Obituary: Rev. David Gleason / Strong pulpit skills and a personal touch
Jan. 22, 1947 -- March 8, 2017
March 19, 2017 12:04 AM
The Rev. David Paul Gleason, retired pastor of First English Evangelical Lutheran Church in Downtown, who died March 8.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When the Rev. David Paul Gleason became pastor of the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1989, the historic congregation was struggling as its membership was declining and its Downtown neighborhood was almost bereft of actual residents.
Rev. Gleason brought strong pulpit skills, a personal touch, an emphasis on reverent liturgy and musical excellence, and an appreciation for the heritage of the church, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2012 near the end of his tenure. By that time, the congregation had grown to about 760 members, nearly as it high as it had been in its mid-20th century peak.
Rev. Gleason, who served for 24 years at First Lutheran as part of a four-decade career in the ministry, died on March 8 at age 70 at his home in Millsboro, Del., where he had retired.
“David’s excellence in preaching and worship leadership was deeply appreciated,” said Bishop Donald McCoid, the bishop emeritus for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Also, he was a fine pastor. He knew the people, he knew their stories and he just had a warmth of interest in other peoples’ lives.”
Added longtime member John Harmon: “He had a thoroughgoing understanding of the faith. He held it deeply and profoundly. He had a remarkable ability to communicate that faith, both to our parish and to the Pittsburgh community at large.”
Rev. Gleason was also active in many initiatives to try to revive Downtown.
“He was a very good partner with us,” recalled former Mayor Tom Murphy. “The Downtown at the time wasn’t really seen as a neighborhood, and he talked about it being a neighborhood. Now it’s not as difficult to believe, but when you go back 20 to 30 years, it was a different place.”
The Grant Street sanctuary, dwarfed by Steel Tower and other nearby skyscrapers, had an active congregation in 1989, but its ranks were decreasing.
Among the things that Rev. Gleason found when he arrived was the congregation had been struggling to articulate a mission statement. This was his: “Our mission is to be the church.”
He emphasized more frequent communion services, including every weekday at noon for Downtown workers. He supported the church decision to acquire a new organ and do other building improvements.
“The beauty of our facilities and the care we give them are signs to the community of the value we give to our life in Christ,” he wrote early in his tenure at First Lutheran. “They are signs of our faith.”
He blessed a large cross before it was hoisted atop the church belltower, replacing one destroyed by lightning years earlier, during a crowded weekday ceremony. At another point, he blessed a trio of new bells, called Faith, Hope and Love, which had come from a defunct church.
The congregation, despite its Downtown location, even developed a strong children’s program, as many families had begun commuting to the church from miles around.
Rev. Gleason was born Jan. 22, 1947 and raised in Lawrenceville, the son of the late William H. and Margaret O. Gleason. He graduated from Peabody High School in 1964 and from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1968.
He earned his master of divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 1972, when he was ordained to the Lutheran ministry. He later earned the Doctor of Ministry degree in ecumenical studies from the Graduate Theological Foundation of Notre Dame, Ind., and he published sermons and other writings on liturgy and sacramental theology.
Rev. Gleason served churches in Gaithersburg, Md., and in East Berlin and Palmyra, Pa., before coming to First Lutheran. He retired in 2013 as the longest-serving pastor in its history.
He is survived by his wife, Joyce, their children Eric, Michelle and Michael and their grandsons, Charles and Miles, and by his brother, Bruce Gleason.
A memorial service is scheduled for April 29 at 1 p.m. at First Lutheran, 615 Grant St.
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.