Hail, Mary! The Marys of South Oakland and Oakland Square

ornate shrine to Mary including large brick and masonry grotto, statue of Mary on a stone pedestal, urns with flowers, candles, and angel statues
The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys. Shrine of the Blessed Mother aka “Our Lady of the Parkway.”

Welcome to South Oakland: childhood home of Dan Marino, Andy Warhol, and Bruno Sammartino. At least, that’s what the welcome sign on Frazier Street, at Dan Marino Field, tells us.

Those were the days, huh? One’s mind wanders to a time before Oakland’s tight, pre-war homes had mostly been converted into student housing. When it was still a neighborhood with a large Italian-American community full of workers who’d commute not to the current nearby ginormous eds and meds employers but instead south, down the hill, to the massive Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both banks of the Mon.

Setting aside the pesky reality of belching smoke stacks that blackened the sky and rained soot on everyone and everything, it must have been a pretty great place to grow up. The Carnegie museums, library, and concert hall an easy half-mile walk; Schenley Park, even closer; downtown Pittsburgh a mere trolley ride away. Football at Pitt Stadium (R.I.P.), boxing and hockey at The Gardens (ditto). Backyards overgrown with grape vines and fig trees; the intoxicating aroma of stewing marinara wafting from kitchen windows.

statue of Mary in grotto enclosure on pedestal in special attachment to front porch
On a porch of her own Mary

… and Mary. Oh! The mind reels at the thought of all those good Catholics sacrificing a half-week’s pay for a quality statue of Her Blessedship–blue-cloaked, head down, and palms out. Maybe she’s posed in a bathtub-shaped grotto or up on a pedestal–or both! In our gauzy rose-colored nostalgia-by-proxy, a saunter down Dawson, Ward, or Juliet was so rife with statuary that the stray houses without a holy figure stand out … but that’s probably just the imagination running wild, like usual.

statue of Mary in grotto with additional ivy grotto in front of house
Ivy grotto Mary

South Oakland and adjacent Oakland Square are an entirely different scene now. Great neighborhoods still, mind you, with all the same location advantages. Heck, around Chez Orbit, the area has crucial pins on the step-trek and cycling maps as entry point to the great Romeo & Frazier steps and gateway to the Panther Hollow trail. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine either neighborhood as childhood home to many kids today.

With the ever-gobbling-up of greater Oakland by the twin goliaths of Pitt and UPMC, Oakland’s demographic has shifted decidedly from working families to student transients. A stroll anywhere and you’ll see all the tell-tale signs of off-campus living: ratty porch couches, Tibetan prayer flags, Pitt banners, card tables laden with last night’s party debris. Religious iconography? Not so much.

Mary statuette in front yard flower garden, Pittsburgh, PA
Urnin’ a living Mary

But if you spend a little time, look around a bit, you’ll still find Mary doing her thing. She’s flanked by urn-styled flower pots and nestled between hedges. Mary peeks out from behind blooming flowers and serves her country under a patriotic flag-filled fantasia.

The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys is, of course, The Shrine of the Blessed Mother (aka “Our Lady of the Parkway”) (photo at top). Installed on a beautiful hillside nook where one can both relax in the solace of the space, take in its terrific view across the river, and pretend the unrelenting Parkway traffic below is just rushing water on a boisterous river … with random bursts of road rage. Yes, we’re obliged to do a whole story on the Shrine at some point.

statue of Mary in front of gas meter
Lovely Mary, meter maid

Until then, steps-seekers, park wanderers, and the Mary-obsessed alike can bask in the glow of The Blessed One’s dimmed, but still radiant aura emanating from the dozen-or-so figures and still-potent empty grottoes visible from Oakland’s sidewalks. If only we could peer into all those backyards! Untold riches almost certainly hide in these private spaces. For that, we’ll have to look to the heavens, say a little prayer, make the sign of the cross, and thank the Lord we can party with Mary whenever she’ll have us.

statue of Mary behind small hosta plant with solar light
Hosta mañana, baby! Mary is (solar) lit!
Mary statuette in front flower garden, Pittsburgh, PA
Peepin’ through the flowers Mary
Mary statue in front of brick porch with many American flags, Pittsburgh, PA
Patriotic Mary in coffin grotto
statue of Mary in front of brick house with hanging flower baskets
Mary of the Hanging Baskets
Mary statuette encased in brick and glass on front porch of house, Pittsburgh, PA
Still in the closet Mary
large empty brick enclosure meant for statue of Mary
Maybe Mary fell out? Leaning/empty grotto
empty masonry grotto built into brick front porch of house in Pittsburgh, PA
You grotto be kidding! Empty grotto
homemade brick Mary grotto with Jesus figurine and toys, Pittsburgh, PA
Former Mary grotto, re-inhabited by squatters

Whole Grotto Love: The Marys of Stanton Heights

cinderblock and brick residential wall with five different statues of Mary
Multiplying Marys. The (now) quintet of Marys (and friend) that greet visitors to Stanton Heights.

