Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

In Dormont, a Tale of Three Churches

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

In Dormont, a Tale of Three Churches

Article excerpt

David Rasch recalled that when he was a young child attending Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in the late 1960s, hundreds of worshippers would gather beneath the soaring roof of its simple but stately Gothic sanctuary. Everyone from preschoolers to adults would fill the Sunday school classrooms.

It was here that Mr. Rasch was dedicated as a baby, where he was later baptized and where he served in numerous leadership roles.

"This was my church home for not quite 50 years," he recalled.

Nowadays he mostly has the church to himself. The American Baptist congregation dwindled to a handful of members by the time it closed in 2014 after more than a century.

"It does break my heart," Mr. Rasch said.

As the sole remaining trustee, he's been routinely patrolling the church interior and exterior, cleaning out clutter, picking up litter and checking for any repair needs during its more than two years on the market.

Mt. Lebanon Baptist (actually located in Dormont) was not alone in its fate. Within a few months of its closing, two churches less than a mile away also closed - Dormont United Methodist Church and Dormont Presbyterian Church.

The closings, within a short space and time, offer a vivid close-up of the changing religious map.

Each church was founded in the early 20th century amid the burst of South Hills suburban development that followed the opening of new trolley lines and the Liberty Tunnels.

Each was booming by mid-century.

And each dwindled below its ability to sustain itself into a second century. The Baptist church remains on the market. The former Presbyterian one became a satellite campus of a large evangelical church. The Methodist building is being renovated into a Buddhist temple.

In some ways, the trajectory reflects that of its community. Dormont's main artery, West Liberty Avenue, also prospered in mid-century with multiple car dealerships and department stores. By the early 21st century, many stores had closed or gave way to bigger box versions of themselves in newer suburbs.

Many of the original residents, or their children, moved elsewhere, and the congregations didn't connect as well with newer residents.

Ruth Hutchison began attending Dormont Presbyterian at age 14 in 1949 after her family moved to Dormont. There she was confirmed and married, there her five children were baptized and raised, and there members consoled her at times of loss. It was her "home away from home" right through to its 2013 closing.

"There was always something going on for the kids," Mrs. Hutchison recalled. "There was Sunday school, and you learned the books of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. In third grade you got your Bible. You knew you were one of God's children."

At its peak, "every seat was taken; you had to have ushers find you a seat," she said. …

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