Why does my neighborhood have so many old churches and synagogues?

For Rev. John C. Welch, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, the first step toward healing divides between religious communities is lamenting for past wrongs, including the Church’s complicity in racism. “You can’t move past your sin,” he said. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

House of worship-heavy neighborhoods like the Hill District or Homestead didn’t form by accident. Immigration patterns, racism, industrialization and rivers all played a role.

 

by Chris Hedlin, PublicSource

Drive through Homestead, McKees Rocks or the Hill District, and you can see a dozen houses of worship within just a few blocks’ radius. 

Why? How did these dense religious landscapes come to be?

The answer pivots on a uniquely Pittsburgh mix of immigration and migration patterns, racial divides, industrialization and geography.

Factor #1: European immigration

In the mid- to late-1800s, economic hardship forced people from all over Europe (Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Slovenia and Romania, among others) to leave their homes and seek better opportunities. Pittsburgh, with its growing mills and mines, made an attractive destination. 

Many of the immigrants who came to Pittsburgh settled near industry along the riverbanks. Property amid the industrial pollution was cheap, and, besides, they could walk to work.

Ethnic enclaves arose quickly. 

 

“Once the first ship came [and] they saw the different opportunities, they wrote back home to say, ‘Look, you need to come here,’” said Rev. John C. Welch, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church and former instructor of a seminary course on Pittsburgh’s religious history.

Where the immigrant communities built their homes, they also built houses of worship. At this point, most of the immigrants were Catholic, Protestant, Christian Orthodox and Jewish; the major waves of Hindu and Muslim immigrants to Pittsburgh wouldn’t begin until the mid-1900s.

These houses of worship had distinct religious but also ethnic identities. In fact, sometimes the ethnic differences outweighed the doctrinal ones. In the case of the Catholic Church, for example, you might have Irish, Polish, German and Italian congregations practicing similar versions of Catholicism all in the same neighborhood.

The churches and temples were central to their respective immigrant communities. They were spiritual centers and more. They provided medical support, social services, youth programs and sporting leagues. They also created groups to help orient and welcome new immigrants to the area.

“There weren’t government programs like we have today,” said Tammy Hepps, a historian of Pittsburgh Judaism. “Every single one of these little communities had to figure out, ‘How are you going to look out for your own?’” 

Factor #2: Southern migration

The experience of Black migrants from the South was similar, to a point, Welch said. 

In the aftermath of the Civil War through the early decades of the 1900s, Black Southerners came fleeing racist violence and seeking economic opportunities. Like Pittsburgh’s European immigrants, they were attracted to jobs in the steel mills and mines and settled near industrial areas.

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