Most people will blow right by without ever giving the place a second thought. The little post-war brick and cinderblock house sits a comfortable distance off Stanton Avenue, tucked behind a curve in the road, and probably won’t even catch your eye when you’re barreling up the hill. It’s not the house itself that’s so exciting here, but rather the miracle of the multiplying Marys that is taking place out front.

Five years ago, your favorite hyper-local electronic publication ran a story that attempted to round up some of our favorite Marys from all over the place. [See: Hail Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup (Nov. 27, 2016)] Yes, it was naive to bundle so many Marys from so many places together when seeking them out and collating them into location-based sets is so satisfying. Lesson learned.

Anyway, in that story, most of the way down, there’s a photo of this same Stanton Ave. address, but with merely three Marys against the aqua-blue foundation wall. If anyone is equipped for a miracle, it’s a woman who can conceive pregnancy with a holy ghost–so we shouldn’t put human cloning past The Blessed Mother. But this jump in the population begs so many questions: Can Mary immaculately replicate herself? Where do they all come from? Will there be more? Look, I’ve seen Multiplicity and things didn’t work out so well for Michael Keaton, so let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

statue of Mary in front yard of house
Whole grotto love Mary

Stanton Heights won’t bowl you over with its Marys. Between the neighborhood’s detached homes, large yards, big hedges, and fenced-in backsides, just locating a Mary here and there can feel like no small achievement. Rest assured, though–they’re around.

It takes a patient blogger who no longer sleeps to rise at the crack of dawn, trundle up the big hill, and criss-cross every block, each dead-end alley, and explore all the places, courts, and ways to get a thorough accounting of Stanton Heights’ Mary scene. [Side note: if you’re a Heights resident whose Mary was not found or you just think she deserves a better photo, please get in touch.]

That’s about all there is to say here. On this Mother’s Day 2021, we salute all the mommas out there from the O.G. Mother of All Mothers–you’re all immaculate in The Orbit‘s book!

statue of Mary among leafy groundcover
Our Lady of the rising groundcover
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Sunshine Mary and babies
statue of Mary in front of large hedges in residential front yard
Bustle in your hedge row Mary
statue of Mary on brick porch wall
Don’t jump! Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house
Oohooh Mary Blue, livin’ her life in a free-form style
statue of nun in front yard of house
Yeah, this looks more like a nun, but we’re going to count it
statue of Mary in back yard of house
Back patio Mary (looming, far right)
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Flower box Mary
statue of Mary under a tree in residential garden
Shade garden Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house with big yard
Perfect green blanket Mary
statue of Mary between flower garden and front porch
Mary Flowers-a-Poppin’
statue of Mary in front of house
Excited about the new city-issued recycling bin Mary
statues of Mary and Jesus by large bush
Big Mary and half-pint Jesus
statue of Mary against a cinderblock wall
Eyes on the door, back-against-the-wall Mary [yes, we need a longer lens]
small brick house with statue of Mary in front and no other decoration
No friends Mary

The Secret Marys of Lawrenceville

statue of Mary in front window of row house
Our Lady of the Heavenly Skies. Front window Mary, lower Lawrenceville

Long in the shadow of her uphill, Mary-loving sister neighborhood, Lawrenceville may be seen as but an also-ran in the adoration of The Blessed Virgin. Bloomfield has such an overabundance of public Marys that we’ve reported on it not once, but on two separate occasions–and are well aware we’re still missing so many quality Marys in the tiny backyards we’ve not (yet!) been invited into. [A note to those with secret/hidden Marys, wanting a portrait: call me!]

In Lawrenceville, the Mary-obsessed blogger must put away the soft shoes and put on the gum shoes as locating The Mother of All Mothers is more back-alley, debatably-sleazy, detective work than the more casual sidewalk tourism one enjoys in other locales. Mary is well-acquainted with the ‘Ville–and in no small number, mind you–but is usually only found in repose. She peeps shyly from street-facing windows, prays in flower pots, and takes cover in backyard grottoes. She’s coyly turned-away among the bric-a-brac of an overloaded front porch and (almost!) out-of-view but for a neck stretched over fences and hedges. In one case, a tiny Mary stands guard over a grave marker at, yes, St. Mary Cemetery.

