The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield

Statue of Mary in grotto surrounded by roses, Pittsburgh, PA

Sciota Street

Mary–yes, that Mary–may have come from Nazareth, but she’s definitely got a second home in Bloomfield. Maybe even third and fourth homes–for a blessed virgin, she gets around! Decked out and ready to party in a Hawaiian lei, flanked by flowers, angels, cherubs, lights, and crosses, Mary is the centerpiece of postage stamp front yards, stoops, and porches.

Bloomfield is not known for its private green spaces–I’m sure suburbanites would guffaw at what passes for a “yard” in the neighborhood. The tight row houses are usually built right up to the sidewalk, some with porches, but almost never any grass. So it’s doubly impressive that with so few houses even able to host a grotto, many have chosen to do so.

front yard Mary with angel statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Pearl Street

Mary statue in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Pearl Street

Brick house with statue of Mary on front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

Mathilda Street

Front yard Mary statue, Pittsburgh, PA

Cedarville Street

Sisters of the Holy Spirit convent, Pittsburgh, PA

The mother of all Front Yard Marys: Sisters of the Holy Spirit convent, Friendship Ave.

An interesting corollary to the front yard Mary is the sub-phenomenon of ex-front yard Marys, or empty Mary grottos. What’s happened to Mary? Where did she go? Hopefully one day we’ll run into the homeowners and get the full story. Until then, we can only guess that the original owners of the statues have moved on and taken Mary with them. Alternately, Mary may have been stolen, kidnapped, or ransomed. These homemade brick and concrete grottos clearly aren’t going anywhere, so it’s no wonder they’ve become permanent fixtures on the property, with or without Mary.

former Mary housing, now containing angel statuette, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary doesn’t live here anymore. Ex-front yard Mary (the grotto is now occupied by an angel figurine), Pearl Street

empty Mary housing, Pittsburgh, PA

… or here. Empty grotto, Pearl Street

We’re collecting other front yard deities for a future scene report, but it bears mentioning that Jesus gets into the front-of-house tributes as well–just not as often.

Jesus statue in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Jesus and front porch Jesus, Pearl Street

Onion Dome Fever: St. Michael’s Orthodox

St. Michael's Orthodox Church, Rankin, PA

St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, Rankin

If you want to give The Orbit‘s brakes a thorough wringing-out, just throw a new set of onion domes up in sky and listen for the screech of rubber on pavement.

That’s just what happened as we found ourselves off track and reconnoitering back down 3rd Avenue in Rankin. There, gleaming in the bright sunlight against a backdrop of pillow-perfect wispy cumulous formations, rose the three perfect golden domes of St. Michael’s Orthodox Church.

St. Michael's Orthodox church, Rankin, PA from over a bank of weeds

In the weeds: St. Michael’s onion domes viewed from the pass-through to Rankin Blvd.

It should come as no surprise that Rankin hosts a traditional Eastern Orthodox church. Pretty much every old steel town has at least one–it speaks to who was immigrating over here to work the jobs in the mills. We’ve already run scene reports on churches in McKeesport, Marshall-Shadeland, Steubenville, and McKees Rocks.

Just like those places, the church stands as the tallest structure in town. While that’s not a huge feat in a borough as small as Rankin, it’s always a great payoff as the giant golden ornaments reach out and above from any vantage point: as a beacon from the local through-street (Braddock Ave.), above the rows of peaked-roof frame homes and squat brick row houses, and apparently right out of the weeds from the hillside below.

St. Michael's Orthodox Church, Rankin, PA

St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, Rankin

Matching cornerstones in both English and Cyrillic date St. Michael’s to 1907, which seems just about right for the peak of Russian/Ukrainian immigration to work in the mills. Rankin reached its greatest population a couple decades later in the 1930 census with around 8,000 people. Today, with only a quarter of that–the vast majority African-American–it’s hard to imagine a lot of local Russian Orthodox parishioners for St. Michael’s*.

Despite all this, though, the church–at least on the outside (it was locked tight when we visited)–is in terrific shape. The masonry work is solid, the stained-glass windows aglow, and the little front garden well-tended and in lovely full spring bloom. Oh, and you won’t miss those big golden onion domes–they’re still up there and they look spectacular.

