Migration Causing Pittsburgh Congregations to Dwindle
Brandolph, Adam, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The enormous stones that make up West End AME Zion Church in Elliott look like clumps of burnt sand.
Years of soot stained the 124-year-old building, giving the Romanesque church located off the West End's main drag a distinguished look.
Eight-foot red doors welcome parishioners; a green and yellow Howard Hanna Real Estate sign welcomes potential buyers.
"The building is just too much for us to handle," said the Rev. Gerald D. Akrie, the church's pastor since 2004. "We've had some people move out of town, some newer members and younger families join. We're about averaging the same amount of people as the last seven years.
"It's just maintaining a building of that size has gotten to a place where it's more of a burden than anything else."
Church officials say the decades-long population shift from Pittsburgh to its suburbs and surrounding counties drained the city of many faithful churchgoers. Officials said the city's population decline left once-cherished and flourishing churches behind to languish in disrepair as congregations moved to newer quarters.
Suburbanization and "white flight" have caused attendance at urban churches to drop, said Stephen Merino, a research associate for Penn State University's Association of Religion Data Archives.
"Downtown churches have shrunk to where they got closed down or demolished, or they're now just tiny congregations that are just holding on for dear life," Merino said.
In Pittsburgh, dozens of churches once supported a population of nearly 700,000 after the arrival of Czech, German, Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants in the early 20th century.
With the collapse of the steel industry, however, the city lost an estimated 250,000 people by 1980. From 40 percent to 50 percent of them were Catholic, said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
"We lost a large number of people," Lengwin said. "And the population has continued to dwindle."
Marie Kopchinski, 72, once regularly attended services at St. Michael the Archangel along Pius Street in the South Side. The church closed in 1993 and then became Angel's Arms Condominiums.
"I grew up in that church. I think the whole neighborhood was sad to see it go," Kopchinski said. "Now, my home is my church. My Bible is my pastor."
On especially significant religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, she attends a church in White Oak with her family.
"Some of my friends went to other churches nearby, but even they say it's not the same," she said. "It's never the same when it's been your only church."
About 54 percent of people who claim a religion in Allegheny County identify themselves as Catholic, according to Penn State's Association of Religion Data Archives. Nineteen percent say they are mainline Protestant, 10 percent are evangelical Protestant and 6 percent are Hindu. The remaining 11 percent follow other faiths.
While Pittsburgh's population continued to decline in the 1980s and '90s -- falling almost 9 percent from 335,000 to 306,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to the Census Bureau -- the population in northern Allegheny County and southern Butler County grew. Cranberry, for example, increased by nearly 19 percent, from 23,625 in 2000 to 28,098 in 2010.
"The demand there is very heavy," said the Rev. Kris D. Stubna, diocesan secretary for Catholic education.
In 2008, St. Kilian Parish School in Mars became the first school to open in the diocese since 1964. A capital campaign is under way to raise $54 million to $60 million to build Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry to house 1,000 students.
"Most of our schools in that area have waiting lists," Stubna said. "We're moving to where our people are."
A strong job market coupled with public amenities, good housing stock and high-performing school districts are pushing population growth in northern Allegheny and southern Butler counties, said Susan Balla, executive director of The Chamber of Commerce Inc. …