To Mary with her arms outstretched and forgiving, a kindly face welcoming to all in her presence, we salute you! We’ve all had a rough year and can use your grace now more than ever.

statue of Mary in a flower planter
Flower planter Mary
statue of Mary and frog figurine in backyard
Mary and frog
statue of Mary leaning against stone foundation of house
Foundation Mary
statue of Mary in front window of house
Window Mary
statues of Mary, an angel, and other religious figure on pedestals in back garden
Pedestal Mary and friends
gravestone with added statue of Mary
Grave marker Mary
front porch with multiple statues
Porch Marys (and friends)
statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot
Concrete shoes Mary
statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard
Up-on-blocks Mary
statue of Mary in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA
Alley-facing Mary
statue of Mary in grotto located in residential backyard
Backyard Mary
statue of Jesus in backyard of row house
Blessing of the green grass [Note: *probably* Jesus with that gesture, but we’re going to count it]
statue of Mary painted silver
Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit

A note on the photographs: Pittsburgh Orbit takes pride in its quality of image, but the necessity of observing our neighbors’ private spaces and therefore zooming in–often from great distance–resulted in a number of grainy, not-ideally-composed photos. Hopefully, however, this fact adds evidence to the narrative that searching out Marys in Lawrenceville is no easy task.

Going Nativity: A Crush on the Crèche OR Blown Away by the Manger

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Three wise men AND Three Stooges. Full-on residential nativity scene, Ross Township.

We’re not too proud to admit it: we’ve got a crush on the crèche, make major maneuvers for the manger, and take any opportunity to go nativity when the opportunity arises. That occasion presents itself early, often, and with no remorse on any trip around Bethle…ahem–metro Pittsburgh.

‘Tis the season for plastic lawn decor, strings of dollar store lights, and more baby Jesuses than you’d think a monotheistic society would care to advertise–but that’s what we do. For the atheist, it’s a weird internal conflict–I don’t believe any of this hokum, but man do I love it. If only this country had more wise men, myrrh out the yin-yang, a livestock petting zoo by every newborn and a kneeling camel in every cul-de-sac. Heck, we can dare to dream.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a spine-tingling Krampus to all and may The Orbit‘s diaspora have the good frankincense to stay safe until Santa can hook us up with the vaccine.

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Cinderblock crèche, Polish Hill

Christmas nativity scene missing baby Jesus

Wait…where’s the kid? Millvale *

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Forget the frankincense and myrrh, who brought the 24″ Weber? Monessen

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Major manger, Reserve Township [Note: bonus cracked Mary!]

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Three wise men, two nutcrackers, AND Troy Polamalu (+ “A Christmas Story” sexy leg lamp!), Reserve Township

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

White Christmas, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Christmas behind bars, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene in row house window

Row house crèche, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

That’s not the baby Jesus! Marshall-Shadeland

Christmas nativity scene in retail store window

O Hummel town of Bethlehem, Merante’s Gifts, Bloomfield

Christmas nativity scene in front of small factory

Diamond Wire Spring, Ross Township

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Cement circle crèche, Glassport

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Bloomfield

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Front porch crèche, Lawrenceville


Orbit Instagram user @danko_pgh explains this as “The Baby Jesus figure should never be displayed until very late on Christmas Eve.” That certainly makes sense once’d you think about it, but clearly isn’t followed universally.

The Mother of All Mothers! A Mother’s Day Mary Super Round-Up

statue of Mary leaning against house

Leaning Mary, Bellevue

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And does she want to see the stains, the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies, and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

– Tandyn Almer, “Along Comes Mary”

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Classic “blue robe” Mary, Brighton Heights

Whatever else Tandyn Almer did with the rest of his life[1], he’ll have forever authored one of the greatest bits of twisted sunshine pop and doobie entendre soft rock to harmonize and flute-solo its way onto Top 40 radio and prime time television.

Now, it’s probably safe to say the inspiration for The Association’s 1966 toe-tapper was not the mother of Jesus Christ–and likely not even a woman at all. I think we can all assume that Mary’s middle name is Jane.