Detail of cross on St. Michael's Orthodox Church entrance gate, Rankin, PA

Cross here. St. Michael’s front gate (detail)


* Source: Wikipedia entry for Rankin demographics.

Fish On My List: An Orbit Guide to Fish Fry Guides

Handmade wooden sign reading "Fried Fish Specials"

If the oil’s a-roilin’, we’ll be a-loiterin’

Editor’s note: This story on the various available guides to Lenten fish fries first ran in 2016, but is obviously a valuable resource every year. We’ve done our best to update links for 2018, but definitely let us know if there’s something new we’re missing, a better site, etc.


For some, it is leafing through seed catalogs. It may be freezing outside, but the simple act of dog-earing full-color pages of enticing heirloom vegetables and glorious full-bloom flowers invokes a not-too-distant future digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, and planting tight rows of zebra-striped tomatoes and black Hungarian peppers. They’ll even take the opportunity to cast lettuce seed directly in the snow–a holdover until the St. Patrick’s Day peas are sewn in the inevitable bone-chilling soil. Anything for a breath of life.

For others, it is the sound of horsehide slapping cowhide as pudgy catchers receive wayward fastballs and woe-be-gone change-ups from out-of-practice Skoal-spitting pitchers. [At least we sure hope they’re still allowed to chew tobacco before the real season begins.] Images of sun-soaked Kissimmee, Bradenton, and Jupiter transport those in bleached, bare-treed northern climes. You can almost smell the luxurious perfect green blanket.

But if you insist on knowing my bliss, I’ll tell you this. Here at The Orbit, our first gentle gust of spring blows in with the arrival of Lent and its barrage of church fund-raising Lenten dinners. These fried fish feasts are so numerous they require a comprehensive guide. As it turns out, you even need a guide just to make sense of all of the fish guides out there. That is why we’re here.

fish dinner in former St. John Vianney church, Pittsburgh, PA

Fish dinner, St. John Vianney (R.I.P.), Allentown (c. 2011)

Available in both HTML and handy, print-friendly text formats, Pittsburgh Catholic‘s list is definitely the big fish in this particular roiling grease-filled pond. The guide has the no-nonsense pre-Internet feel of kind parishioners dutifully volunteering their time to type out, update, and double-check their facts each February, all in the name of the Lord. It was likely the region’s first fish fry guide (?) and for this blogger, it’s still the best.

It was the Pittsburgh Catholic list that led us to the late, great St. John Vianney in Allentown (the church was just closed by the diocese early in 2016). St. John was not only open for Friday lunches (a rarity) but offered a spectacular dessert table where the kinds of confections you thought had been banished from this earth (Jello surprise! Pretzel salad! Pineapple upside-down cake! Dirt!) were generously spooned out by the congregants for sums in the twenty-five to fifty cent range. Maybe if they’d asked a more reasonable price, St. John would still be running Sunday services and The Orbit could be dining there this Friday. Sigh.

Window sign advertising Lenten fish fry at St. Maria Goretti Parish, Pittsburgh, PA

St. Maria Goretti Parish fish fry, Lent 2015

Each of the local “Big 3” TV news affiliates has their own guide. KDKA‘s is your basic nuts-and-bolts alphabetized (by church name) list, including the bare essential name, address, hours, and menu items. It’s the best of the lot. WPXI has improved considerably in the last couple years, now offering the same basic script that we see on other sources. It’s nothing fancy, but it’ll get you dinner on Friday night.

WTAE basically phones it in with a “guide” that simply lists names and addresses of locations that claim to have fish fries. There are no other details–no menus, no days or times of service, no bonus data. For that reason–and the bounty of other options–you can safely skip this one too.

Sadly, neither local public television station WQED nor Fox affiliate WPGH appear to make any attempts at fish fry coverage.

screen capture of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's interactive fish fry map

The Post-Gazette’s interactive “Find a Fish Fry!” site, new in 2018

This year, the Post-Gazette has upped its ante considerably. In past, there were no detailed listings, instead focusing on a few random highlights. It was interesting if you already had a plan, but no resource for the hardcore fisherman or fisherwoman.

