All Rite Now: Simeon Larivonovoff, Painter of Icons

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff holding a glowing icon of the Arcangel Michael

“An icon is a prayer in color. It is a window to paradise that shows you how to be transfigured.” Simeon Larivonovoff with icon of “golden hair” Archangel Michael

Waaaay longer than most of us can conceive of. Longer than the United States of America has existed; earlier than the Europeans landing at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock; a hundred years before Columbus was born–let alone sailed the ocean blue.

Six hundred and fifty-nine years. That’s how long the continuous line of Russian icon painters goes back. For seven centuries, the ancient devotional practice of creating highly-formal prayer paintings has been passed from father to son [yes: they have all been men]. That uninterrupted legacy may come to an end here, in Pittsburgh, with Simeon Larivonovoff.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff sitting on a bed with a small dog on his knee

“You don’t mix cabbage with peas.” Simeon with one of his “doggies” in his bedroom/workroom.

A blast of sensations–I’ll warn you they’re not all pleasant–will arrive early and often. Visiting Simeon’s modest Polish Hill home begins with the raucous barking of his six dogs which completely nullifies any need for a doorbell. Simeon refers to these pooches with the diminutive “my doggies” or “my puppies,” even though they’re all full grown–several in a very big way. At least one member of the pack will be a constant companion–on the lap, by his side in the garden, or taken out on a leash sporting a jaunty kerchief as companion on Simeon’s frequent walks over the Bloomfield Bridge to the Shur-Save, or up Liberty Avenue.

The musky smell of animal fur–there are also a pair of house cats–mixes with the splinters of unfinished wood floors, stiff knotted area rugs, furniture polish, and antique brass. But it is the evocative omnipresent flicker of lamp light refracted through glowing cut glass and its partner aroma of smoking paraffin oil that will color your memory hours, days–weeks even–after departing. It may also be the best analog for Simeon’s world.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff lighting oil lamp

“Electric light is not needed,” Simeon lighting one of the dozens of oil lamps that light his home

The well-meaning speculative journalist faces a challenge photographing inside Simeon’s home. “Electric light is not needed,” he says while igniting the wick of an ornate, retractable, ceiling-mounted oil lamp–one of dozens of different models throughout the house–“these [lamps] are not in today’s society.”

Simeon is a member of the Russian Orthodox “Old Believers”–a sect of Greek Orthodoxy that preserves church practices going back to the 1600s, along with many of the lifestyle habits that go with it. “We pray in a pure 17th century style, before reform. We are non-conformists,” Simeon says. He further describes the group as “The Amish of Russian Orthodox.” The analogy–right down to the long beards and rejection of (most) modern technology–is pretty apt. On life in the 21st century: “I deal with the world, but I’m not influenced by it.”

That said, Old Believer practices also seem to overlap with that other locally-familiar brand of strict orthodoxy, Judaism. There is a weekly day-long, sundown-to-sundown sabbath in which no work may be done. “To cook a meal, to sew a button…no. A lot of people won’t answer the door on Sunday,” Simeon says of his fellow Old Believers. There is also a Kosher-like diet that forbids many of the same food sources: shellfish, eel, and octopus, pork and blood sausage.

partial icon for St. Praskevia with only the face and hands painted

“We don’t look at icons–they’re looking at us.” St. Praskevia icon (in process)

A visit with Simeon falls somewhere between Sunday school and Psychedelic Shack; as much Waiting for the Sun as waiting for The Son. “An icon is a prayer in color. It is a window to paradise that shows you how to be transfigured,” Simeon says of the goal of his artwork. “You ask the saint to help–you are not an artist, you are the medium.”

