As much as you’ll find Pittsburgh’s diversity reflected in its culinary options (you can have, for instance, outstanding French food at Le Lyonnais, Peruvian street food, excellent Mediterranean fare at Poros, or generous Thai dinners at local favorites), you’ll also find it in the city’s religious heritage. From college chapels to Croatian cathedrals to Ukrainian churches, the city boasts some astoundingly beautiful churches built for its myriad ethnic communities. These are my favorites.
#1 Smithfield United Church of Christ
The oldest organized church in Pittsburgh has gone through five church buildings since its founding in 1782. Five years later, William Penn’s heirs gave the deed to their property (far out from the then little village) to the small congregation, many of whom were German. Today, the sixth church stands proudly on that same plot, now smack in the center of Pittsburgh’s business and shopping district. Completed in 1926, the Smithfield United Church of Christ feels a little hemmed in by surrounding buildings. A thin veneer of stone and decorative concrete panels hides the steel structure beneath it. The austere façade didn’t strike me as particularly memorable, except for the gorgeous openwork spire atop the central tower, a unique construction of complicated webbing made from aluminum — the first architectural use of aluminum in the world. Inside, however, I was completely astounded by the beautiful rose window (at 18 feet in diameter, it’s a survivor from one of the previous churches) above the altar, the fantastic organ on either side of that window, and the Gothic arches along the side walls filled in by tall stained-glass windows depicting both the life and teachings of Jesus, and the history of Pittsburgh and this congregation, including a visit by President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861. A liberal use of dark wood, for the pews, the organ casing, and the lower walls, contrasts nicely with the soft, cream-colored walls. High up on the walls, two German inscriptions — “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe” (“Glory to God in the highest”) and “Ein’ feste burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God”) remind you of the church’s heritage. The most impressive feature of all, of course, is the stunning ceiling. Magnificent pendants drip down from the intricately carved panels, bosses, and ribbing, holding the chandeliers that illuminate the interior. The whole thing looks like a plaster meringue confection, whipped, carved, and solidified into utter perfection.
#2 Saint Paul Cathedral
On the way back from the Carnegie Museum of Art to catch a bus to my hotel, the wonderfully quirky Hotel Monaco, I was stopped in my tracks when I turned a corner and stumbled upon the magnificent Saint Paul Cathedral. This gorgeous Gothic Revival cathedral dates back to 1906, when it was completed as the third incarnation of St. Paul’s, the prior two having been located downtown. Although this location in the Oakland neighborhood was out of the way at the time, it is now the intellectual center of Pittsburgh, and the cathedral is right at home in the middle of it. Inspired by Cologne Cathedral, the architects of St. Paul’s created a glorious church that serves the spiritual needs of about 3,000 parishioners — a structure so wonderful that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Its twin bell towers soar up to 247 feet. In between, a statue of St. Paul is mounted on the top of the center pediment; other evangelists and apostles stand in niches along the front of the façade, and grotesques grin at you ferociously, or comically, depending on your disposition. I entered through the central door, adorned with fancy ironwork. The groin vault ceiling and Gothic arches are straight out of Europe, and striking stained-glass windows on three levels throw colored light into the side aisles and nave. A frilly reredos stands behind the altar, and angels, cherubs, and columns support the marble baptismal font. Beautiful carved Stations of the Cross and oak woodwork line the walls. The only non-Gothic-looking element of the cathedral is the huge organ, built in Germany and installed here in 1962. As the first mechanical action organ to be installed in an American cathedral in the 20th century, this fine instrument attracted artists from the United States and Europe to create “sounds which had scarcely been heard in America…shaped by expert fingers to produce music of extraordinary beauty,” a tradition that continues today through the cathedral’s concert series. I’m sure such sounds are remarkable, and much to the liking of everyone the cathedral has hosted, including the likes of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.