The new guide is a really nicely designed app that includes a lot of nice bonus info. However, with just the most casual perusal, it’s obvious the P-G still has a lot more data entry to do. [How can you possibly miss Sacred Heart on your first pass?] We’d also like to see some filtering options. It’s fine to include The Harris Grill (I guess), but please let the user skip the noise and get down to the church fries.

As far as other print-first resources, the Tribune-Review has some scattered stories with suburb-specific listings, but they’re not nearly comprehensive enough for us to bother wasting your time. Every year, it seems, the City Paper opts to sit this one out.

screen capture of Code for Pittsburgh's interactive fish fry map

Code for Pittsburgh’s interactive fish fry map

By contrast, Code for Pittsburgh’s 2018 Lenten Fish Fry Map is what the Post-Gazette‘s new tool is trying to be. The interactive web site is extremely useful if your first concern is where the fish is. Zeroing in on a particular location and selecting its pinned point gives the same basic information you get from Pittsburgh Catholic and KDKA (name, address, brief menu description). A good resource for the time- and distance-restricted and definitely preferable to the TV station listings.

Fish fry guides have gone totally Lent 2.0 with their own social media presence on the Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry Map FaceBook page and @pghfishfry Twitter account. As one may expect, these are less comprehensive guides and more in-realtime breaking fish-related news. The latter seems to be a little more active than the former, but we’re only one week in so far, so we’ll keep tuned to see how this thing plays out.

bracket listing comparing fish fries

The Incline’s Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry bracket

Launched last year with some amount of fanfare, The Incline’s “Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry” bracket looks a lot like the office’s NCAA tournament pool, but tastes a lot better. This was obviously enough of a success in 2017 for it to come back again a year later, this time with ABC affiliate WTAE as a media partner. The Orbit is just not that competitive–nor can we realistically get to 32 fish fries this Lentbut we love the spirit behind this one.

Lastly, we wouldn’t be reporting if we didn’t mention that there’s even a mobile phone app called PGH FF & FF. But it gets such pathetic reviews, we’ll not dignify it with a hyperlink.

hand-painted sign reading "Fish Fry Today"

Catholic Math: Where do the “forty days” of Lent come from?

Crucifixion scene with Sunoco gas station in background

The Father, the Sunoco, the Holy Ghost, Carnegie

Ash Wednesday. For those of certain faiths, it is the start of the season of Lent.

Even this heathen knows that Lent is forty days. But then he actually counted it out on the calendar and it wasn’t quite so clear. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday, right? This year, those dates are Feb. 10 and March 27, respectively. That’s 46 days. What gives?

First, apparently I’m wrong about the end date. Lent actually concludes on Holy Thursday, which is March 24. This leads to a follow-up question on why people are still fasting on Good Friday if the season already over, but I’ll leave that for another discussion. In any case, this only gets us down to 44 days.

From the Wikipedia entry on Lent:

Some sources try to reconcile this with the phrase “forty days” by excluding Sundays and extending Lent through Holy Saturday. No official documents support this interpretation.

In the Ambrosian Rite, Lent begins on the Sunday that follows what is celebrated as Ash Wednesday in the rest of the Latin Catholic Church, and ends as in the Roman Rite, thus being of 40 days, counting the Sundays but not Holy Thursday. The day for beginning the Lenten fast is the following Monday, the first weekday in Lent. The special Ash Wednesday fast is transferred to the first Friday of the Ambrosian Lent.

One calculation has been that the season of Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. This calculation makes Lent last 46 days, if the 6 Sundays are included, but only 40, if they are excluded, because there is no obligation to fast on the six Sundays in Lent.

I hate to sound like Ross Perot here, but these explanations read the like tax code. How do you exclude Sundays from a season? Why are fast dates transferrable? Why not just rebrand it to “forty-four days” or “forty-six days” (take your pick) and have a straight(er) story?

Catholiceducation.org offers yet another explanation for the symbolic need to keep the number at 40, despite what a literal reading of the calendar may suggest:

The number “40” has always had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).

So…42 days, 44 days…ah, hell, let’s just call it “forty days” and fry some fish.

