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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Rankin partnered with Gerald Driggs of Ground Floor Solutions, a social entrepreneurship firm that helps nonprofit organizations with business development. At the time, Driggs was inundated with requests from people wanting his help. Rankin caught his attention.

“Many, if not most, churches in this situation die. You can look at it all across Southwestern Pennsylvania — they die because there’s not a vision to take them to the next level. What caught my attention is that [Central Presbyterian is] taking the bold, aggressive step of, ‘We’re not going to die. Our congregation is going to be leveraged to do bigger, different things,’” Driggs says.

In January 2016, Rankin officially launched the nonprofit Faith Community Partners to connect with the community. By June, he took a bolder step — he left his job in the printing industry to work on this project full-time, without pay.

One of his first orders of business was to create space in The Depot for renovations. The old ceramics store was a graveyard, floor to ceiling, of old ceramic figurines. His cousin, Janet Darrell, and other volunteers came to help. Instead of throwing them away, they decided to clean them up and hold sidewalk sales to raise money. They washed the old pottery in a soapy tub, patiently cleaning the figurines, one by one, and setting them in the sun to dry.
 


Thirty minutes away in a studio in the West End, Central Presbyterian’s windows also were getting a bath. Small pieces of glass soaked in a warm electric griddle of water, letting decades of soot and putty float away.

It had been a long journey to this point. Before removing the windows, Cooper and Mills had broken out rolls of duct tape, creating huge “Xs” across each panel to hold all of the pieces together. The windows were in rough shape, with broken pieces and deteriorated lead — the black lines that outline the pictures and hold the glass together. In places, they bowed and bulged.

Kirk Weaver, owner of Pittsburgh Stained Glass Studios, studied one of the disassembled panels. These windows were made with two layers of opalescent glass, a style pioneered by the Tiffany Company. He ran his fingers through the thick layer of dirt that had settled in between the glass plating.

“That’s soot,” he says.

The soot is likely the result of the coal once used to heat homes and the exhaust produced by nearby steel mills. (A few still operate, such as Braeburn Alloy Steel, across the Allegheny River in Lower Burrell, and Allegheny Technologies Inc., just a few blocks away in Brackenridge.)

When the church windows made their debut in 1913, Tarentum was in the midst of a hub of industry, with entire streets of glass-making companies. Alcoa was across the river. Liberty Mirror, a division of Ford, was a mile away. Pittsburgh Plate Glass was a mile down the river.
 


 

Weaver appreciates Pittsburgh glass, though much of the glass made locally was for function, not art. In his studios, he keeps a map dating to 1878 and listing more than 70 glass makers who worked on the South Side, back when it was called Birmingham.

“Pittsburgh was big-time glass,” says Weaver, who keeps bins and boxes of glass from the early 1900s to use them in repairing old windows, rather than new pieces.

Making stained glass hasn’t changed — the same methods used to create the windows 100 years ago will be employed to restore them. It is a patient, gentle process — with some windows, each piece of glass will be handled 31 times. The only thing that has disrupted the stained glass industry’s process was the discovery of electricity. Once all of the lead is in place, a soldering iron is used to solder all of the joints, rather than pulling a piece of iron from a fire.

And in 100 years, someone else likely will take these windows apart, clean them again, and put them back together the same way.
 

 

Almost a year after Cooper balanced nervously on the outdoor scaffolding to take out Central Presbyterian’s window, he is back to reinstall it. With him is new craftsman Promise Clark. Cooper has gone from newbie to team leader.

“A little thicker,” he says, watching Clark squeeze out a bead of caulk into the wooden frame. They lift a panel of the window into the caulk and place a brace across the top.
Across the sanctuary, Dayton watches their progress. He’s preached through a long, grey winter in a sanctuary darkened by the plywood that has been in the window’s place.

“It looked like we were going out of business,” he says dryly.

Rankin stands with him, and they recall a concert that Central Presbyterian hosted the previous Sunday — a band of former Tamburitzans from Duquesne University. The concert is yet another of Rankin’s initiatives to reach the community, and it succeeded — it was one of their best-attended concerts to date.
 


 

“There were little kids dancing in the aisles. That’s probably the first time there’s ever been any dancing in this church,” Dayton says.

They watch as Cooper and Clark carefully place the panels back into place, slowly rebuilding the picture of Jesus with the children. At the top of their current panel, Jesus’ hand rests on the top of a child’s head. 

When Dayton preaches about this window at its formal rededication service, he will talk about its message: inclusion. It’s the same message Rankin shares as he meets with other local churches who want to join with Central Presbyterian in its outreach to the community. It’s the same message that spurs social-services groups to sign up to be a part of The Depot, which Rankin hopes to open in 2018. With that message of inclusion, he hopes the church can be a part of Tarentum’s story as the small borough reconciles its past, looks to the future and undergoes its own restoration.  

Frequent PM contributor Jennie Dorris is a journalist, musician and interdisciplinary artist. She is a research associate at Carnegie Mellon University and an artist-in-residence at The Neighborhood Academy.
 

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