But the Mary–the O.G., blessed virgin, greatest-story-ever-told, gettin-it-done-in-a-manger Mary–indeed comes along all over the place, just about any ol’ time. Every front yard is Mary’s potential domain; any porch her possible perch. The city’s backyards are so full of clandestine, hidden Marys that we’ll never have a true accounting of them all. [You don’t know how that keeps a speculative journalist awake at night!] It’s enough to drive a Mary-curious atheist into confession.

So on this Mother’s Day, we return to an old favorite Orbit subject: Mary, the mother of all mothers, in some of her various occasions around town. Links to earlier coverage appear below.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommas out there. While your kids won’t be able to take you out to lunch, may your empty cups taste as sweet as the punch.

house with small statuette of Mary by front steps

Tiny Mary, Troy Hill

statue of Mary with feet buried in garden mulch

Quicksand Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary along alley

No Parking Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary and flowers in pot

Flower pot Mary, Burgettstown

statue of Mary in front of house with condemned notice

Condemned Mary, Garfield

all-white statue of Mary on front porch

Monochrome Mary, Bloomfield

statue of Mary in large garden bed

Garden Mary, Saltsburg

statue of Mary in grotto with other statuary wrapped in black plastic bags

She’s Mary, wrapped in plastic. Bloomfield

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Solitary Mary, Friendship

statue of Mary in front of wood frame house

Sunbathing Mary, California-Kirkbride

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

The last Mary in Larimer?

rear-view statue of Mary behind chain link fence

Have you seen the back? Mary, Bloomfield

Mary and friends

statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot

Concrete shoes Mary, penguin, flag, Lawrenceville

statue of Mary with other lawn decorations

Gas meter Mary, et al., Millvale

front porch with multiple statues

Porch Marys (and friends), Lawrenceville

front yard decorated with many small statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Lighthouse Mary I, Morningside

front yard covered with decorative figurines, lighthouse, and Mary statuette, Donora, PA

Lighthouse Mary II, Donora

house with statue of Mary

Mary and daughters, Sharpsburg

house with statue of Mary among lawn decorations

Wagon wheel Mary, Reserve

Pedestal Marys

statue of Mary on pedestal in residential backyard

Backyard Mary, Mt. Washington

statues of Mary and angels in front yard

Bay window Mary, Lawrenceville

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

Brick pedestal Mary, Esplen

statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard

Up-on-blocks Mary, Lawrenceville

Christmas Marys

statue of Mary in front of house with Christmas decorations

Christmas Mary, Reserve

statue of Mary and large Christmas tree

Christmas/camouflage Mary, Millvale

Empty Mary Grottos

empty Mary grotto in front of brick house

Empty grotto, Brighton Heights

brick grotto created for statue of Mary

Repopulated grotto, Oakland

More Orbit Mary coverage:

statue of Mary painted silver

Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit


[1] Almer’s Wikipedia entry confirms that “Along Comes Mary” is indeed Almer’s biggest songwriting success, but that he “invented a waterpipe called the Slave-Master, described by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene in A Child’s Garden of Grass as ‘the perfect bong.'” So, you know, there were definitely some other hits.

Onion Dome Fever: The Domes of Jeannette

St. Demetrius Ukranian Catholic church and clergy house, Jeannette

Come around the back, narrow your focus a little bit, and forget about how you got here. It doesn’t take too much imagination to feel instantly transported several thousand miles away–to Khmelnytskyi or Zhytomyr, Bila Tserkva or Ivano-Frankivsk.

The scene is something right out of a movie depicting a romanticized rendering of old world Eastern European rural quaintness. In all directions, hills rise with gentle grace, their trees a deep green in this wet summer’s lush glow. A simple old stone church, built for maybe a hundred congregants, rests aside its semi-attached, wood frame clergy house.

Saint Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church has a peaked roof, tiled in red shingles, with a single small steeple at the front. Atop it sits a glorious–if weather-worn–steel onion dome, accented by the Byzantine cross of the orthodox church.

St. Demetrius

It’s not alone. Jeannette had around 8,000 people at the time of the 1910 census. Likely most of them were working in the small city’s many glass factories–there were at least seven and there is a claim that at one time 70-85% of the world’s glass was made in Jeannette.

