Old St. Luke’s

Founded in 1765 as a chapel for British troops, Old St. Luke’s was a meeting place for the resistance that sprang up during the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s.

“Why do Episcopals like Pepsi? Because you can rearrange the letters in Pepsi Cola and get Episcopal!” jokes the Rev. Canon Richard Davies, former vicar and board president of Old St. Luke’s Church in Scott Township. At 92 years old, Davies is as vibrant and enthusiastic as ever—especially when the conversation turns to the Whiskey Rebellion and the beloved church he ministered for more than 30 years.

The Rev. Canon Richard Davies is a trove of knowledge of Old St. Luke’s, a 254-year-old Episcopal church.

A Wilkinsburg native, Davies earned a master’s in divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary and served two years at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Monongahela before becoming rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal in Brentwood—a position he held for 25 years. In 1983, the year he and his wife, Doris, moved to Altadena Drive, Davies was named the executive officer and canon of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Upon retiring in 1990, Davies joined Mt. Lebanon’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as an assistant priest, and the Rev. Victor Zuck asked if he would replace him as vicar of Old St. Luke’s.

Old St. Luke’s Parish, founded around 1765 and originally ministered by army chaplains, was an outpost of the British army. It is the oldest Episcopal church west of the Allegheny Mountains, but it is mostly known for its role as a Federalist meeting place in the Whiskey Rebellion.

In a nutshell, The Whiskey Rebellion occurred when the federal government placed an excise tax on whiskey in the 1790s, and on July 17, 1794, locals burned down tax collector John Neville’s home—once located by modern-day Our Lady of Grace Church in Scott Township—rather than obey a summons to appear in court on charges of treason for refusing to pay the tax.

Neville escaped, probably to Old St. Luke’s Church, where he and many of his Federalist neighbors were congregants.

President Washington decided to make an example of the rebels by marching west with 12,000 troops to put down the rebellion. By the time the troops made it to Pittsburgh, the rebel army had already disbanded, so the federal force returned to Philadelphia with about 150 suspected rebel prisoners in tow—only two of whom were actually charged with treason. Washington wound up pardoning both.

“Think about the anger, the sorrows of the rebels,” says Davies. “Imagine being arrested for treason and leaving everything to be taken to the federal courtroom in Philadelphia. And walking all the way.”

The Whiskey Rebellion was the first real challenge to the federal government’s sovereignty following the American Revolution. It was also the only time in history that a United States president led armed troops against his citizens.

“Those were the days when the priests really had to serve troubled people,” says Davies. “Though today we have the opioid epidemic. People struggling with depression, suicide. The church is still not free of trauma, and as a priest, you must learn how to serve the people.”

Used as a “chapel of ease” to accommodate overflow from Trinity Episcopal Cathedral downtown, Old St. Luke’s unfortunately had waning membership and intermittent services from 1866 to 1930, when the chapel ceased to have a congregation.

“Since that time, the question has been ‘How will we keep this as an active church without a congregation?’ which is almost impossible,” says Davies. His solution? He shifted focus to the building’s importance as a historic landmark.

It’s a strategy that has paid off for Old St. Luke’s. While the building has received some major overhauls, including the construction of bathrooms, a bride’s room and a small museum space in the basement, the chapel has maintained the same look and feel over the centuries—it allows people to imagine what life was like back when Pittsburgh was the frontier.

Old St. Lukes updates include a new bride’s room and bathrooms.

“Many people have said to me, ‘This reminds me of a small English country church.’ And frankly, I think some people prefer the intimacy of a small church,” says Davies, whose favorite feature of the chapel is its stone façade. “All of that fieldstone was locally quarried. I can picture a wagon with horses bringing the stone to the site.”

Local history buffs also visit Old St. Luke’s to explore the burial ground. Some of the South Hills’ original settlers are buried in the graveyard, including Major William Lea (1737-1802) and his daughter, Jane (1774-1859), who was the first white child to be born and baptized in the Chartiers Valley.

St. Luke’s chapel has maintained the same look for more than two centuries.

Two major discoveries were made outside the church this fall. First, on September 14, local treasure hunters Terry and Nathan Filby used metal detectors to discover a 1787 New Jersey copper coin in the property behind the church, which is now a private residence. The coin was the first to bear the national motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” (out of many, one) and the Filbys donated it to the church.

Then, Beaumont family descendants conducted research to learn about William Henry and Sarah Beaumont—two of Old St. Luke’s little-known early parishioners, whose exact gravesites on the property remain a mystery. It turns out, the couple were married in 1776 in Yorkshire, England, before immigrating to Pennsylvania. William was the owner of a hotel and general goods store before becoming a tavern keeper. He was arrested as a “person of interest” in the Whiskey Rebellion and died in 1813, four years after Sarah.

“While the graveyard is one of the great disadvantages for us, because it prevents us from expanding, the historic burial ground is a real treasure. We are to use it,” says Davies.

Davies officially retired from his position in early 2018, and the Rev. Scott Quinn assumed his responsibilities as president of the board. Davies continues to be involved, as he and his wife now live at Providence Point—less than a mile from Old St. Luke’s.

“Old St. Luke’s is a testament to people who came here from Europe and desperately wanted to have a place to worship,” says Davies. “We don’t often hear about our local past, so we are trying to capture this very early history. So many people want to preserve this gem so that it’s not forgotten.”

When to Visit Old St. Luke’s Church

Annual Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols- Sunday, December 15, 2019, at 4 p.m.

Upcoming 2019-2020 Chamber Music Series Events:

  • Early Mays (Appalachian-inspired folk trio)- Sunday, December 22, 2019, at 7 p.m.
  • Warren Davidson (baroque violin and viola) and Elizabeth Etter (harpsichord)- Sunday, February 16, 2020, at 2 p.m.
  • Michael Griska (sitar)- Sunday, March 22, 2020, at 2 p.m.
  • Academy Chamber Ensemble- Sunday, April 19, 2020, at 2 p.m.
  • Vladimir Mollov (accordion)- Sunday, May 3, at 2 p.m.

Email tours@oldsaintlukes.org to schedule a tour or inquire about future open houses.

Email info@oldsaintlukes.org for donation information or to get involved.

Learn more about the Whiskey Rebellion.

Photos by Elizabeth Hruby McCabe