“Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came into existence and how historical divisions are confronted today.
Orthodox Christian churches — with their traditional three-barred crosses and onion domes — are a signature of the Pittsburgh skyline. Sometimes, like at Carnegie, you’ll even see two Orthodox churches side by side.
Yet despite the visible presence of Orthodox Christianity, people often don’t know much about it, said the Reverend Paul Abernathy, a priest at St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District.
Historically, in the West, the Orthodox Christian community has been “really ignored to some extent,” Abernathy said. “The paradigm is Catholic or Protestant. In the United States, Orthodox Christians have also sometimes faced discrimination.
To clear up any confusion, stereotypes, or misconceptions, here are three myths about the Orthodox Church and its local Pittsburgh history debunked.
Myth #1: Labels like “Greek Orthodox” or “Russian Orthodox” refer to different Orthodox Churches.
Fact: There is only one Orthodox Church. It includes several jurisdictions determined at the regional level (Ukrainian, Serbian, Romanian, etc.).
This court system is actually a uniquely American phenomenon, Abernathy said.
In the early 1900s, Orthodox Christians in the United States all belonged to the same jurisdiction, overseen by Russia. This was normal: When the Orthodox Church expanded into a new country, Abernathy explained, it usually stayed connected to some sort of mentor or godfather until it reached “spiritual maturity.”
This relationship status changed abruptly in 1917 with the start of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Church in Russia has essentially been “decapitated,” Abernathy said. He could no longer provide the spiritual or financial support he had before.
Amid the chaos, individual ethnic congregations in the United States began reaching out to their home countries, asking them to send money, priests and bishops.
The result was that many small jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church, determined at the regional level, came into existence: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, etc.
The Pittsburgh area, with its high density and diversity of immigrants, has seen this dynamic play out perhaps more visibly than anywhere else, Abernathy said. The region was saturated with Orthodox jurisdictions and bishops.
Myth #2: If you see two Orthodox churches side by side in Pittsburgh, they are or were rivals.
Fact: In the early 1900s, local Orthodox Christian immigrants of different ethnicities often intentionally built their churches close to each other for social and spiritual support.
At the turn of the 20th century, Pittsburgh was a hub of Orthodoxy in the United States. Abernathy said that in Orthodox Christian circles in the United States, it is commonly referred to as the “breadbasket” of the faith.
It became so thanks to the steel industry. In the late 1800s, immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Arab world, places with high Orthodox Christian densities, flocked to jobs in the steel mills and mines. They greatly increased Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Christian population.
At first, different groups of immigrants – Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Romanians – worshiped together. They had to if they wanted to afford a church. By the early 1900s, however, the population had grown enough to support ethnic congregations.
The feeling between those congregations was familial, not tense, Abernathy said. “They felt, at the time, close enough to each other to understand that they wanted their churches to be together.”
Examples of this are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Peter and Paul and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Blessed Virgin, literally neighbors at Carnegie. Their mutually supportive relationship continues to the present day, Abernathy said.
Myth #3: Black Pittsburgh residents are not Orthodox Christians.
Fact: In recent decades, Orthodox Christianity in the United States has taken on a more American character. Congregations include more converts to the faith.
A trend Abernathy notes, and exemplified by St. Moses Black Orthodox Church, is a “small but growing” group of Black American converts to Orthodox Christianity.
In Pittsburgh, that growth was fueled in part by two-time Super Bowl Pittsburgh Steeler champion Troy Polamalu, who converted to the Orthodox faith of his wife, Theodora. His public spirituality helped fuel support for the project that became St. Moses the Black, a multiracial Orthodox congregation in the Hill District, in 2016.
The religious tradition’s appeal to black Americans has a historical basis, Abernathy said. For some, Orthodox Christianity, centered on deep prayer and spirituality, honors or preserves the legacy of the first black Christianity in America: the spiritual practices of enslaved Africans.
The Christianity of enslaved Americans was not the “mainstream Christianity” that many imagine, Abernathy said. “It is a spirituality that comes from deep prayer in times of great suffering.”
Some Black Americans see the same values reflected in Orthodox Christianity today.
“There’s that point where the two really converge, where the two really intersect,” he said. “All of this has given birth to the small but growing parish we have right here in this community.”
This story has been verified by Sophia Levin.
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