Old church to celebrate Easter at sunrise
By Treshea N. Wade
Saturday, March 30, 2002
Jo-Anne Tierno has been visiting Old St. Luke’s Church in Scott Township since she was a little girl, and not just because it’s a picturesque historic landmark.
The church is part of her family’s history. She recalls looking during many visits for the burial stone of Jane Lee Nixon, one of her ancestors. Jane’s father, William Lee, donated the land where the church now stands.
Attending the Easter sunrise ecumenical service at the church has been a family tradition since 1984, said Tierno, a Banksville resident.
“I keep going because it’s a part of my history,” she said. “I think everyone is looking to connect with the past. Especially since the present is so crazy. People look to the past for stability.”
The church will hold the service for the 26th year at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. And the Rev. Richard Davies, curator of the historic church, expects the stone building that holds 150 worshipers to be packed, even though Old St. Luke’s has no year-round congregation.
Davies conducts tours of Old St. Luke’s Church — which dates to 1852 — and holds ecumenical services there for the Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“Easter morning is always jammed,” he said. “Who knows why people come, especially at that early hour.”
Perhaps it’s the church’s antiquity and all the tumultuous times that the building has survived, Davies suggested.
A stockade was built on the land in 1765, after British engineers were sent to secure a lookout to protect Fort Pitt from the Indians.
Several church congregations have gathered there but have been displaced during troubled times such as the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War and World War I.
The church closed in 1930 and fell into disrepair, said Davies, a retired Episcopal priest who serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon.
The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh owns Old St. Luke’s, but regular Sunday services haven’t been held there in decades. The nonprofit Old St. Luke’s Church, Burial Ground and Garden Inc. administers it, and Davies is the president of the board of directors.
The church is a primitive Gothic structure. The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation heralded it as one of 70 outstanding pieces of architecture of its type in the state.
After its closing in 1930, the church remained idle until about 1960.
“It just disintegrated. The plaster crumbled. St. Paul’s church worked at it as much as they could for about five years, but then from 1965 to 1974 it sat again, just idle,” Davies said.
The diocese at the time said that the building either had to be sold for $1 or given to Scott Township for use as a recreation site.
“We just couldn’t let that happen,” Davies said. “So with thousands of dollars in donations, we began to restore the church. It’s a great example of what restoration actually means.”
The church’s roof was repaired. Most of the floor was replaced with pine boards of random length for a sense of authenticity. New pews were added. Plaster was stripped from interior walls, revealing an inner layer of stone. And new, donated stained glass windows were installed.
Maude McDowell of Mt. Lebanon has attended almost all the church’s ecumenical services.
“It’s one of Pittsburgh’s best hidden treasures,” she said. McDowell is an original board member at the church, and a former wedding consultant who helped to coordinate more than 330 weddings there.
The Easter service should last about an hour. Speakers include the Rev. Dr. H. Pat Albright, former pastor of Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church, and the Rev. Dr. John Yohe, former pastor at the Chartiers Valley United Presbyterian Church.
David Frankowski, dressed in Revolutionary War garb, will read scripture, and Davies will dress as a clergyman would have in the 1790s.
Musicians for the service include Thomas Thompson, a Pittsburgh Symphony clarinetist, and his daughter, Alexandra, who plays the cello.
Someone also will play the church’s Joseph Harvey pipe organ, a rare English cabinet instrument that dates to 1823. Trinity Episcopal Church, Downtown, gave the organ to St. Luke’s as a gift in 1852.
Davies said the classic organ was the first one brought over the Allegheny Mountains, and arrived via mule pack.
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