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Urban Ministry Rescuing Decayed Friendship Church

Monday, September 27, 2010
By Jon Schmitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Three years ago, the stately 19th-century sandstone church at Friendship and South Pacific avenues in Bloomfield lay in ruins and was targeted for demolition.

“Can this church be saved?” a newspaper article asked at the time. The answer, borne out by a leaking roof, missing windows, falling plaster, buckled flooring, peeling paint and pervasive mold and mildew, seemed to be “no.”

Since then, all manner of angels have descended on the former Fourth United Presbyterian Church.

More than 1,000 volunteers have helped to replace the roof, tuck-point the sandstone walls and gut the interior, upgrading its plumbing, electrical and heating systems, replacing windows and framing out space for classrooms and a kitchen.

Before the building celebrates its rebirth as Pacific Sanctuary, it will need a few more angels.

Earthen Vessels Outreach, which bought and rescued the building after it was slated for demolition three separate times, is trying to raise an additional $100,000 to finish a community center on the ground floor for the hundreds of at-risk children it serves from five Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

Thanks to volunteers and donated materials, the organization has spent only $450,000 while accomplishing an estimated $1.2 million to $1.5 million in improvements, project manager Ryan England said.

“It was said in the beginning that we could never do this,” said Marilyn Chaney, director of Earthen Vessels Outreach. “But we’re doing it and we’re going to keep doing it.”

“The question was asked ‘Can this building be saved?’ ” said her husband, the Rev. John Paul Chaney. “It’s been saved. The question now is if we can restore it.”

Most of the remaining work is finishes — flooring, ceiling tiles, lighting and bathroom fixtures. Volunteers will continue to buzz about, but some of the work requires the hiring of skilled professionals, Ms. Chaney said.

Mr. England, a California native who earned his master’s in civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and decided to make Pittsburgh his home and community service his vocation, said he can finish the ground floor in four to six weeks if funding is secured.

“Our youth programs have wait lists or are full or really crowded” in the ministry’s current space down the street, he said. “We have a hard time turning people away.”

The group serves about 200 children from Bloomfield, Garfield, East Liberty, Lawrenceville and Friendship on a regular basis and about 200 more sporadically with its after-school, day camp, performing arts, recreation and other programs.

“We feed every child who comes through our doors,” Mr. England said. The group serves 12,000 meals a year from its tiny kitchen.

“It’s a real struggle,” he said.

The ground floor of the church is being renovated to provide four classrooms — the current headquarters has none — plus a bigger kitchen and large gathering area.

Longer-range plans are to convert the main level upstairs into a recreation center and worship space for Seeds of Hope Church, also founded by the Chaneys, who moved to Pittsburgh from Chicago to launch their urban ministry about 10 years ago.

The church was built in the 1890s. Fourth United Presbyterian Church closed in the 1960s and was rented as a school building for about 10 years before being sold to a pair of ministers in 1976. Their congregation eventually abandoned the building and decay set in.

“When Ryan and I walked in, there was six inches of water on the floor,” Ms. Chaney said.

“And mold everywhere,” Mr. England added.

Mr. Chaney had tried to buy the church for years, once offering $250,000. When Earthen Vessels Outreach finally purchased it, in shambles, it fetched just $65,000.

A new red roof of aluminum and asphalt shingles, repointed masonry, new windows and French drains are protecting the volunteers’ investments inside, he said. “It’s structurally secured.”

Finishing the community center will enable the organization to gain the certification it needs to qualify for federal and state funding and expand its mission, the Chaneys said.

“We want it to be a peaceful place for young people to come and grow as human beings,” Mr. Chaney said.

To learn more about Earthen Vessels Outreach or to donate, visit or call 412-681-7272.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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