Simeon began painting icons at the age of nine, born into the family practice. “My father: you were his student,” Simeon says, “You had to learn a lot–prayers, colors.”

in-process icon of St. Kazanskya by Simeon Larivonovoff

“Our Lady of Kazan”, Kazanskya icon (in process)

There certainly was–and is–a lot to learn. There was the practice of grinding his own paint pigments from natural sources [the tan color in the photographed icons comes from sycamore bark] and learning to read and write in church Slavonic (aka old church Bulgarian) with its 63-character alphabet. Icon painters must have “a library of icons in their head–the mind, heart, and hand are on the same level.”

Iconography follows a strict canonical representation of each saint. “You don’t dare deviate from the form,” says Simeon, “theology does not change.” Small details and colors may be chosen by the individual painter, but, according to Simeon, the main outline of an icon may never be altered between versions, renditions, and artists. Finished icons are never framed because “You cannot put God in a box.”

Certain details are crucial: the relation between forms or seemingly small elements–the number of curls in a beard or an eyebrow raised, finger positions or the clutch of a scroll. “How you portray hands on icons is very important,” says Simeon, “The hand of Daniel is very big to show you the prophesy.”

icon of St. Petrovskya by Simeon Larivonovoff

“An attainable salvation.” Icon of St. Petrovskya

Simeon’s knowledge of Russian church history and the world of iconography runs very very deep. So deep it’s no small challenge for the interviewer to keep up with the artist’s barrage of names, dates, liturgy, and riddle-like koans that densely fill each conversation like the icons that decorate his walls.

In our multiple meetings, I took a bunch of notes from Simeon’s monologues on subjects like St. Sergius Radonezh, sabbath practices, and The Schism. But with bon mots falling like beeswax drips from a prayer candle–“Falling in the mud is one thing, being of the mud is something else” or “An icon is a pilgrimage from one holy place to another…between heaven and earth to see glimpses of paradise” or “We don’t look at icons–they’re looking at us”–well, you should probably go to the history books when you’re really ready to dig in.

wall with dozens of traditional Russian Orthodox icons painted by Simeon Larivonovoff

“The wall of icons are witnesses interceding to God for you.” Simeon’s bedroom/workspace.

Simeon’s own history gets a little murkier. When and why he emigrated to America was dismissed with a wave of the hand, “You don’t mix cabbage with peas.” [I believe this was analogy about religious persecution.] The dates and ages that get thrown around freely are a little squishy, too. That 659 years we mentioned above was a mere 647 years in a previous meeting. The very precise histories of antique oil lamps and furniture? Well, they’re all plausible. An ancient Russian prayer book of psalms or “chants” may or may not be in demand from The Smithsonian.

Regardless, Simeon is absolutely devoted to his craft. “This is the sole reason for my existence–to paint icons,” he says. And paint he has. Simeon estimates he’s painted between three and four thousand icons in his lifetime for an audience both within his local communities and around the world–some devotional, others are private collectors. Now he’s down to creating around 50 a year with eight or ten in process during our meetings. “I’m getting old,” Simeon says.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff with icon of St. Hodogitria

“You ask the saint to help–you are not an artist, you are the medium.” Simeon with icon of St. Hodogitria, “She who takes you by the hand, she who shows you the way.”

As strict a regimen as Old Rite Russian Orthodoxy seems to this outsider–its denial of compact fluorescents, crab cakes, and rock-n-roll seems like a heavy price for salvation–that’s not the way Simeon sees it. “We are a joyful religion…sunset is a new day beginning,” he says.

It’s a lovely way to look at the world–the early extinguishing of light in these darkest December days as not the trigger for seasonal affective disorder, but rather the beginning of a new possibility. That we are of the mud, transfigured, and on our tip-toes, trying to get one of those glimpses of paradise. Just don’t mix your cabbage with peas.


Bonus material! Back in 2011, local filmmaker Julie Sokolow made a short film of Simeon where you can see the man in motion. The lamp-lighting, dogs, and challenges of shooting in a home without electric light are all there.

The Front (and Back) Yard Marys of Bloomfield, Part 2

statuette of Mary in grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” – James 1:14

When first we reported on The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield (Pittsburgh Orbit: June 26, 2016), this blogger naively believed he’d bagged them all. But oh, like James, how The Orbit was lured and enticed by its own desire.