Yeah–that seems like a stretch. Regardless, the little boom town clearly attracted a fair number of these folks from old Russia as two different orthodox Catholic churches were constructed that same year, mere blocks apart.

cornerstone, St. Demetrius, 1910 (remodeled 1954)

St. Demetrius Ukranian Catholic Church, Jeannette, PA

St. Demetrius, the Ukrainian church on Gaskill Avenue, is the smaller and more humble of the pair. It sits in an otherwise unremarkable row of simple wood frame houses just a block off the railroad tracks that bisect Jeannette. It’s also a little ways downhill, so you won’t spot the gleaming silver-colored ornament until you’re relatively close.

Ss. Cyril and Methodius Russian Orthodox Catholic Church, Jeannette

The same can’t be said for Saints Cyril and Methodius. The eponymous brick Russian Orthodox church constructed in their honor decorates the absolute peak of Scott Avenue on the north side of town. The building’s distinct roofline, featuring multiple sky blue-with-gold crosses, is visible from just about anywhere in the city.

Ss. Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius is a magnificent brick-and-stone structure of multiple depths and angles, details and decorations, murals and stained glass. It also appears to be in spectacular shape, freshly repainted and bricks tightly pointed, on well-groomed grassy grounds. Catch it as we were lucky enough to on a cloudless day, gleaming in the hot sun, and looking resplendent against a perfect blue sky and even this atheist feels like he’s died and gone to heaven.

Cornerstone, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, 1910. We don’t know if the smiley face skull and cross-bones is original.

It’s doubtful anywhere in the area–heck, anywhere in America–has the per-capita domes of little Lyndora, up in Butler County. (Not to mention being able to righteously claim Poison’s Bret Michaels as a former congregant.)

That said, Jeannette’s lovely pair of orthodox churches, mere blocks from one another on the same side of town, are a feast for the onion ogler and an invitation to sidle out to Westmoreland County that should not be turned down. You can load up at DeLallo Foods, pace anxiously as two new microbreweries threaten opening any day now, and walk off that nervous energy with an old world constitutional. Recommended.

steeple view, Ss. Cyril and Methodius

Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill

sparkle Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David + heart on Forbes Ave.: one of two thousand, in and around Squirrel Hill

The little stars are made from glitter and felt, plastic and wood, popsicle sticks and laminated paper. They’re tied to the tiniest branches of street trees with ribbon, wire, and bailing twine; they rest lazily in boxwood hedges. The stars commune with other memorials left on handrails and steps, safety gates, and police barricades.

Overwhelmingly, though, each of the small totems–a six-pointed Star of David with a heart at its center–has been knit or crocheted by hand and attached to utility poles throughout central Squirrel Hill[1]. When you pass down Wilkins or Shady, Forbes or Negley, you’ll not miss the stars fluttering–dancing, even–in the breeze.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

October 27, 2018 may well go down as Pittsburgh’s 9/11–the remember-exactly-where-you-were date for a generation’s most horrific local atrocity. Me, I was in Bellevue, dressed in a stupid outfit, holding a trombone, and standing in the cold rain at the tail end of the borough’s Halloween parade.

The relentless weather that morning pretty much kept all of the expected crowd home, leaving just us obligated parade marchers to get the news all at the same point. I remember feeling useless and helpless–milling around on the vacant, closed-to-traffic main drag before heading home without even saying goodbye.

crochet Star of David with heart on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

By now, America has sadly gotten plenty of practice grieving for the victims of mass shootings and violent hate crimes. Even if you didn’t make it up to the Tree of Life synagogue in the days following the massacre, you know what the outside scene inevitably looked like. The victims here were all adults–so it didn’t feature quite so many teddy bears as your, yes, average school shooting–but the scene of an overflowing buffet of flowers and personal notes, photographs and mementos set against protective barriers and caution tape was all there.

In the two months since the Tree of Life shooting, most of these memorials have been relocated. But by mid-November a second-wave tribute–beautiful in its decentralization, variety, and spirit–arrived throughout pedestrian Squirrel Hill.

wooden disc with Star of David hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David made from postage stamps hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Right now, thousands of handmade Stars of David decorate nondescript public spaces and street-facing hedges and gates in the neighborhood[2]. They radiate out from the Tree of Life synagogue and populate Squirrel Hill’s business district along Forbes and Murray Aves.

