of increased enrollment, said Alan Ciechanowski, the school's development director.

Redeemer Lutheran Church & School in Oakmont tentatively agreed to purchase Shenandoah Elementary School from the Penn Hills School District. And the Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg -- the by-product of the merger last summer of St. James School in Wilkinsburg and Holy Rosary School in Homewood -- opened in August.

"What we're seeing is a change in demographics, and families with children don't tend to view the inner city as the ideal area of choice to raise a family," said Joseph Rishel, an urban history professor at Duquesne University.

Left behind

In 1920, half of the county's 1.2 million residents lived in Pittsburgh, with the other half spread throughout the rest of the county, according to census records. Today, 25 percent of the county's residents live in the city, data show.

In 1964, the heyday of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, the diocese had 311 parishes and 130,000 students were enrolled in 292 parish schools.

By 1995, the diocese had shrunk to 220 parishes, with 36,000 students in 126 schools. Today, it counts 209 parishes and 22,000 students in 102 schools, according to the diocesan directory.

"It's not really a Catholic school problem," Stubna said. "It's a regional problem."

Vacant churches can be a development problem, said Rob Stepahny, executive director of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority.

"Vacancy and abandonment are detriments," he said. "Whether it's a rowhouse or a turn-of-the-century church, any time a property doesn't have someone maintaining it, it can be harmful to a neighborhood."

Churches in Allegheny County sold nearly 400 properties between January 2005 and January 2011, according to RealStats, a South Side-based real estate information firm. Most were sold to other churches, but private investors bought at least 50.

Closed in 1998 and 2002, respectively, Emanuel Lutheran Church in East Pittsburgh and St. John's German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lawrenceville became private residences. The former St. John the Baptist Church in Lawrenceville closed in 1993 and reopened in 1996 as Church Brew Works. The Priory hotel opened in 1987 in the former St. Mary's Church in the North Side.

Akrie, pastor of the church in Elliott, said two people expressed interest in buying the building to live in it, although he said he'd like a church to remain there.

Still, he said, "As Christians, it's not about a building. We could meet under a tree and that's church. I think the church is the people, not a structure. No matter where I go, I'm in church."

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