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Downtown church moves forward after fire

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Candy Williams
Sunday, March 4, 2007

The colorful stained-glass windows bordering the sanctuary are obscured by intricate pillars of scaffolding, on which members of a restoration crew hover overhead. The pews are concealed by black plastic sheets, a day after the protective coverings were temporarily removed to allow parishioners to gather for another Sunday worship service.
On a cold Monday morning in February, the historic Smithfield United Church of Christ on Smithfield Street in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh is still recovering from a Jan. 1 fire. The fire destroyed the social hall and its centerpiece, a stained-glass window depicting Jesus and the children, and caused extensive smoke and water damage to the rest of the building. The Pittsburgh Fire Bureau ruled the fire an accident, and it was said to have been sparked by an electrical malfunction, according to church officials.

There were no injuries in the fire, and for that the congregation is thankful. But it obviously was not the way they wanted to kick off the church’s 225th anniversary year celebration. But the Rev. J. Douglas Patterson, senior minister of the city parish, sees the recovery efforts as a temporary inconvenience.

“This is not the church,” he says.

Indeed, the ministry of the church’s people goes beyond the boundaries of its soot-covered walls. It will be at least a month before the cleanup and rebuilding project will near completion, Patterson says, yet the daily business of the church goes on. In addition to regular services at 11 a.m. Sunday and at 12:10 p.m. Wednesdays, the church welcomes students from Northside Urban Pathways Charter School, who take physical-education classes in its gymnasium during the day, and as many as 90 homeless men and women who sleep there at night as part of the Emergency Cold Weather Shelter program operated by Allegheny County’s Community Human Services Corp.

With windchills dipping below zero several times in February, the shelter has been a popular respite, the minister says, offering the poor and destitute hot meals, warm showers and protection from the elements.

Along with four other downtown Pittsburgh churches — First Lutheran Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. Mary of Mercy Roman Catholic Church and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral — Smithfield also participates in a Walk-in Ministry that provides groceries and other assistance to those in need in the downtown community. Every fifth week on a rotating basis, each church opens its food pantry and supplies the needy with packaged and frozen food, along with household cleaning products and health and beauty supplies bought from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Rena Thomas, business administrator at Smithfield United Church of Christ, oversees the program at Smithfield and makes sure the pantry and freezer in a room off her office are well-stocked. She says she serves 55 families on a regular basis each month in addition to new people who hear of the service from others. Most of the men and women who take advantage of the Walk-in Ministry live within a mile of the church.

In one of her reports to the church council, Thomas noted that in 2006, 641 individuals were served through the food-distribution program. Some 61 percent of them were 60 years old or older; 38 percent were ages 35-59; 68 percent were women, and 90 percent lived alone.

Thomas has worked for the Smithfield church since 1999 doing bookkeeping and office duties. She says that when the previous person in charge of the food pantry left, “Doug (Rev. Patterson) asked me if I’d take over. For most of (the people she serves), a lot would go without food if it wasn’t for us. I saw one woman who had a can of soup she was eating from for two or three days.”

Fellow parishioners have nothing but praise for Thomas’ abilities to seek out grants and donations for the program and to customize meals for her families.

“She is so extremely good at being able to talk to these people and see what their needs are,” says John Canning, a North Side resident and 30-year member of the congregation.

Nan Foltz, of Mt. Lebanon, who serves as president of the congregation, agrees. “Rena does such extraordinary work. Her reports at council meetings are incredible. I’m extremely respectful of the caliber of her leadership,” Foltz says.

Patterson says that since taking on the additional duties of administering the food ministry five years ago, Thomas has been instrumental in bringing in almost $20,000 in outside donations for the program.

The Walk-in Ministry is part of being a good neighbor, the pastor says, and that is a reputation that Smithfield United Church of Christ has worked hard to achieve. Patterson likes to refer to their outreach efforts as “extravagant hospitality.” It’s a commitment to community that members expect from being associated with “a downtown church,” he says.

“A downtown congregation is a different breed of people. They have to pass by a lot of churches that are more convenient to get here. Their expectations of a downtown church are higher. They expect more in the way the worship service is conducted, in the music and sermons, which is wonderful. People should have high expectations of their church,” Patterson says.