The stars are the work of an impromptu online group called Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, started by two “craftivists,” Hinda Mandell and Ellen Dominus Broude, both from separate parts of Upstate New York. The Post-Gazette has an article and short video detailing that effort.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

Likely, most of those who experience the Tree of Life stars will only see them as brief flashes of color, twiddling in the breeze through the passenger-side window–their forms may not even be recognizable at any speed. The Orbit recommends ditching the car and taking a long contemplative walk around middle Squirrel Hill’s wide streets as the best way to inhabit the diffuse tribute.

golden wire Star of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Perhaps it should be no surprise but the totality of the experience is incredibly moving. The first, gut reaction to these handmade, intersected symbols of Judaism and love, sent from supportive crafters from around the world, is the most obvious.

“There is more good in the world than evil,” says Ms. Broude in the P-G video, “An assault against one is an assault against all.”[3] That message–something terrible happened here, but there is way more love than hate in the world–comes though loud and clear, ringing out from the branches and telephone poles.

crochet Star of David with heart on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

But it doesn’t stop there. So many of the knit stars–hung from a single point, stretched out by gravity, and curled in the weather–end up taking on unexpected anthropomorphic qualities. [Yes, there is one extra appendage in this representation.] The little bodies appear alternately huddled and triumphant, at rest and in play, lifted and weightless in the wind.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

This atheist goy had to Google “Jewish belief in an afterlife.” While the religion isn’t nearly as hung up on the notion of heaven as Christianity–preferring instead to value and emphasize life here on earth–it’s also not without its post-mortal coil fallback options. This description, from the Chabad site, seems to sum up the philosophy:

There isn’t anything after life, because Jews believe that life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. In the afterlife, the soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to her source than ever before.

crochet Stars of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Sure, it was a windy day when we visited and took these photos, but the rapturous lifting of these little forms–literally higher and higher off of their twig and twine moorings, flying up towards the sun–felt like liberation. Hopefully, for the victims, family, and friends of the Tree of Life shooting, they’ll find some peace in this beautiful expression of love.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA


[1] … and supposedly elsewhere. (But we’ve only seen them in Squirrel Hill.)
[2] Organizers estimate “around 2000” stars. Source: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/faith-religion/2018/11/17/Jewish-Stars-of-David-Tree-of-Life-Pittsburgh-volunteers-knit-crochet-twelve-countries-crafts-facebook/stories/201811170055
[3] Ibid.

Color Me In Presston: The Front Yard Marys of McKees Rocks, Part 1

statuette of Mary with deer statue in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Going stag: Mary and uni-antlered deer on a front lawn in the Presston neighborhood of McKees Rocks.

You’ll not accidentally find yourself in Presston. No, those making the trip to the tiny residential neighborhood at the northernmost end of McKees Rocks either live there, are visiting someone who does, or–in the case of your particularly wayward author–are just dying to find out what’s on the other side of all those big factory buildings along the riverfront.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Mary and friends

The journey to Presston–yes, that’s spelled correctly with two S’s–involves a circuitous route over the little bridge at Chartiers Creek, down River Avenue, past Lane Steel and Six Star Service, and through the McKees Rocks “bottoms” [not “flats” like everywhere else] with its rows of worker housing and glorious trio of onion-domed Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches*.

From there, one must locate the only point to breach the massive concrete base of the McKees Rocks Bridge on Helen Street, hang a left on George, and then straight down Nichol Ave. You’ll run parallel with train tracks on one side and see the kind of enormous industrial buildings that don’t really exist in the city proper (at least, not anymore) on the other. This giant footprint is currently home to McKees Rocks Fabrication and Penn Waste Systems, PVS Nolwood Chemicals and Cargill Salt.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Our Lady of Perpetual Gas Service: Meter Greeter Mary

Finally, tucked away at the end of this half-mile of corrugated steel, guard booths, and security fencing, is a pair of dead-end residential streets. Each is lined up and down with matching two-story wood frame double-houses. Behind you lie factory buildings and train tracks; ahead is brownfield and the Ohio River. You’ve ended up–the only way you possibly can–in Presston.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

A historical plaque on the site informs us the neighborhood was built as worker housing by the Pressed Steel Car Company–which is presumably where it gets its name and double-S spelling. The uniform duplexes had been built by 1909 when there was a workers strike leading to the “‘Bloody Sunday Uprising’ where at least 11 people died.”

Pennsylvania state historical marker for Presston

Presston historical plaque

The marker goes on to state that the company sold the houses–we assume to private individuals–after Pressed Steel Car ceased operation in 1949. Like we saw at Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington and Donora’s Cement City, things get a lot more interesting when the company lets go of control and people get do to do their own thing with the houses they own.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Ain’t that aMARYca: patriotic Mary and big baby Jesus

We don’t know what the houses looked like when they were sold off in 1949, but now, seventy years later, there’s been a predictable divergence in styles and updates, adaptations and repair. Aluminum siding has been added to all but a just a few of the wood houses, porches reconfigured into front rooms, a couple of the duplexes were merged into single, larger homes. There are a few empty spots where fire or neglect have claimed some of the old houses, but for the most part, almost every lot is full.

