'Pittsburgh Prays': A new book visits 36 houses of worship


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Abby Mendelson was 17 when a University of Pittsburgh recruiter arrived at his senior high school on New York's Long Island and persuaded him to travel west for his college education.

During his sole visit to the Oakland campus, Mr. Mendelson and his mother were dazzled by Heinz Memorial Chapel. Now 66, the author, teacher and veteran chronicler of Pittsburgh has included that memorable landmark in a print-on-demand book called "Pittsburgh Prays."

Priced at $30 and available on the Internet, this collection of engaging essays, coupled with excellent color photographs by Brian Cohen and Tim Fabian, recounts the vibrant faith, stories and traditions at 36 local houses of worship.

Mr. Mendelson is the author of two books about the Pittsburgh Steelers and a collection of essays called "Pittsburgh: A Place in Time." He was co-author with C. Prentiss Orr and Tripp Clarke on the 2008 publication "Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred: 500 of the More Famous People Who Have Called Pittsburgh Home."

To narrow the scope of this most recent book, Mr. Mendelson and his collaborators set three criteria: The houses of worship had to have active congregations plus interesting history and distinctive architecture.

"I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at how much people love these places," he said. Besides home and work, "it's the classic third place for these folks in a world where the third place for so many people is Starbucks.

"Every crevice, every seat, every window -- it's so much a part of their lives."

After Pittsburgh's founding in the late 1700s, immigrants who came here from Western and Eastern Europe as well as the former Soviet Union built massive cathedrals and synagogues.

"By and large, working class people put their hearts, souls and savings into these places. Every nickel these people made they put into their own churches," Mr. Mendelson said.

Included are well-known East End landmarks such as St. Paul Cathedral and East Liberty Presbyterian Church plus Downtown houses of worship Trinity Cathedral, St. Mary of Mercy and First Presbyterian Church.

Lesser known is Pittsburgh New Church, a beautiful stone structure built in 1929 at the end of Le Roi Road in Point Breeze. This congregation's members believe in the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, spiritualist and engineer who reworked the teachings of Christianity into what he called the General Church of the New Jerusalem. Local adherents included John Pitcairn, co-founder of Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

A more recent wave of Indian immigrants, who began arriving in the 1960s and '70s, erected the city's first Hindu temple in 1976. A soaring white structure visible to Parkway East motorists, the Penn Hills structure is formally called Sri Venkateswara Temple. In nearby Monroeville, there's the Hindu Jain Temple, the Muslim Community Center of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara. There's a Zen Center in Bell Acres.

The variety of worship spaces surprised Mr. Mendelson. "I didn't expect the Buddhists, the Sikhs or the Swedenborgians' New Church. In terms of houses of worship, I didn't know they were here."

An Orthodox Jew who lives in Squirrel Hill, he wasn't sure he would be welcomed.

"I was brought up at a time when so many people looked for ways to separate religious people. I was called names. I was told that I was not allowed to go into certain places. I was told that I would not get certain jobs because of my religious background."

But when he visited with the other writers and photographers, "everyone looked for ways to make us feel at home and, in many cases, articulated common traditions for us," he said.

"I was profoundly moved by the great religious feeling that people across the area have, the reverence for their religions and these houses of worship."


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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