From the Press Enterprise, 05/07/2017
Published: May 7, 2017
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The bright blue cupolas atop SS. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church are an unmistakable landmark in Jeannette — symbols of a parish once home to more than 50 Russian families.
In Monessen, families used to fill folding chairs beside packed church pews during Sunday services at St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church.
Not so today. Not at St. Michael, not at SS. Cyril & Methodius and not at many other Orthodox churches.
George Essey, 81, was one of 16 worshipers at St. Michael on a recent Sunday. He was one of 10 the Sunday before.
Worshipers and leaders attribute struggles at their parishes to the region’s transformation from a booming, steel-fueled immigrant haven to the epitome of Rust Belt decline.
More than 20,000 people lived in Monessen in 1930. Today, the town is home to less than 7,500. Jeanette’s population in 1930 was 15,000. It’s about 9,600 now.
Evidence of change is everywhere. Just take a ride through Monessen, Essey said while talking with the Very Rev. Sam Smolcic before a recent weekday Lenten service. It used to be hard to walk through the streets without bumping into somebody.
“Four of five people abreast on a Saturday night was typical,” said Smolcic, 64, a longtime Orthodox leader in Mon Valley communities. “(Monessen) is not even a mere shadow of its former self.”
But population and economic declines are only part of the picture, said Archbishop Melchisedek (Pleska), head of the Orthodox Church in America’s Pittsburgh Archdiocese. While two parishes in Allegheny County have closed, others, such as St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, are thriving.
“There are still people there and still people who are unchurched, and it’s our business to be open to them and invite them in,” he said.
The OCA’s Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania has a parish development program that helps struggling churches assess their strengths and weakness. While the OCA has its roots in the 18th-century Russian Orthodox mission to Alaska, it more recently has tried to position itself as a truly American expression of Orthodoxy.
The Rev. Lawrence Daniels keeps old ledgers written in Cyrillic script inside his office at SS. Cyril & Methodius, relics of the parish’s ethnic past. Daniels, 78, and his wife, Sophia, labor to revive the tiny parish with what he calls the principles of hospitality, love, prayer and humility. The church has added one member in each of the five years he has served there. Today, attendance at Sunday Divine Liturgy ranges from 15 to 17 people.
“I don’t know if we can turn it around here, but we’re trying,” Sophia Daniels said. “We believe that if it’s God’s will that it survives, he will send new members. If it’s not, then that’s OK.”