Always Moving Forward
Sixth Presbyterian Church celebrates a long history of change and renewal
By Sue Koehler
Sixth Presby proudly displaying their rainbow flag! Photo by Meghan Poisson-DeWitt
In its 165-year history, Sixth Presbyterian Church has evolved, often reflecting changes in the city and in society at large.
The congregation was chartered in 1850. Before it came to Squirrel Hill, it occupied a site uptown at the corner of Franklin and Townsend Streets. The congregation was theologically and socially conservative, but that changed with the Civil War. The church thrived in its location until the last decades of the 19th century. As the neighborhood’s demographics changed, there were fewer Presbyterians in the area, and in 1901, the church was sold to Beth Jacob congregation. The site eventually disappeared under the Civic Arena, which has itself now been replaced.
In the early 20th century, Squirrel Hill was remote, but it was at the end of a brand new streetcar line. Undeveloped land amid open fields was purchased from Thomas Wightman at the corner of Forbes and Murray Avenues. A struggling country congregation located on the present Colfax School site merged with Sixth. The neighborhood grew and so did the church. Middle-class families followed the streetcar and began pouring into Squirrel Hill. Many joined Sixth, and within nine years, the $42,000 mortgage was paid off.
The congregation was active in the community and firmly in favor of prohibition. Despite relatively difficult periods during the Depression, Sixth was a large and thriving congregation when it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1950. Nonetheless, its commemorative book celebrating the Centennial closed with words of a changing neighborhood and suburban flight. As the streetcar had opened up Squirrel Hill, the automobile opened up the suburbs, and many church members drove through the newly opened Squirrel Hill tunnel to new homes.
By 1969, only a dedicated core remained. The church, in an aging building with reduced numbers, carried on with social programs, including a Korean Fellowship, a coffee house for youth, and the purchase of an adjacent home for a youth program. Because the congregation was active and lively, the church slowly began to grow in membership once again. But then the adjacent building burned down, and the church structure itself had suffered too long from deferred maintenance. For a few years, where the burned building had stood, there were community gardens.
1660-1680 Murray Ave – Photo by Meghan Poisson-DeWitt
In 1981, an architectural survey provided figures and a plan that revealed what was necessary to maintain the property. The congregation renewed its commitment to stay at Forbes and Murray. With hard work by members, careful stewardship of resources and great generosity of members past and present, the situation improved. The adjacent L-shaped lot was sold (where a gravel parking space and the adjacent building had once stood). It was developed for condominiums, the handsome building now called 1660-1680 Murray Avenue. Years of Pittsburgh smoky grime were cleaned away to reveal the church building’s beautiful golden stone. Proceeds from the sale of the property were applied in part to the needed maintenance.
The congregation has steadily developed a distinctive character, with members who have a passion for social justice and an intellectually honest faith. Community groups such as Al-Anon, the 14th Ward Democratic Club, the Fiberarts Guild, the Alopecia Areata Support Group, and Pittsburgh Camerata use its meeting rooms. In the mid-1990s, the congregation affiliated with the More Light Network, embracing the inclusion of gays and lesbians as full participants in all aspects of the church, including ordination to church office.
The old building at Forbes and Murray continues to require upkeep, in the manner of old buildings, but more important, inside this landmark are activities and people devoted to the life of our city. Those attracted to the congregation tend to find the diversity of the neighborhood enriching rather than troubling and hope to be part of the fabric of Squirrel Hill for many years ahead.