It wasn’t that we weren’t thorough. No, the way we’d figured it, every thoroughfare, side street, and back-alley was meticulously criss-crossed in a slow-motion two-wheel scan for Herself*. In this quest, we found The Blessed Mother, again and again, peering back at us from stoops and yardlets, porches and grottos all over the neighborhood.

Mary statuette seen through chainlink fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Chain link Mary, Idaline Street

statuette of Mary lying face down in backyard dirt, Pittsburgh, PA

That’s no way to treat a lady! Face-down Mary and homemade snow plow grotto, Carroll Street

But Mary–or, Marys–still managed to elude us. They clung to the shadows, behind fences, and deep in private spaces. How many more? It makes a blogger insane. Should we blow the entire Orbit budget on drone aviation/surveillance just to spy into the secluded no-access recesses of inner Bloomfield? No–that would be creepy, weird, and extreme. How many more? Should we deploy guises in our mission? The stock Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness costumes probably won’t get us far in this case, but how about dressing as “backyard inspectors” who “just need to take a few pictures” because “it’s regulation”? That could get us quick glimpses into those most private of sanctums. How many more?

Statuette of Mary in grotto of row house side yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, Mary-and-grotto: that looks like Bloomfield to me, Torley Street

statuette of Mary by red brick rowhouse, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

In The Orbit‘s defense, the Marys that did manage to emerge in the (nearly a) year since that initial post are not obvious. They’re deep cuts, B-sides, studio outtakes only fit for super fans who already own all the official releases. We’re talking a camouflaged Mary two backyards and three fences deep off tiny Mott Way; Mary face down in soggy dirt; an empty grotto your average Joseph–or customer on the way to Shur-Save–wouldn’t bat an eye at.

homemade Mary grotto without statuette in back yard of small house, Pittsburgh, PA

Empty Mary grotto, Ella Street

Mary statuette against garage wall behind chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Camo Mary, Mott Way

For the obsessive collector, it’s all about the pursuit, but any hunt must be sustained by the occasional kill–[choice of words]–blessed encounter to keep up both morale and momentum. It’s fine if we haven’t bagged them all–we never will and (keep telling ourselves) that’s OK! Regardless, you’ve still got to bring something home for supper or the whole family goes hungry.

Like our old boss always said, “there’s a lot of good eating in Bloomfield”. If what they’re serving up is Mary–low-milage, sun-dried, and salt-cured–we’ll go back for seconds. Oh yeah, we’ll go back for more.

statuette of Mary in wooden backyard flower box, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the flower boxes, Carroll Street

two statuettes of Mary in a row house backyard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, and a pair of Marys, State Way


* Every street except Ella, whose two different front demi-yard Marys were inexcusably missed the first time around, but are captured here.

Fish On My List: Holy Angels vs. St. Maximilian Kolbe

fish sandwich with three breaded fillets of fish from church fish fry

The holy grail: Holy Angels Parish panko-crusted triple-decker fish sandwich

Editor’s note: When Orbit cub reporter Lee Floyd pitched the idea of a one-lunch back-to-back fish vs. fish showdown comparing two of the area’s finest, we thought he was crazy…crazy like a fox! Here’s Lee’s take on the day.

Pittsburgh may not be known for seafood, but we can deep fry a frozen filet as well as any city with a coastline. I’ve ordered fish in several states that couldn’t hold a candle to the piping-hot deliciousness served up by volunteers at churches and firehalls around the Steel City. The solemnness of the Lenten season is completely lost on The Orbit as we seek out Friday lunch like wide-eyed, salivating animals.

table covered with homemade desserts for sale at church fish fry dinner

Dessert table, Holy Angels

The fourth day of Spring, sunny with a high in the mid-60s, was perfect weather for a bicycle-based culinary tour. I pedaled against the wind to meet today’s dining partner (and Orbit editor) for a double dose of our most-beloved sandwich. I was determined to impartially judge two of my local favorites because, while every local news outlet and their mother has a fish fry guide or a basketball-style bracket for the best fish, it is really just a popularity contest. I even take my own opinion with a dash of hot sauce unless I can compare two things back-to-back. So that’s exactly what we set out to do.

