Old East Liberty Catholic church has uncertain future
Plagued by vandalism, theft, site 'constantly deteriorating'
December 14, 2012 10:00 AM
The exterior of SS. Peter and Paul Church in East Liberty as seen on Tuesday.
By Kaitlynn Riely Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The twin spires of the former SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church rise high above East Liberty. Kendall Pelling can see them from his home in Garfield.
From there, the church is magnificent.
The building of brick and stone, built in 1890 and partially rebuilt after a fire in 1909, dwarfs the neighborhood it dominates, its spires framing a rose window set above a grand entryway.
It looks, from a distance, like a cathedral still sits triumphantly on Larimer Avenue.
"This place is only troublesome when you get up close," said Mr. Pelling. As a project manager for East Liberty Development Inc., part of his job is to get up close -- especially in the next few months, as East Liberty Development conducts a feasibility study on what to do with the building.
One morning this week, he walked around the grounds of the vacant church, which sits next to an equally decrepit rectory and a rotting structure that once housed the Larimer parish school.
He walked by heaps of trash dumped on the property and graffiti scrawled on walls. He pointed out the doors of the church, which have been boarded shut since they were broken down last week by crews responding to a fire set inside the building, likely by vagrants using it for heat.
The history of this church is well-documented, but its future remains a question, with three possible answers.
The building could be renovated for reuse, destroyed because it can't be reused, or -- and in Western Pennsylvania, this option would not be without precedent, Mr. Pelling said -- it could just continue to exist as it is, slowly decaying.
The story of SS. Peter and Paul hasn't always been this bleak.
It was built in the late 19th century for the large German Catholic community based in Pittsburgh's East End, and there it was a prominent landmark in a once-thriving community, said Justin Greenawalt of Friendship, who works for Franklin West apartment management company in Shadyside.
Mr. Greenawalt has spent a lot of time thinking about the old church, and not just because he sees it on his commute to work and on his frequent walks around the neighborhood. He studied the church as part of his 2010 thesis on urban renewal in East Liberty while pursuing a master's degree in historic preservation at Columbia University in New York.
In 2011, he wrote about the church in a proposal he submitted to the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, nominating the building as one of the top 10 preservation opportunities in Pittsburgh.
"I think it's a phenomenal piece for the area, and it's just sort of sitting unto itself on this little island, kind of waiting," he said.
It's been waiting for something to happen to it for a long time, and so has Loran Mann, bishop and founder of Pentecostal Temple Church, which sits on Larimer Avenue next to the old Catholic church. His church, which was built and held its first service in 1990, began its growth as the building next door was facing its rapid decline.
In the early 1990s, the interior of the neighboring church was still beautiful. But by then, a big church didn't mean a big congregation, and even as Bishop Mann's church was growing, attendance at the Catholic church was dwindling.
The parish ceased to be in 1992, when it entered a merger with five other Catholic parishes and the building was abandoned, Mr. Greenawalt wrote in his preservation nomination.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh sold the church in 1997 to Everlasting Covenant Church, an organization headed by Kenneth Stevenson, who was born in the Hill District in 1947 and grew up in East Liberty.
Mr. Stevenson, in a phone interview, said he hoped to restore the church as a site of worship, start a charter school in the former school building and live with his family in the former rectory.
But the site was plagued by vandalism and theft. And after five years, the charter for the school he started, which held classes at another site in East Liberty, was not renewed, said Mr. Stevenson, who now lives in LaGrangeville, N.Y.
The former landmark, still owned by Everlasting Covenant, has become a blight.
And now, on windy days, tiles high atop the building fall, landing sometimes in the parking lot of Pentecostal Temple Church, Bishop Mann said, just one way the church has been "constantly deteriorating" since the 1990s.
"It's a sitting duck for break-ins and people of ill will," he said.
Last week, city firefighters responded to a fire inside the church -- likely set vagrants trying to stay warm, although there are no suspects, according to Pittsburgh arson squad. It was the third time in two years fire crews have responded to fires set inside or around the building, an arson squad official said.
The building is an eyesore, said Al Mann of Highland Park, president of the East End/East Liberty Historical Society and no relation to Bishop Mann. But -- and here's the catch -- it's also an "architectural gem," he said.
"It's a treasure architecturally, and it would be a real shame to see it deteriorate further and have to see it condemned and demolished," he said.
Mr. Stevenson said he would like to see the church re-open as a site for weddings and other special events, maybe a museum. The solution, for now, to what lies ahead for the church may lie in the findings of East Liberty Development's feasibility study.
The $15,000 to $20,000 study will start in about a month and will last through April or May, Mr. Pelling said. His organization will look at the structural soundness of the building and try to figure out what it would cost to make the building suitable for uses -- for purposes ranging from a place of worship to a re-imagined brewery like the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville -- and what that would cost.
As he prepared to walk away from the building, Mr. Pelling picked up a copper nail that he said had probably fallen to the sidewalk from high atop the church.
"It's a tough cookie," he said. "Large church buildings are difficult to reuse, because they are so specifically designed for their use."
The old church could be a great asset to the East Liberty community, if it wasn't falling apart, he said.
"It helps define the place," he said. "Right now, it defines the place as decay and abandonment."