Divine Beauty

Eastminster Presbyterian Church is restoring these stained glass windows one by one each year. The windows, along an outer gallery, originally came from the Third Presbyterian Church. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)
Divine beauty
Divine beauty

Pale light from a gray day filters through the garnet, emerald and cerulean of a stained-glass scene from Jesus’ life inside Eastminster Presbyterian Church. Almost imperceptible chinks mar the edges and corners of the glass.

“We think it’s important to have this kind of beauty,” said property manager Bob Phelps.

The craftmanship of bygone eras can be seen in numerous houses of worship across Pittsburgh, but many of the sunlit works of art are cracking or fading or just in need of repair after decades of weather, industrial grit and use.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has provided a financial lifeline to congregations for more than two decades via its Historic Religious Grant Program, just last month awarding $100,000 in matching grants to 15 Allegheny County houses of worship.

Three of those churches were awarded funding specifically to restore stained glass windows:

“We see an increasing need for our funds as houses of worship [experience] dwindling congregation numbers,” said David Farkas, the foundation’s director of real estate. “There is a big need, and we need more sources like this.”

Since 1997, the program has awarded $1.9 million in matching grants, leveraging $25 million in private investment.

The county’s houses of worship offer “some of the most important architecture in our region as well as historic significance,” Farkas said. “It’s necessary to offer some form of assistance.”

It’s not just about pretty windows either. To qualify, congregations must be in Allegheny County, at least 50 years old and must be “deeply involved in the neighborhood” — more or less de facto community centers, Farkas said.

Related: How stained glass gets renovated

This rose window at Baptist Temple Church is now undergoing restoration. Observers can see the dirt and paint spatters on the glass. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

The stained glass windows at Baptist Temple Church in Homewood have no Bible scenes, but they reveal messages through their colors: purple for the passion of Christ, yellow for hope and rebirth, and green for growth.

“The stained glass must have been very important to whoever designed this building because no matter where you were sitting, … you would be able to see and experience a window,” said Jane Nicholson, chair of the trustee ministry. “It wasn’t just one or two [windows]. They really thought that this was part of the experience, even if it was simply done.”

Green represents growth and yellow, hope and rebirth in the Baptist Temple Church's stained glass windows. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)
Cordell Harris, who co-led the window repair project, gazes at some of the Baptist Temple Church's many stained glass windows. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

Last year, the congregation renovated one of its two rose windows. The limpid greens of the rehabilitated rose window contrast with the dull purples and cloudy blues of the unrestored one. Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has granted $10,000 toward the second window’s repair.

“We want this church to stand for another hundred years and beyond,” Nicholson said.

Homewood’s population and economic base have declined steeply since the 1970s. That’s not lost on those at the church, who think investing in the building is an investment in the community.

“We believe that this church and other churches send a message of hope,” Nicholson said. “You feel safer and better if you’re in a building that’s well-kept, maintained and beautiful.”

A lily — symbol of purity, rebirth, new beginnings and hope — occupies the center stained glass window of this trio at Baptist Temple Church. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

Baptist Temple Church started in 1921, with the worshippers at first not having a building at all. The 23 founding members met in a private home or in Smith Hall on the south side of Centre Avenue near the intersection with North Highland Avenue in what is now Shadyside.

In 1922, the church bought some lots at Collier Street and Frankstown Avenue in Homewood and set up a cloth tent for services. After fire destroyed the tent, the congregation “moved to a structure of galvanized metal in March 1923,” according to a church history.

Finally, in November 1945, the congregation bought and moved into the sturdy yellow brick church with its many stained glass windows at 7241 Race St.

“That’s why we say we came from a tent to a temple,” Nicholson said.

The Baptist Temple Church stands at 7241 Race St., Homewood North. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

Once moved in, congregants quickly paid off the mortgage and began offering a junior church for children, missionary work, a choir and other spiritual services they had not been able to start without their own building. Membership grew.

Originally, Sunday services were held at 7:30 and 10:45 a.m. and 7 p.m. to accommodate the many congregants who worked different shifts in Pittsburgh’s mills. The congregation has about 300 members now and offers two Sunday morning services at 8 and 10:45 a.m.

This window at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, "Jesus Knocking Knocking at the Door," will be renovated this year. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

An arc of lime-green leaves on an amber field stretches over a stained glass scene of Jesus knocking at an arched door. Tiny, almost imperceptible chinks and chips mar his robe and the edges of the tableau.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s in horrible shape, but we want to catch it before it gets real bad,” said Phelps, the property manager.

Eastminster, at 250 N. Highland Ave., East Liberty, has many stained glass windows. Its high-ceilinged sanctuary soars with arched windows, square windows, gothic windows and medallions in a breathtaking profusion of jewel tones.

“Beauty opens up the soul and brings hope,” Phelps said.

Eastminster has almost countless stained glass windows and has been slowly renovating them for years. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)
Eastminster stands at 250 N. Highland Ave., East Liberty. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)
Eastminster's property manager, Bob Phelps, shows some of the stained glass windows in the sanctuary. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

The church has been repairing one window a year for roughly 15 years through Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s Historic Religious Properties Grant Program. Each window costs up to $35,000 to restore.