What really impressed this outsider is how Presston’s residents have gone nuts with yard decoration. The little space in front of each house may only be a hundred square feet or so–that’s just not enough real estate to warrant keeping up a grass lawn. In a neighborhood where everyone simply must know everyone else, it also seems unlikely either theft or vandalism is a problem.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Squirrel Mary

At least that’s The Orbit’s hypothesis for why, house-for-house, Presston has an off-the-charts quantity of front yard ornamentation: tiny angels and garden gnomes, holiday displays and concrete statuary, repurposed toys and patriotic signs. It’s an exaggeration, but it feels as if nearly every one of Presston’s hundred-and-fifty-or-so little houses had stepped up to make a front-facing effort to greet the neighbors and express itself to the world.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Mary, garden gnome, and autumn friend

… which brings us to Mary.

Yes, the quantity of holy mothers standing guard and blessed virgins decorating and protecting the front porches, steps, and sidewalks of Ohio and Orchard Streets is staggering. The über-pious residents of Bloomfield and South Oakland–not to mention McKees Rocks proper–likely put in extra hail Marys just to try to keep up with the blue-robed wave of tiny Presston.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

We’re gonna paint the blessed mother pink! Little pink house for Mary and me.

Why, it kills a nebby blogger that between the ticking of the clock, a lack of connections, and the fear of getting a boot in the keister, he just couldn’t make it around to check out the alley-side view of these houses. Given the opportunity, we may have found just as many–or more–Marys holding court around back as they had pointing street-side.

Sigh. The thought of another dozen loose Marys–getting it done between the charcoal grill and patio set, next to the garden hose, or in the shadow of the tool shed–is almost too much to bear…almost.

statuette of Mary in gravel front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

White stone Mary

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Shy Mary

To the good citizens of Presston: we’re hooked. We know your collection of street-facing Marys is only one small detail in the rich story of a neighborhood that doesn’t just have a unique spot on the map, but promises a fascinating history–complete with strikes and conflict, economic upheaval and population change, pressed steel cars and, yes, a whole lotta Mary.

If you’ll have us, we’d love to know more about that history. Give us a holler. Until then, color The Orbit impressed with Presston.

statuette of Mary on front porch of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Hiding in the corner Mary

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Solar light Mary


* In fairness–depending on which direction you’re coming from–one may skip these first steps by taking the Helen Street exit off the McKees Rocks Bridge. That wasn’t how we got to Presston, and it’s still one-way-in/one-way-out no matter how you get to Nichol Avenue.

Alms Race: The Front Yard Marys of Beaver County

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

ghost Mary, New Brighton

Mary. We’ve already talked about the blessed virgin/most famous mama’s ability to get around. This week, Mary makes it clear her home-anointing juju doesn’t stop at the Allegheny County line. No, not content to let metro Pittsburgh have all the fun, Beaver County enters the escalating alms race with a shock and awe campaign of heavy-duty religion and hardcore beatitude.

You’ll find her Maryness all over Allegheny County’s western neighbor–from Harmony to New Galilee, Shippingport to Vanport, Raccoon to Big Beaver. There are so many likenesses of Mary in the front yards, porches, and gardens of homes across Beaver County that each of its larger towns could easily supply a post’s worth all on its own. That’s an intriguing opportunity for the Mary-obsessed, but let’s face it–sometimes there’s just too much Mary…even for dedicated Orbit readers.

Like The Bible and Catholic mass, this post is going to be long on pictures and short on words, so let’s get down to it. Here’s a random sampling of but a few of Beaver County’s unlimited supply of front yard Marys.

