Sacred Ground: 3 Houses of Worship Become Family Homes
Pittsburgh area homeowners give former religious buildings a facelift, aiming to preserve as much of the structures' legacies as possible.
photos by chuck beard
Choirs have sung in Charlotte and Alphonse Comeau’s sitting room. A community of worshipers once congregated in what is now a condominium complex on the South Side. A group of nuns lived under the roof of one family’s home in Morningside. Throughout western Pennsylvania, structures that once served religious groups have found new lives as single- and multi-family homes. Converting former churches — which go through a process of desanctification in which religious articles are removed — and convents into personal residences requires creativity, ingenuity and for some owners, a bit of faith. For many, the goal is to allow the buildings to remain a testament to their original purpose in the community.
An interest in retaining what can preserved from a building’s history while celebrating its design elements is a common trait shared by many owners of former religious structures. Charlotte Comeau and her husband, Alphonse, live in the former St. Elizabeth Church in the village of Lawrence in Cecil Township. For them, that meant allowing the bright, vibrant hues of the stained-glass windows running the length of the first floor to remain a focal point while introducing decor that highlights their beauty.
“Each space between the windows was open, so we thought about doing something consistent, maybe some wallpaper inset in some panels. But then we thought that would just take away from the stained glass, so instead we decided to bring in original art,” says interior designer Angela Nolfi, who worked on the space with Charlotte Comeau. “Now it’s more a gallery, as opposed to something boring.”
Pieces range from a depiction of a decadent, dreamy hallway in the Palace of Versailles to a remarkably lifelike painting of a pack of wolves. Though the collection and color palettes vary, they work well in the spaces between the windows by amplifying the assorted pigments of the stained glass.
“Charlotte has a great, glamorous side to her, and a lot of the pieces chosen were definitely focused on her high style and love of fine things,” Nolfi says.
Charlotte and her now-late husband, Edward Greenwald, who died in 2006, purchased the building from the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1997. The church had served the community since the 1920s but had closed four years prior due to a decline in membership.
The couple also bought the rectory next door, which they used as offices for their mining-consulting business, Eavenson Auchmuty & Greenwald. (The couple later sold that building). Today, offices, conference rooms and record storage from the business take up the former church basement.
“My late husband wanted something unique, and we had been looking for years — train stations and places like that,” Charlotte Comeau says.
They spent some time on updates to the building while keeping what they could of the existing structure. The wood paneling on the walls is original, and the light fixtures that once hung down from the center of the church have been restored and moved off to the side. Stained glass required minimal restoration, she says. The couple also wanted to keep the space as open as possible while creating a second-story loft space for their bedroom. A solution came in the form of a wide, wooden Stickley-inspired staircase in the center of the first floor.
Both stories remain open, with furniture strategically placed to create separate sitting areas. While seating options are mainly neutral, a collection of handmade rugs incorporates color underfoot.
“Obviously the architecture in itself was challenging,” says Nolfi. “We tried to delineate each room and figure out the function of each space and also lay it out so it’s practical.”
Upstairs in the loft bedroom, the large round window above the bed blazes blue and violet. The ornate wooden headboard of the bed reaches up to touch it. To create a more intimate feel while working with the rounded ceiling, the couple added textured draping above the bed.
A set of narrow, winding staircases strategically hidden in what is now Charlotte Comeau’s closet reaches up to the bell tower, where large windows offer a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding rural area.
Today, the Church Street home is on the market, as the Comeaus plan to move. Lisa McLaughlin of Century 21 Frontier Realty, who is handling the sale, says the space would be ideal for residential or commercial purposes.
“I think this is perfect for any business that’s going to have the public come in — where they need to have a beautiful place to bring their clients that sends such a quality and positive message,” she says.
Another former religious building housing new tenants is Angel’s Arms Condominiums on the aptly named Pius Street in the South Side Slopes. The sprawling structure of the former St. Michael Church now houses 23 luxury living spaces; several remain under construction while others are ready for new inhabitants.
The church served the community from 1861 to 1993. Developer Tom Tripoli purchased the property from the diocese and began building in 2003. He created a structure connecting the church and rectory to form one massive property.
Throughout the space, touches of the building’s past in the form of stained glass and ornate columns hint at its original purpose. Perhaps the most striking feature is the sweeping vaulted ceiling, visible in the top-floor, two-story units. Large windows provide panoramic views encompassing the U.S. Steel Tower, downtown, to the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland and the bustling city in between.
“It’s such a great representation of the real Pittsburgh,” says Joedda McClain, who handles sales and rentals for the property, in addition to owning a unit herself.
Tripoli also owns a unit in Angel’s Arms. In the second floor of his unit, set atop the former altar, gilded arches of the high ceiling sweep past artwork of backlit sunbursts. Stained-glass windows admit more natural light. Living spaces are delineated only by furniture, allowing for unobstructed views and an open, airy floor plan, with sitting areas flowing into the meeting space, bar area and kitchen. Walls have been shortened for a bathroom in the middle of the otherwise open space to avoid obstructing the ceiling.