#3 First Presbyterian Church
Like Smithfield United Church of Christ, First Presbyterian Church seems a little crowded by taller and more modern neighbors, although the adjacent cemetery, between it and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, provides some relief. Also like Smithfield, this church received its land from the heirs of William Penn. The fourth and current version of the church was completed in 1905 in the Gothic Revival style. Plenty of Gothic arches can be found at the entrance, in the central window, and in the twin bell towers. Gargoyles leap out from the towers, and grotesques, I would imagine, scare off any evil spirits lurking about. At the entrance, I found something I had never seen before: the church’s original hours for services etched in a stone shield (morning at 10:45, evening at 7:45). Through the 30-foot-tall oak doors, each weighing two tons, I entered the church, immediately impressed by its height and width. With no columns inside, the interior feels roomy, and nothing obstructs its wonderful highlights, like the stone walls, wood ceiling, and carved pew ends. Raised galleys for extra seating run along the walls, cutting in half the church’s most famous feature: 13 hand-painted Tiffany stained-glass windows. Each window is 26 feet high and just over seven feet wide. The lower sections depict scenes from the first four Gospels of the New Testament, while the upper sections portray heavenly images, heavy on the angels. They were produced in a unique manner, involving a particular kind of glass, plating, and lead — and they remain the only windows ever created in this manner.
#4 Church of the Epiphany
Unlike the crowded churches in downtown Pittsburgh, Church of the Epiphany is wide open for admiration. Just a block or two east of downtown’s fringes, this striking red-brick Italian Romanesque structure with Byzantine details and terra cotta trim joined the List of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation Historic Landmarks in 1998, 96 years after it was built as a substitute for the last St. Paul’s Cathedral downtown, which was being demolished. Epiphany flourished for decades until a destructive urban renewal project in the 1960s decimated the surrounding neighborhoods, slashing the number of its registered families from about 1,800 to 350. Until then, Epiphany served a multi-ethnic parish of Germans, Irish, Italians, Lebanese, and African Americans, and was well known for its “printers’ Mass,” a weekly Mass that was named in honor of newspaper employees who first requested it and that was held from 1905 to 1991. Now it serves a more transient population: students, faculty, and staff from nearby Duquesne University; medical staff and visiting family members from the nearby hospital; guests at a handful of nearby hotels; and attendees at the convention center. The church holds an annual “Blue Mass,” which honors law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty, and an annual “Oldies Mass” on Christmas Eve. Anyone attending any of these will be impressed by the church’s lovely façade, with its twin bell towers, rose window, tall statues, and recessed arches. The interior is bright and airy, with tall Corinthian columns, a high ceiling with a fresco of the Four Evangelists above the transept, and lovely stained-glass windows. A wide use of marble keeps everything feeling cool, and scattered mosaic accents on the floor add a little panache. Combined, these elements blend in perfect harmony, made even more festive if you attend the weekly fish fry every Friday.
#5 St. Stanislaus Kosta Church
This historic church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was completed in 1892 as the first Roman Catholic church for people of Polish descent in Pittsburgh, who, at the time, composed 30 percent of the people living in the Strip District. The most famous Pole to ever visit the church was Pope John Paul II, back in 1969 when he was still a cardinal. Despite a few disasters along the way (a flood in 1936 brought water levels inside up to the top of the wainscoting on the walls, and a nearby explosion that same year weakened the church’s towers and blew out dozens of windows), St. Stanislaus Kosta Church survives. Blending Romanesque, Baroque, and Byzantine styles, the brick church features walls measuring nearly two feet thick. At the front of the church, gold cupolas top the twin towers that house seven bells, and a Latin inscription reads “For the greater glory of God” above the central rose window. Inside, however, it’s all Polish, including the text for the colorfully painted Stations of the Cross. A massive crowned canopy covers the altar, a curved staircase leads to a lacy preaching pulpit, and raised galleys curve at their ends. Experts widely regard the church’s stained-glass windows as some of the best “Munich style” stained glass in the United States. Religious figures such as saints Stanislaus and Philomena come alive in brilliant colors — a wonderful contrast to the gorgeous murals on the ceiling, depictions of Biblical stories and events in Polish history in painstaking detail and muted colors. When he visited this church, the future pope commented on how beautiful it was, and how it reminded him of churches in Poland. Indeed, he was right on both accounts.