Mary statuette in front of house with large aerial antenna, New Brighton, PA

Our Lady of Perpetual Reception, New Brighton

Mary statuette on front porch of house, Beaver Falls, PA

front porch autumnal Mary, Beaver Falls

statue of Mary on pedestal in front yard, Ambridge, PA

chain link Mary, Ambridge

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

patriotic Mary, New Brighton

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

New Brighton

Mary statuette in front of house, Monaca, PA

Monaca

Mary statuette in back yard of house, Monaca, PA

voyeuristic Mary, Monaca

Mary statuette in front of house, Eastvale, PA

Eastvale

brick house with Mary statue in front yard, Baden, PA

Baden

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

New Brighton

Mary statuette and dog statuette in front yard, Ambridge, PA

Mary with pet pooch, Ambridge

house with Mary statuette in front yard, Baden, PA

Baden

Mary statuette on front steps of brick house, Ambridge, PA

Ambridge


Further reading:

How did Lent become fish fry season?

fish sandwich on styrofoam plate

Week 3: Fish sandwich bathed in the Italian flag-colored light of the Regina Elena Club, Sharpsburg

The plate is a standard-issue, eight-inch disposable picnic platter. On it is a large sandwich bun flipped open, both sides up. Across this bed of bread and extending way off its edges lies a gigantic piece of codfish, reclining leisurely like the most relaxed den dweller on a chaise lounge.

The filet is coated in a thick layer of Panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried until golden brown, and still-sizzlin’ as it approaches the table with its partner plate of macaroni & cheese. As is customary, there are no vegetable toppings for the sandwich but the supplies of tartar and hot sauce are ample.

Eleven months a year, this blogger stays away from religion, but he gives up atheism for fish fry season or, as the Catholics call it, Lent.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski, St. Max’s, Homestead (2017)

Catholic? No. But Catholic-curious…sure. Fried cod, mac & cheese, individually-wrapped slices of pineapple upside-down cake or pretzel salad for dessert–a cold beer to go with it if we’re lucky? It’s freakin’ delicious and enough to bring even the most ardent pagan back into the welcoming arms of the church…basement…at supper time.

But isn’t the whole point of the season supposed to be penance and sacrifice? “Having” to eat a giant deep-fried fish filet with a side of haluski or pasta olio once a week hardly constitutes a war effort. If this is The Vatican’s idea of fasting, sign me up for the hunger strike.

front windows decorated for Lenten Fish Fry, Angelo's Pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Angelo’s Pizza, Bloomfield

So how did we get here? Apparently this all goes back to Pope St. Leo who, in the fifth century, preached that the faithful must “fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days.” (Again with the 40 days!) Traditionally the fasting ritual was much more severe, allowing only a single evening meal every day of Lent (just like Ramadan), and the rules were much more restrictive disallowing all meats (including fish), eggs, sweets, and “other indulgences.”

In the intervening centuries, the church and congregation have come to a strange compromise with the laity seeming to hold all the cards. The concept of a fast has gone from eating only one penitential meal a day to merely cutting out meat on Friday. [That fish doesn’t count as “meat” is a whole other discussion.] This “sacrifice” just doesn’t seem that painful.

large fried fish dinner on plate

Week 4, part 2: Fish, haluski, and cole slaw: Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

A couple weeks back, this blogger pulled the “Lenten double”–a sort-of Stove Top Stuffing ruse for the fish-obsessed. First, there was an enormous sandwich from Giant Eagle’s seasonal “Fish Frydays” for lunch followed by a full dinner spread at Church of the Assumption. It’s no easy feat–the ridiculously early hours the church suppers keep really requires you shake a leg to pack it all in.

Let me tell you something: I’m going to need a serious weight-loss plan after all the fasting I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Catholics need to come up with a real season of penance and self-denial after the unhinged gluttony of Lent.

hand-made sign for fish fry, Church of the Assumption, Bellevue, PA

Of course, fish fry-hosting churches do a lot of their fundraising during the six Fridays of Lent and we see evidence of Churches consolidating and closing all the time. So in an era when the larger populace would no longer be described as “god-fearing” it’s an understandable economic necessity that churches need to relax some of the old-world doctrine and bring in some pew-filling carbohydrates.

catfish dinner from New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Pittsburgh, PA

Week 2: Even non-Catholics get into it! New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Larimer

Still, to stray so wildly from the original “reason for the season” (to borrow from another highly mutated Christian tradition) seems like a real lost opportunity–both for the church and its congregants. While it’s both bizarre and wonderful for us non-believers to look forward to Lent for its distinct church basement suppers, the tradition of voluntarily giving up something loved (or, at least, appreciated) to learn the value of sacrifice and everyday privilege seems like an extremely valuable exercise.

Maybe next year this blogger will have to give up all those fish fry calories, you know, for Lent.

fish sandwich with mac & cheese

Week 6: Harris Grill, Shadyside*


* The obvious addition of lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle slices would only come from a restaurant offering.