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

Onion Dome Fever: Holy Transfiguration!

Holy Transformation Russian Orthodox Church, Steubenville, Ohio

Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church, Steubenville, Ohio

The Orbit road crew was a on a mission to find the grave of Jimmy The Greek in Steubenville, Ohio, and find it we did.  Oh yes, find it we did.  But as we were heading up Washington Street from downtown, there, sparkling like a new penny, was the phosphorescent green mini onion dome of Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church.  Never ones to avoid getting distracted by shiny things, we detoured up to the tiny dead end of North 10th Street to get a shot of the church all lit up in the afternoon sun.

Pastor Greg, dressed appropriately in a friar’s dark, knotted robe and sandals, spotted me taking pictures outside and asked if we’d like to come in for the service that was beginning in fifteen minutes.  We politely declined, to which he followed up by urging us to just come inside for a look. That was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

The humble country church look of the outside didn’t give any clue to the gorgeous collection of gold leaf icons, burning candles, Byzantine crosses, live flowers, incense burners, brassware, lace cloth, and the like that awaited within.

interior of Holy Transformation Russian Orthodox Church, Steubenville, Ohio

Interior, Holy Transfiguration Church

The pastor had departed in his minivan to pick up a parishioner who needed a ride to the service.  I wish we’d had the chance to ask him about the history of the church and the current state of the laity.  That very congregation was beginning to file in as we were poking around, so it started to feel pretty awkward and we made our exit.

Steubenville has been draining population since the 1940s (The Greek led that wave out of town), and my guess is that the number of Russian Orthodox parishioners is dwindling in the low double-digits.  So one hopes that Holy Transfiguration will be around for Steubenville’s inevitable glorious comeback, but it will probably take a little divine intervention.

Holy Transformation Russian Orthodox Church, Steubenville, Ohio

Interior (detail), Holy Transfiguration Church

Good Friday Special: The Father, The Sunoco, The Holy Ghost

Crucifixion scene with Sunoco gas station in background

Jesus/Sunoco, Carnegie

Sometimes these things just fall into your lap.  That is, if your lap happens to be hanging out around the Russian Orthodox church in Carnegie.  Or maybe it’s more like discovering an Easter egg: we came looking up toward the roofline from the street, but found this little gem around the corner in the side yard.

Either way, there it was: the photo-blogger’s cheap, visual joke laid out on a platter like an Easter ham with all the fixins.  Jesus crucified twice: once on the old-school cross, and then again bisected by the Sunoco station roof, just in time for Easter.  We threw in a shot from Holy Ghost Byzantine just to, you know, complete the trifecta.

I wonder if the site planners for Sunoco even considered their neighbors when locating this mega-station on Mansfield Blvd. next to Holy Virgin Church.  I’m a so-so photographer, but I always pay attention to what’s in the background of the shot.  Maybe they considered all that and just wanted to make the gas station look better.

Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church, McKees Rocks, PA

Holy Ghost, McKees Rocks

Onion Dome Fever: St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Church

St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church, McKeesport, Pa.

St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Church, McKeesport

It was a bleak late February day when Orbit cub reporter Tim and I set out in the slush for McKeesport. We were tracking big game: one muffler man and a couple onion domes.  And bag them we did. Oh yes, bag them we did. But so much more, too: fish and trains and saints and steps and one Magic Palace. More about all that (hopefully) in the weeks to come.

But for now, let’s get to the task at hand: the beautiful St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Church. Located on a side street, a couple blocks off the main drag from McKeesport’s downtown, St. Mary’s looks nothing like the landscape that surrounds it.  It also looks not particularly like the other Eastern Orthodox churches we’ve seen on this beat: more modern, white-bricked, with glowing blue domes (you’ll have to take my word on that one, or see video at bottom).

If this blogger wants to hit the big time he’s going to have to remember to bring his reporter’s notebook and write down some facts, so I don’t have a date on when St. Mary’s was built.  That said, it feels very between-the-wars: sleek and stylish, its curves more suggestive, its lines part old world, part deco.

I don’t know if it’s worth a trip to McKeesport just to see St. Mary’s–that’s what the Orbit is here for!–but definitely do stop by if you’re out that way.  And if you do, let me know what it says on the cornerstone.

St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church, McKeesport, Pa.

McKeesport skyline with St. Mary’s

St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church, McKeesport, Pa.

“Tim: get out of my shot!”

Bonus footage!  Video of St. Mary’s new dome getting installed in 1998:

Onion Dome Fever: Rocks Bottoms Orthodox

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, McKees Rocks

Growing up in the South, we had plenty of churches, but they tended to be Baptist, Methodist, and A.M.E.  They worshipped in unremarkable generic brick buildings, scaled-down budget classics, old wooden country churches, and occasionally unfortunate modern takes that would make even the most pious consider a life of sin.

There were a handful of Catholics in every decent-sized town, but they weren’t the wine-swilling, cigar-chomping, fish-frying variety that exist in the North.  One of my earliest new-to-Pittsburgh memories was going to a church carnival in my neighborhood where the fund-raising priest hosted a cash-on-the-table spinning wheel gambling game where the prizes were all bottom shelf liquor.  That just doesn’t go on in Appalachian Virginia.

Around Pittsburgh, there are dozens of amazing Eastern Orthodox churches with an architecture that still strikes me as otherworldly.  Byzantine crosses and elaborate stained glass.  Gold-leafed tableaus and, above all (literally), glorious (usually) gold-painted onion domes that routinely mark the skylines of otherwise humble brick factory towns and glow on gray and rainy days.

Here’s a first post wherein we honor the amazing church architecture in Pittsburgh.  The small neighborhood of “The Bottoms” in McKees Rocks boasts at least three different Eastern Orthodox churches, each with their own interesting features.  Let’s start with St. Nicholas.

Statue at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church


Statue at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

Angel (detail)

Statue at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

Angel with power lines

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in silhouette

St. Nicholas silhouette