Holy Spirit Byzantine Church with orthodox cross draped in yellow, Pittsburgh, PA

Holy Spirit Byzantine Church, Oakland, six days before Easter 2015 and the purple’s already down

Last year around this time we ran a story on why purple is the color of Lent. This pagan dumbly thought he’d caught the Byzantines in a whole different color scheme. They’re on their own trip all right, but it turns out it’s the calendar and not the palette. For Byzantine Catholics, Great Lent begins on “Clean Monday” (two days before Ash Wednesday) and extends to the Friday before “Lazarus Saturday.” They count all the Sundays, so it’s five full seven-day weeks plus five days = 40 days. Then there’s an eight-day Holy Week that doesn’t count as (Great) Lent leading up to Easter.

None of these explanations seem to either be conclusive or make much sense, but I guess that’s what faith is all about.

 

L’chaim on a Hilltop: Jewish Holy Houses in the Hill District (Part 2)

Miller Street Baptist Church formerly Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation, Pittsburgh, PA

Miller Street Baptist Church (former Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation), Miller Street

Back in May, The Orbit ran a story on a couple of really spectacular former Jewish holy houses in the lower Hill District and their new lives today. As we were cruising the old maps looking for info on these places, we kept realizing there were more former synagogues–plus one celebrated settlement house–that survived in the same general area (just outside of the old Civic Arena footprint). This begged for a sequel to the original post, and here we are.

Enon Baptist Church formerly Lebovitch Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA

Enon Baptist Church (former Lebovitch Synagogue), Erin Street

It’s nothing like it was. Look at platte maps of the lower Hill from the ’20s or ’30s and the density of Jewish life in the area is made incredibly obvious–“Pittsburgh’s Lower East Side,” it’s sometimes referred as. The Jewish population seems to have largely migrated out (to Highland Park, and then Squirrel Hill) by the 1940s, but it was the colossal Civic Arena project that took out the vast majority of its remaining physical structures.

On streets that no longer exist, where City View apartments and the giant, empty former arena parking lot now stand, the maps show block after block containing tiny, often only house-sized synagogues–Bani Israel (sic.), Beth Jacob, Sharey Zadek, Gates of Wisdom, etc.

Hill House Association Kaufmann Center formerly the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, Pittsburgh, PA

Hill House Association – Kaufmann Center (former Irene Kaufmann Settlement), Centre Ave.

Those are all gone–along with (almost) everything else below Crawford and above Fifth Ave. But for a handful of former houses of worship outside of the arena project’s gluttonous reach, life has carried on in new and different incarnations.

The three former synagogues we located–Shaaray Teffilah/Beth David and Kanascis Israel on Miller Street and Lebovitch on Erin Street–have all become Baptist churches. The former Irene Kaufmann Settlement on Centre Ave. now serves as one of the non-profit Hill House Association‘s main locations.

New Pilgrim Baptist Church formerly Kanascis Israel Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA

New Pilgrim Baptist Church (former Kanascis Israel Synagogue), Miller Street

This loitering blogger met a very welcoming member of the Miller Street Baptist congregation when curbing his bicycle to take a photo of the church. She told me she’d been a member for 23 years and encouraged me to attend a service some time. Despite her very warm invitation, I wasn’t sure I could accept in good (err…bad) faith. That said, I would love to see inside the place. Had I been wearing something closer to Sundaygotomeetin’ duds and not running late to scour the woods for evidence of insurance fraud, I might have asked for a poke-see around. But it wasn’t going to happen this day.

Miller Street Baptist Church formerly Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation, Pittsburgh, PA

Miller Street Baptist Church

Two Great Tastes: Get Write with God

wall painted with "Jesus is the answer", Pittsburgh, PA

Watch that first step: it’s a doozy. “Jesus is the answer,” Homewood

He measured it on the four sides; it had a wall all around, the length five hundred and the width five hundred, to divide between the holy and the profane. (Ezekiel 42:20)

Back in the early Spring, we inaugurated the Two Great Tastes series with a piece on how snow and trains just naturally look (and photograph) great together. We also included a bunch of other pithy two-fers involving things like French cop movies, Zubaz, and fried fish sandwiches. This blogger certainly can’t predict when another one of these terrific combos will come along, but believe you me: The Orbit knows it when we see it.

