Polish Hill holds distinctive style of arts festival

The stately Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, designated a historic landmark in 1970, dominates the skyline of Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood.

Completed in 1908, the church, modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, served the neighborhood’s community, which for the most part immigrated from all parts of Poland and settled on the hill starting in 1885. More Poles arrived in large numbers by 1895, and most were families made up of steel mill workers, many of whom helped built the church on weekday evenings and Saturdays.

Leslie Clague, a resident since 2006 and community outreach coordinator for the Polish Hill Civic Association, said that the area once known as Springfield Farm began to be settled in the late 18th century by English, Scottish and later Irish and German settlers but that the Poles became the majority by 1900.

Starting back in the 1930s, the church began holding an annual summer festival, open to everyone but organized largely for the parishioners as a church fundraiser. In 2008, the civic association started a summer arts festival intended to be more inclusive.

“The PHCA drafted a letter to our pastor asking us to use our church hall for their festival,” said Mark Dobies, president of the church council and lifelong Polish Hill resident. “When we discussed the issue, I said that we had all the tents and booths still up our festival, so why not let PHCA use them to stage theirs.”

The first couple of years, the arts festival had a small turnout, but recently it’s experienced a growth in attendance. This year’s festival is slated from noon to 9 p.m. Sunday at the intersection of Brereton and Dobson streets. It will feature 40 arts and crafts vendors, food vendors with church parishioners selling ethnic food, and three areas with hands-on activities for all ages.

“Because the festival tends to draw a younger audience, we’ve asked the food vendors to include vegetarian and vegan items,” Ms. Clague said. “For instance, Polish Hill resident Keith Fuller, owner of Root 174 in Regent Square, will be making vegan falafel, YinzBurgh BBQ plans to sell smoked tofu and Blue Dust of Homestead is serving vegan and vegetarian items.”

The event will also have a mix of live music throughout the day, including Latin and Spanish bands such as Timbeleza, a dozen Brazilian drummers who will bring in samba dancers as part of their performance.

“This is not a typical arts festival; it's relaxed, quirky, eclectic and has a lot of personality,” Ms. Clague said. “It reflects the spirit of our neighborhood, which is evolving into a diverse and vibrant creative community. A lot of former residents come back.”

The neighborhood reached its largest population around 1940 when the census counted 5,880 residents but began dropping after World War II. It declined even more in the 1970s and ’80s with the decline of the steel mills. Non-Poles subsequently began moving in, and currently those of Polish ancestry number less than half the current residents.

“Part of my job is to link the old with the new and establish connections between the two,” Ms. Clague said. “The neighborhood has been changing since the 1990s when a revitalization began. Polish Hill is in a great location, just minutes from Downtown and surrounded by growing communities like the Strip District, Lawrenceville and Bloomfield. As a result, the neighborhood is a desirable place to live.”

On the other hand, the church is experiencing a reverse trend. While membership on paper counts close to 850 families, Mr. Dobies said only about 20 percent of these participate in church services, which include a Polish Mass at 9 a.m. every Sunday.

“Participation is dwindling, and we’re very concerned,” Mr. Dobies said.

Despite falling participation, the parish festival is ongoing. Scheduled from 1 to 10 p.m. Saturday, the festival includes Polish and other foods, games of chance and a Polka Mass performed by Ray Jay and the Carousels at 4 p.m..

“Our members have already made 180 dozen of a mix of potato and cheese, sauerkraut and cottage cheese pierogies,” Mr. Dobies said. “We’ll also have stuffed cabbage,  haluski and frozen czarnina (duck blood soup). If you want the czarnina, get here early because it goes fast.”

Details: 412-681-1950.

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com

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