Unlike most houses of worship, Smithfield’s membership does not consist of a group of neighbors who live close enough to walk or drive a short distance from their homes to church. Because of the distance some members travel, the church has its business meetings and choir rehearsals before or after the Sunday church service to spare members the inconvenience of making another trip to town on a weekday evening. Patterson says he also uses e-mail and the church Web site,, to communicate with members.

“The Internet has been a wonderful tool for us,” Patterson says. “We’re surrounded by corporate Pittsburgh. Most people that I see on Sunday morning, I don’t see again during the week.”

Although his church doesn’t own a parking lot, parking usually isn’t an issue on weekends, Patterson says. The city Parking Authority has an arrangement with the Downtown Ministerium, of which Smithfield United Church is a member, to allow churchgoers Sunday parking in its garages for a $1 fee. Members must have their parking tickets stamped at church.

Patterson feels that diversity is one of his congregation’s biggest assets. The church was founded on the belief that everyone is welcome, as emphasized by their credo: “Ours is an inclusive congregation, committed to oneness in Christ across all boundaries of race, social class, culture, gender, sexual identity and disability.”

“It’s a non-issue; it’s just who we are,” he says.

Smithfield United Church of Christ, the oldest organized church Downtown, has been part of Pittsburgh since before it became a city. When the congregation was founded in 1782, Pittsburgh was a small village of about 250 people, mostly German immigrants.

In “Landmark Architecture of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania,” a book written by James D. Van Trump and Arthur P. Ziegler Jr. and published by Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (1967), the authors note that in 1787, the heirs of William Penn granted to the German Lutheran and Reformed congregations a plot of land along Smithfield Street between Sixth Avenue and Strawberry Way, but a building was not erected there until 1791.

The German Evangelical Protestant Church was formed by the two groups in 1812, and three consecutive churches were built in 1815, 1833 and 1875-77, each one bigger than the one before it. The church united with the Congregational fellowship in 1925 and is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

The current church building was designed in 1925 by noted New York architect Henry Hornbostel, who designed many other Pittsburgh landmark buildings, including Rodef Shalom Temple in Oakland, Soldiers and Sailors National Military Museum and Memorial in Oakland and the City-County Building, Downtown.

Albert Tannler, historical collections director for Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, says the Smithfield church is one of the few churches designed by Hornbostel. The Gothic Revival-style building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a contributing structure in the Downtown District National Register of Historic Places.

Tannler says the church’s design is unique in that its 80-foot-high spire was made from steel and cast aluminum, representing the first use of aluminum in building architecture.

“The architect wanted it to be all aluminum, but the Building Code people wouldn’t allow it to happen,” Tannler says. “People weren’t sure in the 1920s about how strong aluminum was. The city required that the frame be built of steel and the panels made of aluminum.”

Another artistic feature of the church is the sanctuary’s elaborate stained-glass windows, created by Von Gretchen Studios. Several themes are represented in their design, including the chronological story of the life and teachings of Jesus, people and places with special meaning to the church heritage and scenes related to Pittsburgh’s history. Two additional stained-glass windows near a staircase leading to the sanctuary depict Moses and Paul, and the Lord’s Prayer written in German and in English. At the rear of the sanctuary, in the narthex, are the Faith, Love and Hope windows inspired by Scripture verses.

At a time when some churches are dealing with declining membership and dissatisfaction with traditional worship services, Smithfield United Church of Christ — which has not abandoned its conventional service in favor of trendy contemporary formats — continues to grow.

Church membership is about 230 members, with average attendance at the 11 a.m. Sunday service totaling 110. Members come from as far as Cranberry and Saxonburg in Butler County, Murrysville in Westmoreland County and Washington in Washington County.

Canning attributes the church’s staying power to “the worship experience and the strong commitment this church has to serving the city. This church operates 24/7,” he says.

Foltz says that even new members feel comfortable taking leadership positions alongside men and women who have been with the congregation for years. She is especially proud of women who have stepped up to serve when needed.