And see it we did! Or do. Or keep on seeing as we come across the seemingly incongruous one-two of (Christian) religion and street graffiti. It might seem weird to take up both scripture and Rust-Oleum, but, you know, it’s the greatest story ever told and these colors, like true faith and decent exterior enamel, definitely won’t run.

Abandoned storefront with graffiti reading "Rap music suck. Go to church."

The door’s open but the ride ain’t free. “Rap music suck. Go to church.” Clairton

Generalizations about entire musical genres aside, it’s hard to understand the connection between the relative quality of rap music and the commandment to attend church. We know correlation is not causation as one might just as inaccurately assume spray paint-wielding taggers would be unlikely in a house of the lord on Sunday.

Church stair rail with graffiti reading "God is dead, Devil is everywhere"

Crossed the deserts bare, man. “God is dead, Devil is everywhere.” Millvale

Is God dead? Is The Devil really everywhere? At least one troubled soul sure felt strongly enough about it to render this haunting message in black Sharpie on the stair rail of the great Holy Spirit Parish Catholic church in Millvale. We have to assume that, like the song says, “people are cracking up all over.” And when reaching out to the mental health system involves vandalizing church property, well…we’ve still got a ways to go.

Tell him what you want. “Jesus rides freight trains.” Strip District

Another questionable assertion, this one on a boxcar in the Strip District. I don’t know if Jesus rides freight trains, but they’re probably more reliable than AmTrak. That said, if Jesus really wants to commune with the in-transit laity there are going to be a lot more of them on the Greyhound or MegaBus (not to mention the DMV). And let me tell you something: some of those bus riders could learn something from a good ol’ monastic vow of silence!

Graffiti on tile wall reading "The Devil made me do it the first time ...", Pittsburgh, PA

Out on the tiles. “The Devil made me do it the first time …” Lawrenceville

So many questions: What is it? Who made you do it the next time? How many times did you do it? Did you ever get tired of it? Why do I need to hear about it? We’ll likely never know what TSU was going on about here, but hopefully admitting it was a least a first step to reaching a better place.

Brick wall with graffiti reading "What if the only things God blesses you with tommrow is what u r thankful for today"

He would / Die 4 / U. “What if the only things God blesses you with tommrow is what u r thankful for today,” (sic.) Manchester

The Orbit‘s copy-editing team is having a fit with this one, but relax, guys: everything’s cool. The suggestion (we can’t actually locate a Biblical reference for this one) that the salvation we’re waiting for in the future is here right now strikes this frequent grass-is-greener blogger as actually quite profound. The statement speaks to both live for today and be grateful for what you have sentiments, and also that the (presumably) afterlife-believing perpetrator wants us to be happy, right here in this world. Amen.

Jesus Houses

Run down brick house with large white cross above entryway, Steubenville, Ohio

Steubenville, Ohio

This blogger does not know his scripture, but he’s pretty sure that somewhere in Revelations there must be a passage like “If thou believeth in me, maketh sure everyone in the county is awareth of it.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

Whether or not that’s true, there sure are a lot of Christians that want you to know it. You can see it just by looking over their front doors. Big white crosses hanging under the eaves, lashed to the split rail fence, or in one case, the name JESUS in thick garland where a leaded glass pane must have been.

Church built into home, Hill District, Pittsburgh, PA

Hill District

While we at The Orbit subscribe to a “live and let live” approach to life (and letting life), it’s sad that it’s so hard to imagine similar displays of the crescent moon or stars of David being as benignly accepted. Why, Regent Square has its bizarre tribute to Bacchus on that apartment building right across from the movie theater [note to self: get on that!], but I don’t know if they’d get away with a similarly prominent Buddha. [Realistically, Buddha probably gets a pass, but you know what I mean.]

Home with plastic cross tied to split-rail fence, Rochester, PA

Rochester, PA

We love human creation. Sometimes that most obviously comes in a physical statement of faith, or hand painting a Steelers party wagon (although those are increasingly hard to find). A power so great that it compels someone to create who may not otherwise have done so is an amazing thing, whether you believe in it or not. This non-flag-waving heathen has a hard time relating to the specific motivation here, but not to the greater one of exploration, expression, and release. Maybe that’s what these folks would tell me the whole thing is about, anyway.

Large house with "Jesus" written in large letters over the front door, Pittsburgh, PA

Central North Side