The first floor includes two bedrooms, two baths and large storage closets. At this level, the most appealing feature remains the view, which can be enjoyed from a balcony off the master bedroom.
The name Angel’s Arms is Tripoli’s nod to the building’s history and formidable physical presence.
“This was a real stronghold for the community when it was a church,” says McClain. “When you’re here, you get a real sense of fortress. You realize the city is beneath you and feel that you’re in a really stable building.”
In Morningside, a pair of longtime neighborhood residents has purchased the former convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a community of Catholic women dedicated to serving all realms of human life with a special care for the poor. The sisters ministered at St. Raphael parish and school from 1915 to 1999.
More than 300 sisters lived at the convent on Jancey Street over the years before they sold it in 2014; the current owners asked to remain unnamed.
“It’s a beautiful structure,” says Sister Judith Kenaan, a former principal of St. Raphael School who lived at the convent for more than a decade. “It lends itself to a certain depth of soul if you allow it to.”
St. Raphael parish purchased the convent in 1920. Thirty years later, the parish also purchased the residence beside the convent; a bridge joined the two houses. The second house served various purposes, including hosting refugees from Vietnam and a family displaced by fire.
In 1998, the Sisters of St. Joseph purchased both houses and renovated the St. Raphael convent for the novitiate. They also converted the second house into the Isabel House of Welcome Retreat and Meeting Center, named for Mother Mary Isabel Concannon, a sister who died in 1988.
Just four sisters lived in the convent, known as “Raphael House,” when both buildings were sold in 2014. They’ve since moved to other local convents.
Today, the owners say they are honoring the building’s history by leaving most of its design elements untouched. Their own appreciation for a vintage/Bohemian aesthetic works well in the massive space — 4,000 square feet in the main house alone — and creates a cozy, lived-in feel.
That vibe is felt most strongly in the library in the former chapel, where the owners have retained the stained-glass windows and confessional. A beam above the former altar is painted in gold lettering with the phrase, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” in Latin.
The space now serves as a different kind of sanctuary for the homeowners, with genres of books piled by category throughout the space, a wicker swing seat dangling near a window, potted plants and family mementos. In the interest of preserving the stained glass, the owners consulted an expert to replace a panel that had been removed to accommodate a window air-conditioning unit. Aside from removing carpet, the owners intend for this room to remain otherwise unaltered.
Priests had their own entrance off the chapel, and a vestment cabinet remains in the area where they prepared for Mass. That door leads to the spacious backyard — a key selling point for the family of four — featuring a pergola the sisters built, a pond and a thriving garden.
At the entrance to the main house, beveled glass and dark wood doors welcome visitors, who already have passed a pew on the enclosed front porch. To the left is the family room, with an original single-panel sliding wood door providing an extra privacy option.
Tall, wood-framed windows allow for plenty of natural light throughout the home, and owners make ideal use of it with small desks and plenty of plants often positioned directly against the glass. Multicolored area rugs add pops of playfulness throughout the first floor.
One area set for a complete overhaul is the kitchen, now made up of a small work area, adjoining galley storage space and mudroom. The owners plan to remove a wall to open up the space and accommodate an eight-burner BlueStar stove as well as an island running through the middle of the space. The only other major renovation plans call for replacing vinyl tile throughout the home with hardwood floors.
On its second and third floors, the house bears some resemblance to a labyrinth, with 10 tiny bedrooms scattered throughout. Each room is numbered with a sticker on its doorframe — a lingering nod to earlier days when the sisters used the small spaces to house all of their earthly possessions. Some rooms now are designated for family members; others have become closets or catchall spaces, as storage is limited.
A short bridge connects the community room — now the family’s TV room — and the second house, which contains an additional 2,000 square feet. The owners say they intend to rent it eventually; they considered separating the two structures but changed their minds due to a hefty price tag for the brickwork that would have been required.
Sister Judith says her first memories of the building date back to her elementary-school days when she took piano lessons there, as did many other children in the community. She also recalls Halloween at the convent, when lines would wind down the front steps while each costumed child waited a turn for the nuns to fuss over his or her effort.
During prom season, high-school sweethearts also stopped at the house to visit the sisters before heading out for their special night.
“They made good use of the building,” Sister Judith says. “It was a very nice place to gather and make you feel at home during special times in your life.”
In the main house foyer, a small, gold-hued statue of a woman stands atop the last rail of the ornate staircase. Neither Sister Judith nor the current owners know her story — the statue was there before the sisters moved in. But the sisters always kept her illuminated all night, and the new owners say they will do the same.
Rachel Weaver LaBar is a longtime Pittsburgh-area journalist who has written about everything from school board meetings to Broadway performers. Born and raised in the South Hills, she studied at Point Park University and lives in Pleasant Hills with her husband and their daughter.