Catholic priest laughing with take-out from church fish fry

Jesus on the mainline: this priest is on a (take-out) mission

Our first stop was right in the middle of the lunch hour so we found Holy Angels Parish packed to the gills. We were greeted at the door, handed menus, and bid good luck in finding a seat. Once we were situated, we simply flashed a pink card and a server arrived to take our order. There was very little hassle or delay despite the size of the crowd, although you might disagree if you were looking for parking in Holy Angels side lot.

two men eat fish sandwiches in church basement fish fry

Bon appétit! Satisfied Holy Angels customers digging-in.

Let me tell you about that fried fish sandwich! Holy Angels dropped three generous panko-crusted Pollack filets into a standard hoagie bun and nothing was ever the same again. It was obvious these were express shipped to the table straight out of the fryer–I even burnt my finger after the photo-op.

Holy Angels also offers baked fish options, the standard sides (we tried the mac and cheese–gooey and good, but nothing special), two seafood-based soups, cheese pizza, and a tantalizing, largely homemade-by-parishioners dessert table.

stacks of boxed frozen pollack fillets on shipping pallets

2000 pounds of frozen pollack just delivered for next Friday’s fry, Holy Angels Parish

To protect the integrity of this story I scolded my editor: “Are you really going to put the hot sauce on your half before you taste it!?!” Our fellow fish-fiends/tablemates overheard and immediately began to relate their Lenten exploits (we added West Mifflin’s Holy Trinity to our to-eat list) and gloated that they know the best restaurant that serves fried fish year round–Rene’s (pronounced “REN-ees” or maybe “REE-knees“) in McKeesport. The conversation lasted longer than our meal and so I forgot about the (terrible but empirical) plan to pocket part of a sandwich so I could compare alternate bites at our second stop.

exterior of St. Maximillian-Kolbe Catholic church, Homestead, PA

St. Maximillian-Kolbe (aka “St. Max”), Homestead

After a combined three mile ride via river trail and Homestead side streets, a palate-cleansing flight of craft beer at Blue Dust, and one calf-straining climb up the hill to 13th Ave., we found ourselves locking up our bicycles next to the 24-foot-tall likeness of St. Joseph the Worker just outside St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Homestead.

At St. Max, you order and pay just inside the door before entering the hall. My editor-of-little-faith’s jaw hit the floor when he found out the good saint serves beer alongside scripture. By the time we finally got done picking it up, our food was ready.

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

Fish sandwich with sides of (traditional noodle) haluski and potato haluski served on a McDonald’s tray, St. Max’s

As Rick Sebak put it, “The bun is just a handle”, and never was he more on-point than at St. Max. The parish serves one absurdly long, flaky filet on an oversized–but still way too small–bun. It is not only substantial but also cooked and seasoned with a hand that we can only assume is heaven-sent. Loose, thin breading ensures the fish remains the star of the show.

At this stop, we chose to sample both types of haluski on the menu–egg noodle and the more traditional potato dumpling–which were part of the largest church menu I’ve ever seen. The extended offerings also include baked and fried fish, crab cakes, shrimp, pierogies, haluski, linguini, pizza, stewed tomatoes, deli salad sandwiches, and more–in addition to the standard sides and dessert table.

piece of puff pastry in plastic wrap on disposable plate

Puff pastry, wrapped in plastic, St. Max’s

So…who wins? In my opinion, the breading and service really makes Holy Angels’ fish stand out from all the other places we’ve visited. On the other hand, the generous, quality filet at St. Max hasn’t been rivaled either (it may be enough for two meals, but I’ll devour it all at once, thanks). If you like fish, you’ll not be disappointed with either choice! Since the fish was so difficult to call, we’ve got to contrast other factors:

