Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?
A small group of dedicated residents sees the restoration of their church in Tarentum as a window to the potential rebirth of their once-booming community in suburban Pittsburgh.
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Andrew Cooper, a craftsman with Pittsburgh Stained Glass Studios, sits high on a scaffold outside of Central Presbyterian Church in Tarentum. He’s leaning into its largest stained glass window, which features Jesus surrounded by a group of children. It depicts a story from the book of Matthew, in which Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Cooper is hammering a 5-in-1 painting tool, with a swooping, notched face and sharp edges, near Jesus’ feet. He’s removing the old putty that holds the glass to the support beams. Across the scaffolding, general manager Ralph Mills is doing the same. Cooper is new; he started a month ago and this is his second window removal. Mills has done, in his words, “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of window removals since he started working with stained glass in 1988.
“We’re just about ready to pull this sucker loose,” Mills says.
Central Presbyterian is restoring its prize window — the middle window of a set of three; the other two have been restored. Their colors shimmer with the light; details are crisp. In the middle window, a jaundiced Jesus looks as though he is welcoming children in a smog-filled thunderstorm. It’s not the fault of the Highland Stained Glass & Decorating Co. of Pittsburgh, which made the windows more than 100 years ago — it’s the Lexan, a durable plastic that yellowed with time since it was added to the outside of the glass to shatter-proof the windows more than 30 years ago. It’s also 100 years’ worth of soot trapped between the layers of glass. Craftspeople from Pittsburgh Stained Glass Studios, based in the West End, work on windows across the country, and they believe this project will be one of the biggest transformations they’ve seen in years. And members of the church are anxious to have it done; they’ve been raising money and writing grants for more than 20 years in an effort to restore their windows. To do so, they’ve turned to a stained-glass studio that has operated in its current location since 1909 — four years before the church opened its doors.
The restoration represents more than a beautification for the church. Central Presbyterian is pulling out all of the stops to try to renew itself from the inside out. Once flush with 1,000 members in the 1950s, it now has 75. Once fed by the families of booming steel, glass and aluminum businesses, it now serves an impoverished community in an emptied river town. As Cooper and Mills scrub clean Jesus and the children, the church — like so many others in once-prosperous communities throughout western Pennsylvania — must figure out how to survive. Are its message and services out of sync for a population more desperate to find a job first, faith later? Or could it become a place that towns such as Tarentum — which has dwindled from 10,000 people in the 1930s to 4,500 as businesses closed and people fled its flats for the suburban hills — need now more than ever? Located 20 miles from Downtown — a city center ripe with tech revival and peppered with self-driving Uber cars — Tarentum looks like a quiet ghost town from Pittsburgh’s steelmaking past.
“This is literally the end of the line. It’s called the forgotten part of Allegheny County,” says Dave Rankin, an elder at Central Presbyterian.
Rankin, 55, has been attending Central Presbyterian all of his life, and he now represents the third generation of his family to do so. He has seen the church’s attendance dwindle first-hand. He’s trying to change that by opening the church’s doors for reasons other than Sunday services.
The church’s flagship community program is a clothing ministry, housed in one of the old Sunday School bays in the basement. Volunteers sort the clothes on shelves and racks. A grocery-sized bag of clothes cost $2. Coats and shoes are $1 each.
Next to the clothing ministry is a kitchen, used to cook monthly $1 breakfasts, open to the public. The kitchen also is used as an incubator for a local start-up company Cracked Egg Catering.
Two Alcoholics Anonymous groups meet there, as do two Girl Scout troops. The local genealogy society uses the second floor for its lending library. There is an income tax-preparation service for low-income families, and parenting classes are offered by Family Services of Western Pennsylvania.
All of this community engagement earned the church a chance to restore its windows. When its leaders started looking into restoration in 1983, they knew they needed help financially — the total price tag to redo all of the windows would be hundreds of thousands of dollars. So they turned to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which offers a Historic Religious Properties Program to provide matching grants of up to $10,000 for exterior building repairs.
It was a good fit. PHLF gives those funds only to religious congregations that are reaching out to their communities.
“River towns prospered when industry thrived in this region,” says PHLF Executive Director Louise Sturgess. “When the plants cut back or shut down, religious institutions became the logical places to provide needed social services and support groups — from Girl Scout and Boy Scout meetings to AA meetings — [because] they had space and made it available to groups for free. When people were losing hope and a sense of belonging, the obvious place to turn for help and hope was the religious building, a place of tradition, beauty, culture and generosity.”
After 20 years of internal fundraising, Rankin wrote and submitted the church’s first grant in 2013, which PHLF awarded in 2014. PHLF awarded a second $8,000 grant the following year. For the church’s most recent window, PHLF gave $7,500 in 2016. Since 1997, PHLF has awarded more than 270 matching grants, totaling more than $1 million, and technical assistance for more than 140 sacred places in Allegheny County.
“Through the place, we renew the spirit of the people,” says Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of PHLF. “Historic preservation can be the underlying basis of community renewal, human renewal and economic renewal.”
As the first windows were refurbished at Central Presbyterian, they made a big impact. The congregation would point out the little flickers of colored light that would land on them during services. It was just as its pastor, the Rev. Robert D. Dayton, had hoped.
“The restoration of the windows can really serve as a metaphor for the spiritual restoration of the congregation. It’s saying that this church is here, and it’s here to stay,” Dayton says.
But Rankin wasn’t finished. The church’s open-door policy was showing him aspects of the community that he couldn’t ignore. A man came in needing to send a fax because the library was closed; it was a job application, and he was desperate. A woman stopped by, seeking a bicycle. She didn’t own a car and needed transportation to get to work. Rankin felt as though these and other stories added up to a community that was losing hope.
He started sketching out a vision. What if there was a separate building in Tarentum where people could go for a variety of social services? And what if he and the church could be the bridge, welcoming people in and connecting them with different organizations?
He looked at buildings in the downtown area to house his dream. In 2015, he found an abandoned ceramics store next to the library and made an offer. Here, he could house services and start a laundromat — the only one in town. A cafe. A meeting room. He called it The Depot; it faces Tarentum’s train station.
“There’s always discussion about, ‘Are we trying to get people in or reach outside?’ This was one of the best ways we could demonstrate that we’re not only willing to reach outside, but we’re willing to take a leadership role in the life of the community,” Rankin says.