Mass signals end for century-old parish in Pittsburgh
Most of the unusually large crowd that packed St. John Vianney on Sunday had cleared the historic Catholic church building’s pews for the final time, but Frank Sporter wasn’t ready to leave yet.
The usher and lifelong parishioner shed a few quiet tears as he took photographs of the archways and stained-glass rose windows surrounding the altar, where he made his first sacraments during childhood and baptized his three now-adult children.
Starting Monday, neither Sporter nor any Catholic parishioner will be allowed back inside the church built by German immigrants on Climax Street, its twin steeples piercing the skyline of Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood for more than 100 years. The parish has been dissolved, its membership divided among three other churches.
“It’s very, very difficult. It’s like we just had a funeral here,” Sporter, 61, said about an hour after the afternoon closing Mass. “We’re not going to feel our Lord Jesus in this building any longer.”
A standing-room-only congregation at the closing Mass mourned the loss of St. John Vianney, the latest Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh church to fold amid a decline in churchgoer numbers and mounting expenses.
“I’m not happy about it,” said Marge Park, 90, of Mt. Washington, who made her First Communion at the church, known as St. George for most of its 105-year history. “I just hope they don’t knock it down.”
Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik announced the decision to close St. John Vianney in July after more than a year of discussions with the church’s members, priests and lay leaders. The move was “first and foremost a pastoral decision,” meaning “that it is being done primarily for the good of the care of souls and the mission of the church universal,” said John Flaherty, diocesan secretary for parish life.
In a Jan. 23 letter to parishioners, Zubik outlined the “hard facts” that triggered the closure: “The neighborhoods that your parish serves have lost much of their Catholic population. Few new people have taken the place of faithful parishioners who have died.”
In 10 years, the population in the area declined by 27 percent while St. John Vianney’s membership plummeted by 77 percent, from 5,852 to 1,358, the diocese said. Weekly Mass attendance fell from 850 to 392.
Zubik cited the need for more than $1 million in repairs and debt topping $3 million.
More than 150 Diocese of Pittsburgh churches have closed in three decades, with former mill towns seeing the most closures.
St. John Vianney was the result of a 1994 merger of St. George, St. Joseph, St. Canice and St. Henry parishes. Its territory spanned Allentown, Arlington Heights, Belzhoover, Knoxville and Mt. Oliver. Zubik divided it into three churches: St. Basil in Carrick, St. Mary of the Mount in Mt. Washington and Prince of Peace in the South Side.
“It is very hard,” said Margaret Sporter, 92, of Mt. Washington, a 68-year church member who had planned to have her funeral and burial with the parish, which is where she celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary.
The St. George Preservation Society, a group formed in August, is appealing Zubik’s decision to close the building. The group, which says it has raised more than $70,000 and has hundreds of backers, wants the diocese to outsource care of the building to the society as a supporting arm of the parish.
“From our point of view, the closing Mass on Sunday is not necessarily the final Mass,” said society spokesman Bob Kress.
The fate of the church building remains in question. The diocese says it has no current plans to sell the property.
The parish cemetery, and a $740,000 pot of funds earmarked for its care, is being transferred to St. Basil. Displaced St. John Vianney employees who do not find positions at a successor parish are getting severance packages, the diocese said.
St. John Vianney’s food bank will continue to operate out of A Giving Heart, a nonprofit across the street. Church leaders worked with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to transfer the food bank’s charter to St. Mary of the Mount, which is renting space at the nonprofit to preserve the weekly food handouts.
The Rev. Michael Stumpf, the administrator helping to lead the transition, lauded the food pantry achievement in the last weekly bulletin.
“But, these communities and all their people need more, and to experience the love of God in other practical ways.” Stumpf wrote. “We are just not sure what those ways are yet.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or [email protected].