  • If you plan to arrive by bicycle along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, then Holy Angels is much more accessible–it’s just a short, easy ride up from the break under the Glenwood Bridge.
  • If your sweet tooth is what gets you to leave the house, Holy Angels wins the dessert table by a nose for its homemade bringings-in. That said, St. Max’s had some of parishioner Shirley’s cream puffs that blew our mind.
  • If you enjoy the chance to share a table with strangers, either location will probably do, but Holy Angels is known for being packed to capacity. The crew at our table were a particularly lively bunch that couldn’t wait to share and compare info on other fish fries.
  • The cheese pizza at either location should keep the children quiet, but if you need to order for diverse tastes, then perhaps the larger more-ethnic menu at St. Max will make you the hero of the office.
  • If you like to get canned-up on domestic brews at dive bar prices with the option to confess it all in one convenient location, then St. Max’s “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere” bar is your spot.
  • If you’re ordering to go and have a fear of soggy breading, then St. Max is my recommendation.
small bar in church basement decorated with flag and banners

The “It’s 5:00 Somewhere” bar, St. Max

Winner winner, fried fish dinner.

It’s said that difficult decisions are so because there simply is no right answer. What’s clear from this attempt to pit parish vs. parish, panko vs. batter, Lucy’s cheesecake vs. Shirley’s cream puffs is that when it comes to the fish on The Orbit‘s list, we’re all winners…except maybe the fish. The fish are probably not the winners here, but the rest of us are winners. Eat well.

author Lee Floyd posing on "Fish Fry Today" sign outside church

The author, Holy Angels Parish, Hays


Getting there:
Holy Angels Parish: 408 Baldwin Road, Hays.
St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish: 363 W 11th Ave, Homestead.
Both serve fish Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent, 11 AM – 7 PM…or until the fish runs out.

Onion Dome Fever: The Domes of Lyndora

front face of Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Lyndora, PA

Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Evergreen Street

Had you told this blogger a simple detour on the way home would lead him on journey starting with old world immigrants and Eastern Orthodox religion and wind up exploring the themes expressed in Poison’s debut Look What the Cat Dragged In[1], well, in the words of C.C. DeVille, Rikki Rockett, and the gang, he’d have told you to cry tough.

Such is this journey we call Orbit.

front view of St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Main & Chesapeake Streets

Frankly, little Lyndora didn’t even exist on The Orbit‘s mental map of the region. As it turns out though, the town–thirty miles north and basically a next-door adjunct to more name-brand Butler–is quite the destination for the onion dome-obsessed. Lyndora is a classic industry town, host to the AK Steel plant which occupies a tremendous amount of Connoquenessing Creekside acreage and continues to belch enough white smoke to tell us it’s still very much in operation.

Steel-making aside, Lyndora’s primary claim-to-fame seems to be the birthplace of Bret Michaels (née Bret Michael Sychak) of ’80s glam/hair metal band Poison. That’s all well and good, but we’d like to nominate it for its fine collection of old-school/high-style orthodox churches–all of which can be easily navigated in a fine little constitutional around the borough.

steeple view of St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Penn Ave.

front view of 1906 St. Michael the Arcangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

St. Michael the Arcangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, Hansen Ave.

We were actually headed home from points north when Lyndora’s four-pack of tell-tale gleaming ornaments gave themselves away–or perhaps, yelled for attention. The silver globes reach into the sky and beckon the wobegone traveler to re-route him- or herself off Highway 8 and up into the town’s inviting hillside clutches. Come to us they seem to whisper, a secret awaits. Obey their trance-inducing powers we did.

