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.

Onion Dome Fever: St. Nicholas Orthodox, Donora

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora

The Orbit may be cheap, but at least we love a bargain.

Like a cat’s mad scramble at the first wafts of eau d’tuna fish floating up the stairwell, throw a couple of glorious onion domes in the sky and get out of the way. The Orbit will come a-runnin’, leaving scratches in the wood floor and taking out everything on the end table as collateral damage.

Pair the steeple spectating with a nice (if too short) city step climb–its attendant views of town and the curling Monongahela River no small bonuses–and you’ve just served up an all-you-can-blog super buffet in Orbitville. Like Roger Daltrey, this blogger would call that a bargain–one of the better ones he’s seen lately.

foreground sign with removable letters saying "Sunday service 10" with St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in background, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church rises at the top of the short hill that bridges Donora’s McKean Ave. business district on the flats with the residential neighborhoods up above. It is fully accessible from numerous paved roads, but a short hike on the 8th Street city steps takes the visitor straight up the hillside to the base of ol’ St. Nick’s eponymous way. The calves aren’t quite done yet, as you’ve still got another solid block-length walk uphill to the reach the church itself. The South Side Slopes, this ain’t, but the six or eight vertical stories will do in a pinch.

view up city steps to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

On a typically gray mid-winter day–we weren’t encumbered by any of that bothersome sunlight–the otherworldly green shapes of the church’s oxidized copper spaceship ornaments are both the brightest thing you’ll see and the most distinct forms on the horizon. Visible from pretty much anywhere in town, the big emerald orbs poke out over commercial storefronts and through bare trees, as halos on wooden homes and antennae to the aether. Come to me they seem to whisper from afar, and heed their siren song we always do.

mosaic of St. Nicholas above entryway to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas has such a traditional, classic look that it was a little surprising to find out it had been erected in the early 1950s, replacing a smaller, 1916 structure just down the hill*. This blogger takes his sight-seeing seriously and is currently working off the demerits for failure to scrutinize (let alone photograph) the symmetrical pair of cornerstones on either side of the building’s face.

Typically, such arrangements seem to contain the same information, inscribed in English on one stone and the congregation’s original language on the other. This seems like it would be Carpatho-Russian Cyrrilic, but we’ll have to wait for the inevitable return trip make-good to verify.

Oh…and there will be a return trip. We can hear St. Nicholas calling even now…

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA


* http://stnicholasorthodoxdonora.org/history.html

Step Beat: Anthony and Ivondale

intersection of Anthony Street and Ivondale Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Anthony and Ivondale streets, The Run

They’re not the longest or the prettiest. They’re not one of the great nature-in-the-city hikes, and there’s not much of a view. Heck, these steps don’t even fulfill the most basic purpose of infrastructure: you can’t go anywhere on them!

So why are we even reporting on the Anthony and Ivondale city steps? Well, this blogger will tell you. There’s a time for greatest hits and, as Buck Dharma so wisely reminds us, there’s a time to play B-sides. On the back of the platter, Anthony and Ivondale still earn the occasional spin, and it still sounds…er, walks pretty good.

The onion domes of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine from the Anthony/Ivondale intersection, Pittsburgh, PA

The onion domes of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine from the Anthony/Ivondale intersection

Last year we reported on the wonderful existence of the great Romeo & Frazier intersection in an overgrown hillside of South Oakland. That particular confluence of city steps is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Pittsburgh’s commitment (at least, historically) to pedestrian thoroughfares as fully-accredited “streets.”

We see the same great treatment at the corner of Anthony and Ivondale, where the steps are given their own street light and signage. Only here, the whole enterprise is more absurd since there’s not really any chance of either walking these steps in the dark or needing directions to where they’re (not) going.

intersection of Anthony Street and Ivondale Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up Ivondale Street from behind St. John’s

The other obvious factor on any step-trekker’s noodle is that this particular pair of step-streets is almost surely on the endangered list. At one time, Anthony Street must have continued all the way up the hill to Greenfield*. That would have connected residents of The Run up to Greenfield’s commercial district and uphill parishioners down to the mighty St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.

But those aren’t really well-travelled routes any more–at least, not on foot. In fact, they’re so neglected that you can only walk a tiny minority of Anthony Street before you’re met by an ocean of out-of-control overgrowth that completely blocks passage on the through-way**.

city steps overgrown with weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh Babylon: Anthony Street’s long, inaccessible climb up to Greenfield

Anthony & Ivondale will never be destination steps like Rising Main or Little Jewel Street or the “Try Try Try” steps. But if you find yourself in The Run for a large sandwich at Big Jim’s or just passing through en route between the Schenley Park and “Jail Trail” bicycle runs, it’s well worth the stop and poke-see. You won’t get lost; there’s nowhere to go.