This year, the program granted the church $9,880 to renovate “Jesus Knocking at the Door,” one of a series of windows from the former Third United Presbyterian Church. The balance of the restoration cost comes from church funds.

The windows “were in pretty precarious condition when they were moved to Eastminster,” said Chuck Watkins, a third-generation member and possibly the congregation’s oldest living member. “The frames started to rot out. So we’re replacing the frames and repairing the windows.”

Many of the stained glass windows that came to Eastminster from the former Third Presbyterian Church have rotting frames. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)
Some pieces of lead around the stained glass pieces have separated from the window frame. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

Eastminster was founded in 1856, Watkins said. Before the post-World War II urban renewal project that disrupted East Liberty’s traffic patterns, the church was “for the upper class of Highland Park.... You don’t build a building like that without a lot of money behind you. It was built by wealthy people.”

After the change in East Liberty’s traffic pattern, the neighborhood and the church went into decline. Now, however, membership has stabilized “and more importantly, it has become racially equal,” Watkins said, with about half the congregation being Black and half white.

The current building has several renovation projects in process, including the cleaning and repair of its woodwork. Phelps also keeps his eye on the church’s more than 20 roofs and its four boilers, two of which run on steam.

An outer hallway at Eastminster contains stained glass windows from the former Third Presbyterian Church. The windows depict scenes from Jesus' life. (Laura Malt Schneiderman/Post-Gazette)

Eastminster — then known as Sixth United Presbyterian Church — merged with Third United Presbyterian, formerly of Shady Avenue and Northumberland Street, Squirrel Hill, on Jan. 1, 1962. In 1963, congregants changed the church’s name to Eastminster to avoid confusion with Sixth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Shady and Forbes avenues, Squirrel Hill.

Several community programs got their start inside the church, including the East End Cooperative Ministry, whose office is now at 6140 Station St., East Liberty.

The church still hosts other community programs such as Tree of Hope, which provides services for children affected by gun violence; the Judah Project for teaching music; and a publicly available fitness center inside the building.

The congregation has about 250 members and a 10:30 a.m. service on Sundays.

April 1, 2024: This story has been modified to clarify that the window being repaired as well as other windows on the same hallway originally came from the Third United Presbyterian Church.

Theresa Cochenour, chair of the Mount Vernon Community Presbyterian Church corporation, gazes at one of the stained glass medallions in the sanctuary. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

Farmers founded Mount Vernon Community Presbyterian Church, which sits atop a hill in Elizabeth Township. The breeze rustles through the trees as the vista spills from the back of the church over its cemetery to the Youghiogheny River.

Mount Vernon’s wooden sanctuary boasts few ornaments, but the most beautiful are seven stained glass medallions, skillfully embedded into each window.

“Whoever did this originally was a real craftsman,” said Theresa Cochenour, chair of the church corporation and the congregation’s unofficial historian.

The church has seven stained glass medallions. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

The church intends to use its $10,000 grant from Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to remove the medallions and hang them as sun catchers in front of new double-paned windows in addition to replacing the chapel windows for a total cost of about $35,000. Williams Stained Glass Studio in Castle Shannon will be handling the stained glass work. This is the first time the church has renovated its medallions.

“I think this is a good blend of the old and the new,” Cochenour said.

After Mount Vernon’s minister retired in 2020 and the congregation hired an interim minister, the church began a “great cleanup” in August 2021, sorting through the accumulated artifacts of 157 years of history.

In addition, the congregation has been renovating its building — repapering and repainting rooms, adding new lights and planning to bring its kitchen up to code and replace its asbestos floors.

Sunlight streams into Mount Vernon's sanctuary. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

One room holds the original pulpit and Communion table. A hallway display case features the original church school bell, a cross made from pieces of an original stained glass window and a 1912 photo of the congregation, among other historic pieces.

The church traces its origins back as far as 1866, when 118 people signed a petition to form a new church near Mount Vernon because the existing ones were too far away to attend regularly, according to church history.

Decades ago, the congregation broke one of the original stained glass windows into pieces and refashioned them as crosses, one of which is on display in a cabinet. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)
A photo of Mount Vernon's original wooden church building, left, hangs in a hallway. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)
Mount Vernon's front entrance is part of a 1972 addition. (Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

Congregants built a wooden house of worship in 1867 on the present parcel. In the 1950s, the building was moved up the hill on the same plot of land, and a basement was added for a Sunday school and a recreation room. The church now uses the basement for a Scout room, meetings, a preschool and a kitchen.

In 1958, the congregation expanded the building to add space for the choir, pastor’s room, parlor and chapel. And in 1972, they added the fellowship hall and a new sanctuary.

The congregation now has 231 members and one 10 a.m. service on Sunday.

“We’re really trying to restore the church,” Cochenour said. “We want to entice people to come in.”

Laura Malt Schneiderman
Lucy Schaly
Sebastian Foltz