Thursday, March 17, 2011

forty-sixth visit: March 20th 2011 United Church of Christ (and German Archives)

11:00am sunday

Smithfield United Church of Christ
(and German Archives, 9:45am)

620 Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh PA 15222

downtown, central business district (golden triangle)

(I have so much to say. I am fully embracing the sentence fragment for efficiency. Not that I have not before...)

When I contacted Donn, the church archivist, for a visit to the tower's sixth floor, where the church records are kept, I had no idea how much history I'd stumble upon. Whereas on Thurs (44th visit) I spent time with the oldest Catholic Parish in the 'burgh (1808); today was devoted to the first organized congregation in Pittsburgh. Ever. The oldest one. 1782. German. I didn't know this until I got there.

Archiving was Donn's profession before retiring, and he continues with the task at Smithfield UCC. To my concern about finding him on arrival, he emails: "Just look for Santa Claus." No doubt, his lovely white beard makes that part simple. To spend a minute with Donn is to immediately sense his kindness, generosity, wisdom and his gentle, nurturing personality. He begins by emphasizing the nature of the church's mission: inclusive across all boundaries of race, social class, culture, gender, sexual identity and disability.

When Donn's duty of church archiving began here, members brought him records found in random drawers and cabinets throughout the church. He sorts, organizes, and allows others access via appointment. He'll also do his best to research for families who are unable to travel to Pittsburgh—families tracing lineage and wanting to know, for example, the maiden name of an early Pittsburgh German settler... often listed on the church's baptism, marriage and/or death records. And the records: they are BEAUTIFUL. Hand-scripted in German, fountain ink, the pastor's hand: gorgeous. Leather-bound books, in rows on shelves; the most precious stored in acid-free boxes. The oldest are written in Old German; sometimes prompting Donn to consult the minister of First Lutheran for help translating. Even then, some such puzzles are not always solved. Some handwriting illegible. Donn is generous enough to pull out for me the original deed for the land the church sits on (roughly the whole block), a transaction with the Penn family, no less. (See photo above.)

Don also gives me a tour. The building is magnificent. It's the congregation's sixth home, built 1925-26. (The first was a log cabin.)
The 12 stained glass windows in the sanctuary were designed in Columbus, OH and Munich, Germany; figures in a style that evokes Maxfield Parrish or the Pre-Raphaelites. Downstairs includes a social hall, a gymnasium (in the winter used as an over-night cold weather shelter for homeless), and even a room once used for film projection.

9:45-10:45am: an hour full of history. I'll just spew out the rest of what I found to be most interesting: German inscriptions top arches' peaks of the 3rd floor sanctuary—German was spoken at services through the 1920's—the first 140 years of its establishment. The current building was erected on the former church's cemetery. The bodies were moved, of course... then moved yet once more, poor bones. Fire in 2007 spared the sanctuary but left much smoke damage. Insurance covered the cost of scaffolding to allow for ceiling-cleaning. Ladders would not have even come close to necessary height. Additionally, the walls and ceiling are not simple smooth plaster; all in molded relief pattern. Not a quick, easy scrub, to say the least. The 19-foot rose window (that's almost four times my height) at the front of the sanctuary was transported from the church's previous building. Visually, this church is well worth a visit.

Time passes so quickly during service. Mention of Japan and Libya. A plea to find a way to create peace in the life of others just once this week, a nod to Lent. A choir is accompanied by one of the few working organs I've experienced in the city. (In other churches organ maintenance becomes too much of an expense and pipes lay silent.) The sermon: It's your life. Seeking answers to problems introspectively, spiritually.

Afterwards, I speak with Reverend Patterson, who warmly welcomes me. Meet Hannah and Tara. (I do hope you email me! Would love to keep in touch. And Doris, who has been coming to this church since she was born. Her grandparents immigrated from Germany and began her family's generations of membership. Conway came up to me as I lagged after service to draw. His wife Betty ushered me to the post-service lunch, free to first-time visitors. Thank you, especially to Donn. Not to be forgotten.


  1. Becky -- I am so glad you found us and included us in your fascinating project. (I'm not sure what it says about the diversity of our visitors at Smithfield that I didn't even notice anything particularly out of the ordinary about your dress!) I've been going back and reading every entry in your blog, and I do hope you will return to Smithfield once your project is finished to share your artwork and your reflections. Thank you! -- Rev. Liddy Barlow, Minister of Christian Education.

  2. Cheers to you, Reverend Liddy! I hope I can visit again, too.