‘Fasting, confession prayer,’ Orthodox churches fight drop
PITTSBURGH — The bright blue cupolas atop SS. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church are an unmistakable landmark in Jeannette — symbols of a parish once home to more than 50 Russian families.
In Monessen, families used to fill folding chairs beside packed church pews during Sunday services at St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church.
Not so today. Not at St. Michael, not at SS. Cyril & Methodius and not at many other Orthodox churches in southwestern Pennsylvania.
George Essey, 81, was one of 16 worshipers at St. Michael on a recent Sunday. He was one of 10 the Sunday before.
Worshipers and leaders attribute struggles at their parishes to the region’s transformation from a booming, steel-fueled immigrant haven to the epitome of Rust Belt decline.
More than 20,000 people lived in Monessen in 1930. Today, the town is home to less than 7,500. Jeanette’s population in 1930 was 15,000. It’s about 9,600 now.
Evidence of change is everywhere. Just take a ride through Monessen, Essey said while talking with the Very Rev. Sam Smolcic before a recent weekday Lenten service. It used to be hard to walk through the streets without bumping into somebody.
“Four of five people abreast on a Saturday night was typical,” said Smolcic, 64, a longtime Orthodox leader in Mon Valley communities. “(Monessen) is not even a mere shadow of its former self.”
But population and economic declines are only part of the picture, said Archbishop Melchisedek (Pleska), head of the Orthodox Church in America’s Pittsburgh Archdiocese. While two parishes in Allegheny County have closed, others, such as St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, are thriving.
“There are still people there and still people who are unchurched, and it’s our business to be open to them and invite them in,” he said.
The OCA’s Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania has a parish development program that helps struggling churches assess their strengths and weakness. While the OCA has its roots in the 18th-century Russian Orthodox mission to Alaska, it more recently has tried to position itself as a truly American expression of Orthodoxy.
The Rev. Lawrence Daniels keeps old ledgers written in Cyrillic script inside his office at SS. Cyril & Methodius, relics of the parish’s ethnic past. Daniels, 78, and his wife, Sophia, labor to revive the tiny parish with what he calls the principles of hospitality, love, prayer and humility. The church has added one member in each of the five years he has served there. Today, attendance at Sunday Divine Liturgy ranges from 15 to 17 people.
“I don’t know if we can turn it around here, but we’re trying,” Sophia Daniels said. “We believe that if it’s God’s will that it survives, he will send new members. If it’s not, then that’s OK.”
The Lord rises on Easter
Orthodox Christians traditionally rise at dawn on Easter Sunday, ready to spend the day celebrating Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Their churches have never been a major force in the American religious landscape, but Orthodoxy has had its moments in the sun. Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos appeared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the cover of Life magazine in 1965. Layman Michael Dukakis ran for president as a Democrat in 1988. An altar boy named George Stephanopoulos became a top aide to President Bill Clinton and now is chief anchor and chief political correspondent for ABC News, co-anchor of “Good Morning America” and host of “This Week” on Sunday mornings.
But laymen and clergy say the real moment in the sun for most worshippers is Orthodox Easter, known as Pascha. Orthodoxy celebrates Christ’s resurrection with a bright display of liturgical pomp mostly unknown in other denominations.
“Without the resurrection of Christ, there is no church, there is no Christianity, there is no hope,” said the Rev. Tony Joseph, 79, pastor of St. Stephen’s Orthodox Church in Latrobe. “It’s the day the world was created for — the resurrection of the son of God.”
In much of southwestern Pennsylvania, fewer and fewer families celebrate Orthodox Easter in the tradition of their ancestors. The onion domes and Byzantine crosses that dot the landscape in so many communities speak now more to the area’s past than present.
Local Orthodox origins
For decades, the region served as a “motherland” for Orthodoxy outside of the old country, said Alexei Krindatch, research coordinator for the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States.
Immigrants flocked to southwestern Pennsylvania’s steel mills and mining jobs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Orthodox churches sprang up from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, as immigration waves of Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Arabs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Ukrainians and Carpatho-Russians came to the area.
The earliest Orthodox churches here tended to be multi-ethnic. Small groups of immigrants from different places joined together and formed congregations, according to Kristie Bosko Mertz’s History of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania .
An early survey of St. Alexander Nevsky Church — Western Pennsylvania’s first Orthodox parish founded in 1891 in what was then Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh’s North Side — counted as members 603 Serbs, 476 “Ugro-Rusins,” 162 Galicians, 150 “Syro-Arabs,” 118 Russians, 29 Greeks, four Poles, two Montenegrins and one American, Moldavian and “Negro.”
