Chapter 7- Churches
Religion was a necessity for Mt. Lebanon’s earliest settlers—giving them a social as well as spiritual outlet. Today, Mt. Lebanon’s many churches continue to serve not only their members’ needs but, though outreach efforts, the community’s needs as well.
The first Christian service in the South Hills is said to have taken place in 1802, on Nathaniel Plummer’s farm near what is now Pioneer Avenue. Four years later the Associate Reformed Congregation of Saw Mill Run erected a 50-by-35-foot wooden meeting house in what is now St. Clair Cemetery. In 1810 the congregation boasted 85 families. In the ensuing years, the church moved to Washington Road and changed its name twice. By 1929, when the stone Scottish Gothic church with the “Twin Towers” was erected, the congregation had become Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church.
The United Presbyterian Church enjoyed an impressive 72-year reign as the only church in the Mt. Lebanon area. Its closest rival was the Old Camp Meeting Ground founded in 1874 by a group of Methodist ministers. For 12 years, people flocked to the meeting ground, located in Arlington Park off Castle Shannon Boulevard near the present-day golf course, to hear fire and brimstone evangelists in a now-defunct tabernacle. In addition to longevity, Twin Towers holds another distinction. The name “Mt. Lebanon” was taken from two Cedar of Lebanon trees the church’s pastor, the Rev. Joseph Clokey, brought back from an 1850 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
By 1901 the arrival of a trolley line made commuting to Pittsburgh fairly easy and quick. When Mt. Lebanon was founded 11 years later the area was thriving—developers were building houses and paving roads. As residents poured in, they brought new beliefs, traditions and an eagerness to start their own congregations. As the area developed, two additional Washington Road churches emerged—Mt. Lebanon Baptist and Mt. Lebanon United Methodist, both of which found themselves located in Dormont when the Mt. Lebanon boundaries were formally drawn in 1912.
Following quickly on their heels was St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church. Founded by the Rev. Regis Canevin, Bishop of Pittsburgh, the first Mass for 180 families was August 31, 1919, in the Haller family’s carriage house and stable at the corner of Academy Avenue and Washington Road. Later that year, the congregation purchased property at Washington and Bower Hill roads, with Mary Haller serving as the “straw buyer” to deflect any potential objection from what was then a predominantly Protestant community. Mass was held in an old red brick house on the site while architect William Perry, a Dormont resident, began designing the Spanish Romanesque church with tile roof. The church officially was completed in 1947, but construction continued until 1962, when the rectory was completed.
Thanks to the 1924 opening of the Liberty Tunnels, Mt. Lebanon’s population increased from 2,258 to 17,000 between 1920 and 1937, making it the fastest-growing community in the state. That growth was reflected in the development of six new congregations between 1924 and 1944—most on Washington Road.
As city dwellers began migrating to the suburbs, two Hill District churches found attendance declining. So St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (founded 1835) and the Herron Hill Presbyterian Church (founded 1889) moved to Mt. Lebanon in 1924 and 1929 respectively. In 1930, St. Paul’s completed an English Gothic style structure built of Indiana limestone at Washington Road and Mayfair Drive. The Presbyterian church, which changed its name to Beverly Heights United Presbyterian, completed construction on Washington Road at Rocklynn Place in June 1930.
In 1925 John Long sold a piece of land at Washington Road and Academy Avenue to the Pittsburgh Synod of the Lutheran Church. A building was completed in 1927. Within 25 years, however, the congregation had outgrown the building. In 1957, the new Mt. Lebanon United Lutheran Church, with its distinctive 110-foot aluminum spire, opened at the intersection of Washington and Cochran.
Meanwhile, a new Presbyterian congregation was forming. A church designed by Pringles and Tufts architects was all but completed by Thanksgiving 1928. The congregation of Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian Church celebrated the holiday in standing-room-only style—the pews had not yet been installed. In 1965, the congregation changed its name to Southminster Presbyterian to avoid confusion with Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian.