While every rose may indeed have its thorn[2], it’s safe to say not every town of 6,000 has four glorious orthodox Catholic churches–two of them (St. Michael the Arcangel and Saints Peter & Paul) are enormous Ukrainian Catholic churches, which tells us a fair amount about the Big Steel-era immigrants who first populated this particular borough.

wooden tent sign advertising "Today Pirohi Sale", Lyndora, PA

Sadly, Peter & Paul’s pirohi sale was not happening the day we visited [it appears to be every other Friday, 8-4–but not sure on that one].

rear view of St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Penn Ave.

Long before siring the author of “Unskinny Bop” and “Talk Dirty to Me”, the Sychak family were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants to Western Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. It’s quite possible young Bret actually worshipped at St. Andrew during his earliest years in Lyndora. A Huffington Post article by Megan Smolenyak[3] actually discusses this:

Was Bret Sychak one of us? [Carpatho-Rusyns] It took a little digging, but I discovered that his great-grandfather, Vasil Sychak (spelled a frustrating number of ways) claimed in his naturalization record to have arrived in New York in July 1905. Vasil’s wife to be, Anna Daňo, had arrived in Baltimore the month before, and by September of the following year, they had met and married in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh.

A quick inspection of his passenger arrival record revealed that he was actually a bird of passage–a term used for those who came to America several times. These were generally men who didn’t really intend to stay here, but instead planned to come, work and go back home to live comfortably as the richest fellow in the village. Vasil had first arrived in 1899, meaning that he was about 16-17 the first time he made the journey. This was a common age for Rusyn immigrants since many of them were seeking not only to escape poverty, but also to avoid the draft.

cornerstone for 1914 St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew’s cornerstone. The English side reads “St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church”

After marrying, Vasil and Anna lived for a while in McKees Rocks, then briefly in Sharon, and finally in Lyndora, Pennsylvania where they remained for the rest of their lives. Most Rusyns worked in either the coal or steel industry, and Vasil was no exception, working for Armco (American Rolling Mill Company). [Editor’s note: the former Armco plant is now AK Steel-Butler Works.]

If there was any doubt that Vasil was Rusyn, a number of documents pertaining to his life list him as Ruthenian or Russniak, both alternative terms used for this ethnic group. He and his wife also attended a Greek Catholic Church–one of the telltale signs of a Rusyn–and were born in Habura and Kalinov, respectively. Both are in Slovakia less than 15 miles from the town that claims Andy Warhol.

The “Greek Catholic Church” Smolenyak mentions is undoubtably St. Andrew’s on Penn Avenue. Its cornerstone reveals it as formerly “Russian Orthodox/Greek Catholic”. The handsome octagonal silver tri-crossed cupola was the first thing we spotted from the highway across the creek.

mosaic detail of Mary and baby Jesus, St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

Detail from mosaic above St. John’s entryway

side view of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church with wooden signs for upcoming Easter fair, Lyndora, PA

Open up and say…paska! St. Michael the Arcangel’s Easter Fair is coming up April 7-9.

The very end of winter: a gloomy day, cold drizzle, deserted streets, no one home to let a loitering blogger poke around the icons, candles, and gold-leaf relics. And yet what a privilege to have these beautiful bits of tangible near-history ours for the poking, available on-demand as leg-stretching scenery and lazy drive ponderables.

As Bret Sychak [we really wish he hadn’t felt the need to Anglicize his name] would remind us back in 1988–and I’m pretty sure he was talking about Peter & Paul’s pirohi–don’t need nothin’ but a good time, how can I resist?

front view of Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Getting there: Lyndora is straight up Route 8 from Pittsburgh. It takes about 50 minutes to get there. Butler (right next door) amazingly has two brew-pubs and is also well worth a poke-around.


[1] For the record, these are (according to Wikipedia): ambition, lust, sexual frustration, love lost, and anti-social behavior.
[2] Whether every cowboy sings his sad, sad song is not confirmed.
[3] “Bret Michaels: The Rusyn Roots of the Rock of Love”, Megan Smolenyak, Huffington Post, May 21, 2010.

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

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.