“Women of our congregation historically have been so strong and have been such role models for their participation and caring,” she says. “We have a nice blend of people who understand hospitality, or to use the phrase Doug uses ‘extravagant hospitality.’ ”

That kindness has been returned by others in the community, especially during the tenuous days after the fire in January, Foltz says. Owners of the nearby Smithfield Cafe opened their doors to the congregation so that a Mardi Gras celebration could go on as planned, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branch on Smithfield Street arranged for Patterson to use their Internet service.

Members continue to gather at the Smithfield Cafe for a fellowship meal on the first Sunday of each month after a service that celebrates the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Church members prepare and serve the meals and clean up afterward. A free-will offering is taken, and all worshippers are welcome.

During a Sunday morning worship service two weeks after the Jan. 1 fire, the congregation paid tribute to the stranger who discovered and reported the blaze, a Jesuit priest named James Conroy, who noticed the smoke while walking past the structure.

Church member Mariruth Stoecker-Keebler shared her gratitude toward Conroy with fellow parishioners in The Spire, the church newsletter:

“I am a fourth-generation Smithfielder,” she writes. “My great-grandparents, immigrating from Germany on both the Finder and Stocker sides, worshipped here at Smithfield. This is where my parents met as teenagers in ‘Pilgrim Fellowship.’ They married here. Our family has served on many committees/church councils and taught many Sunday school classes — proud to be part of this church’s history. The City of Pittsburgh could have lost an important part of its history New Year’s Day, but thanks to someone who saw and cared, the building and its congregation are still very much alive.”

Patterson assures his congregation and the Downtown community that cleanup efforts will continue — and so will the mission of the church. Plans are under way for several special events to coincide with Smithfield’s 225th anniversary. On April 15, John Thomas, the general minister and president of the church’s governing body, the United Church of Christ, is scheduled to deliver the sermon. The Rev. Pete Weaver, who served as pastor from 1977-88, has been invited to return to the pulpit for a worship service on Oct. 28. Co-chairs of the 225th Anniversary Committee are Glenn Callihan and Conway Keibler.

Canning, who serves as the congregation’s unofficial historian, says that if church leaders learned anything from the fire, it’s to be more protective of records that document church history.

“We have archives dating back to the late 18th century,” he says. “None were damaged, but the fire made us more conscious of being a little more careful to better protect them.”

The message inscribed on one of the stained-glass windows, “For we are saved by Hope” (Romans 8.24), seems to speak to the church’s rebuilding efforts.

Foltz says she has thought a lot about the fire recently and its effect on church members. Even before the incident, the church council was preparing a facilities-needs study and a strategic plan to guide its future ministry.

“In the Bible story of Moses and the burning bush, some interpreters talk about the bush burning, but it was not consumed. It was God’s message to Moses that ‘You can have a fire, but not have it consume you,’ ” Foltz says. “We did have a fire and our social hall did burn, but it has not and will not consume us. I believe it is clarifying us, helping us to understand where we go from here.”

About the church

* Bethlehem Haven, a Pittsburgh women’s shelter that celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2006, was started at the Smithfield church in December 1981, where it remained for 18 years before moving to new facilities Uptown in April 2000.

* Henry John Heinz, founder of the H.J. Heinz Co. and great-grandfather of the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz, was baptized in Smithfield church in 1844, the year he was born.

* The church bells were refurbished in 2000 and ring every day at noon.

* The sanctuary’s baptismal font was carved from a piece of pure Italian marble.

* Although women were not granted the right to full voting membership in the congregation until 1921, members of the church’s Ladies Aid Society led the way for the creation of an orphanage in 1888 and a home for the aged in 1891. In the 1920s, they spearheaded a crusade to provide funding for widows. The group today is known as the Women’s Fellowship.

* Jim Donovan, drummer for the band Rusted Root, facilitates a drum circle at the church for interested participants. Drums are provided, and beginners are welcome. The cost is $10. The church owns several djembes, which are small African hand drums. For more information, call 412-281-1811.

* The massive cleanup effort after the Jan. 1 fire will include refurbishing the church organ console and organ pipes — all 3,743 of them. The organ was custom designed by William Mellor in 1967.

Source: Smithfield United Church of Christ

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633