* Looking at the map, it seems like Anthony probably terminated at tiny Raff Street, itself just an extension of Alger Street, a block off Greenfield Ave.
** Already on the list is going back in the winter when we can see what’s left when the knotweed has died off.

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.

Onion Dome Fever: St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church

former St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church, Pittsburgh, PA

(Former) St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church, Hill District

Like the ripe tomato hanging on the vine, seductively whispering “take me, I’m yours.” This fantastic little old-world church, complete with big stained glass windows and its Byzantine onion dome. Sitting empty, literally right in the center of Pittsburgh, up on The Hill. An inevitable fantastic view across the Allegheny River from the rear and an easy walk downtown, mere blocks (O.K., maybe a half mile) away.

As this blogger kickstanded his hog and pulled out the camera-phone, a fellow at the bus stop across the street asked if I was going to buy the place. I told him I wasn’t, but wished I could. What would you do with it? he said. Me: I’d live there.

And wow: wouldn’t that be a peach? I haven’t been inside and can only imagine what it would take to resuscitate a heap like this, but you know it would be incredible. What a terrific little place! We’d be living the dream in Orbit World Headquarters! Ha! Instead, it’s sitting idle and, if not shuffling off this mortal coil, it’s at least finished dessert and asked for the check. Sigh. Maybe we need to make a few calls…

former St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church, Pittsburgh, PA

It comes in color, too!

A side note: One Christmas, we attended midnight mass at the new(er) St. George’s in Oakland with the Syrian family I was tutoring in E.S.L. at the time. [St. George’s moved from The Hill District to Oakland in 1954.] I can tell you that experience was intense. This ceremony actually started at midnight (not one of those middle-of-the-mall midnight masses), went on for two-and-a-half hours, and was all in Latin. Much chanting, swinging the burning herbs, robes, beads; the whole bit. I’m pretty sure those spirits are all still at it in the old place and I’d love to fall asleep to their ghostly modal Acapulco hymns.

Onion Dome Fever: St. John Church of the Eastern Rite

St. John the Baptist church, Pittsburgh, Pa.

St. John the Baptist Carpatho-Russian Church of the Eastern Rite, Marshall-Shadeland

Sometimes life has a funny way of handing out consolation prizes. This blogger was out hunting an elusive patch of historically important heavy metal graffiti and wound up finding religion. I was out looking for Black Sabbath and came back with, uh, actual sabbath. Out for Queensryche, got Eastern Rite. Seeking Slade, got saved. Searching for Slayer, got a savior. Looking for Judas Priest…O.K., this is too easy; you get the joke.

There I was, huffing and puffing my way up and down, back and forth combing through the steep streets and alleys of Marshall-Shadeland looking for a very particular deconstructed garage containing a spray painted history of teenage male hair farmer fandom that I’m starting to think only exists in my dreams (and others’ nightmares). I curse myself for failing to take pictures the first time I came across them (“always record!”) and turn the bicycle toward home in disgrace.

But then, clearing a bluff I’d never been to at the end of Woodland Ave., they popped right out of the sky at me: gleaming onion domes, gorgeous against the perfectly blue early Spring sky, glowing like golden apples in the bright sun.

Detail of onion dome on St. John the Baptist church, Pittsburgh, Pa.

St. John the Baptist Carpatho-Russian Church of the Eastern Rite sits on a lonely stretch of California Ave. It dominates the otherwise two-story frame houses that surround it. The building and grounds seem to be in fine, well-maintained order, but its sign has either been vandalized or severely weather-worn. There is no indication the church is still open Sundays, nor is there evidence of closure. (I was there mid-day on a Saturday and the doors were locked tight.)

Cornerstone for St. John the Baptist church, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Bilingual cornerstone

The church stands an impressive three (very tall) stories, but, other than the showy domes and big Byzantine crosses on the front doors, has a very subdued plainness. That may be a Carpatho-Russian thing, or possibly just a belt-tightening side-effect of its Depression-era construction. I’d love to see inside.

Byzantine crosses on the front doors of St. John the Baptist church, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Byzantine crosses on St. John’s front doors

Probably you’ve whizzed by St. John on your way out Route 65, taking your tube amp to Don for yet another repair at Phil’s TV, or just to peruse the menu of fried items at Miller’s Seafood. Maybe, like me, you never really processed it from the highway, but hopefully you did. Either way, if you find yourself off the main drag, down on California Ave., maybe stick around one time and say hello to St. John. And let me know if you ever find that garage full of graffiti over the hill.

St. John the Baptist church, Pittsburgh, Pa.

St. John the Baptist Carpatho-Russian Church of the Eastern Rite, Marshall-Shadeland