As immigration from Orthodox regions increased, immigrants congregated according to ethnicity. Syrian immigrants founded St. Michael’s, the only Orthodox parish in Greensburg, in 1955, though the church’s roots go back to 1918.
Among its early members was Sophie Halaut Abraham, a Syrian survivor of the Titanic who settled in Greensburg with her husband, Joseph. She died in 1976 at age 82.
The Rev. John Nosal, St. Michael’s pastor since 1988, said churches often served as the center of social and cultural life for their members.
The birth rate in those immigrant communities sustained churches into the second and third generations. But a dramatic membership drop began as communities lost jobs and subsequent generations left the churches, Nosal said.
“We’re not living in anything close to the same world that existed in 1988,” he said. “(We need to) recognize that we probably weren’t doing well for any reason other than the fact of family ties, neighborhood ties, ethnic ties and the spiritual ties of Eastern Orthodoxy. All of those things are very much diminished.”
America in general has become less religious. In 1998, 61 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup said that religion was a “very important” part of their lives. In 2016, 53 percent of respondents felt that way. The same year, only 25 percent said religion was “not very important,” up from the 11 percent who answered “not very important” in 1999.
A survey of 35,000 Americans released by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining. The number of adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.
Decline among mainline Protestants and Catholics has driven Christianity’s overall decline, Pew found.
Orthodox Christianity, by comparison, is faring well nationwide, according to Krindatch’s estimates. Between 2000 and 2012, the total number of Eastern Orthodox parishes in the United States increased 17 percent. Between 220,000 and 230,000 people pray at 1,900 churches across the country on any given Sunday, Krindatch said.
Orthodoxy’s fastest growth is occurring in the South and West — parts of the country benefiting from overall population growth.
Chrisia Johnston, 49, and husband Lynn, 65, saw as much while working as cross-country truckers. The couple belong to Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Belle Vernon and often stopped at different parishes out West while on the road.
“There was a church in Oklahoma that was just packed,” Chrisia Johnston of Smithton said. “It was amazing.”
Holy Resurrection is among a handful of Orthodox churches in Southwestern Pennsylvania with a stable, if not growing, congregation. About 80 to 90 people attend Sunday services.
St. Michael’s in Greensburg is another. Membership there is slightly less than 200 families. Average Sunday attendance is about 100. The arrival of 10 first-generation Syrian families in the last decade helped.
Latrobe’s St. Stephen’s has about 33 families on its membership rolls. About 45 people attend church on an average Sunday, Joseph said, not enough to call the parish thriving but better than many counterparts.
St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Wilpen, not far from Ligonier, was founded by immigrants who came to work in the Wilpen Mine & Coke Works. The parish will celebrate its centennial in two years.
It once boasted 150 members but Joseph now finds only about 20 people there, most of them elderly, when he visits twice a month on Saturdays. Two people — one 18, the other 50 — are inquiring about becoming Orthodox.
“The town is dying,” he said. “There’s only a fire company, a church and a bunch of houses.”
Path to salvation
Leaders differ in their approaches to strengthening their congregations. Some Orthodox jurisdictions, both locally and nationally, have successfully courted converts.
Laymen and clergy point to Orthodoxy’s historical roots — with traditions of prayer and worship largely unchanged dating back to antiquity — as a particular draw. For the truly pious, Orthodoxy is the closest modern equivalent to the church of the Apostles, they say.
But Joseph said the very things that make Orthodoxy distinctive among Christian denominations — an emphasis on fasting, confession and unchanging worship — put it out of step with American culture.
“It’s too easy not to be Orthodox,” he said. “It’s the strictest, most conservative religion in the world. It’s very simply why we’re struggling — people don’t want to be told what to do.”
Monessen today is home to four Orthodox churches: one Greek, one Ukrainian, one Russian and St. Michael, an Antiochian parish. That made sense when the town’s economy supported thriving immigrant communities, each trying to hold on to a little piece of their homeland.
Those days are long gone.
Less than five years after celebrating its 100th anniversary, St. Michael is for sale. Real estate websites show it has been on the market for more than 250 days. It’s listed at $39,900, a $10,000 reduction from the original asking price.
The Rev. Fred Pfeil, the church’s pastor, believes the path to salvation lies in unifying Monessen’s Orthodox churches.
“Our ethnic heritages have been reasons to be separate in the past,” Pfeil said. “That’s why we have four different churches . but today pretty much all of us are removed from being immigrants. We’re all pretty much Americans, who can be proud of our American heritage, and that pride can be fostered and used.”
Church is the place people go to have a relationship with God, he said. It’s where they share the sacraments. It’s where they learn that there is something out there greater than themselves.
“Beyond that, it’s a place where families can stay close, where extended families can stay together and where different families in a community can knit together and become (one) family,” he said.