In 1929, the First Church of Christ Scientist moved from Beechview to Washington Road. Architect Charles Draper Faulkner designed the Georgian style building with Corinthian columns and lighted steeple. Since the 1940s, the church has operated a reading room, a place of study and outreach, on Washington Road.
Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church was the first Mt. Lebanon Church to be built off Washington Road. With the intention of serving the developing Sunset Hills and nearby areas, the church’s board of missions purchased land on Country Club Drive in October 1925, but it would be several years before there were enough Presbyterians in the neighborhood to support the new church. The building campaign started in 1941 and architect Glenn Bickerstaff was hired to design the Colonial style structure. The sanctuary was completed in December 1947.
As the 1950s began, Mt. Lebanon’s population was 26,000 and growing. By the end of the decade, the Fort Pitt Tunnels would open another commuter route to the city. Most of the congregations still to emerge would be built away from the center of town in expanding areas. In 1946, the Presbytery of Pittsburgh acquired property on Bower Hill Road at Parkview Drive to establish Bower Hill Community Church. In 1952, with membership having nearly doubled, the congregation purchased 4H acres of the Clatty farm on nearby Moffett Street and three years later dedicated a $250,000 church, designed by architect Harold Wagoner of Philadelphia. Mt. Lebanon Christian Church also began in 1950; the church at Cedar Boulevard and Hollycrest Drive was completed in the spring of 1952.
Temple Emanuel of the South Hills holds the distinction of being the first suburban Reform Jewish congregation in the Pittsburgh area. By spring 1951, the growing South Hills Jewish population was anxious to have a local house of worship. After considering sites on Fort Couch Road, Castle Shannon Boulevard and Washington Road, the congregation purchased a 10-acre tract of land on Bower Hill Road in 1953. Plans for the temple were threatened when 200 people signed a petition saying the new building would “inescapably magnify” traffic hazards and take too much land off the tax rolls—pointing out that the largest church in the community, St. Bernard, owned only 4.7 acres. The plan was accepted when the property was reduced to five acres. The lower level of the contemporary style structure, designed by architect Percival Goodman, was completed in 1955 and the sanctuary and social hall in 1962.
In 1954 Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church moved into the former Lutheran Church at Washington Road and Academy Avenue. When the congregation outgrew the space, construction on a new church on Gilkeson Road began; it was completed in 1969. The old Lutheran Church was subsequently razed. Community concern about overdevelopment began to emerge in the mid-1950s. By then, the town’s population had climbed to 35,000. To allay concerns about traffic congestion and other public safety issues, an ordinance, passed in January 1957, banned construction of churches, schools, institutional homes and hospitals within 500 feet of the six main roads—Beverly, Cochran, Castle Shannon, Washington, Bower Hill and Cedar.
Concern about overdevelopment remained an issue when the planning process began for St. Winifred Catholic Church in Sunset Hills. Although not on a main street, the church’s proposal to build on a 7.2-acre tract on Sleepy Hollow Road near the Castle Shannon border collided with the community’s master plan to preserve wooded areas. After nearly a year of petitions and hearings, the Mt. Lebanon commission granted the Pittsburgh Diocese the go-ahead. In October 1963, the first Mass was offered in the new church; a convent, rectory and school completed the campus. Beth El Congregation of South Hills wasn’t so lucky and gave up plans for a Washington Road facility when the building restriction ordinance went into effect. The synagogue eventually was built just beyond Mt. Lebanon’s border in Scott Township.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills, was organized by a group of Mt. Lebanon residents who attended the First Church in Shadyside. Plans for a South Hills church began in March 1965 and when “Sunnyhill,” the landmark private home at the corner of Washington Road and Sunnyhill Drive, went up for sale in 1971, the congregation snapped up the house and grounds, which had been designed by Stanley Roush (the official city, and later county, architect). The last place of worship to find a home in Mt. Lebanon was the Chabad of the South Hills, a synagogue, on McFarland Road that opened in 2007.