Rising up over the edge of East Liberty are the familiar pointy spires of Sts. Peter and Paul Church. This neighborhood landmark rose to international fame after being featured in the 1999 Kevin Smith film Dogma, but it’s been a fixture of Pittsburghers’ memories for much longer.
A storied history
The original church building was constructed in 1859, but the cornerstone of the Sts. Peter and Paul we know today was laid on August 10, 1890, designed by the famed architect Adolphus Druiding. The church opened to worshippers on December 20, 1891, and became home to a growing congregation of mostly German and Lithuanian, and ultimately Italian, immigrants who worked as Pittsburgh’s builders in the mills, construction trades, and food industry. After a fire destroyed much of the building in 1909, the church was then partially rebuilt again by architect John Theodore Comes.
Following World War II, church attendance mirrored the slow and steady decline of Pittsburgh’s population. The flight of families to the suburbs combined with the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry in the 1970s left only a remnant of elderly parishioners who could no longer support the massive structure. In July 1992, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh announced Sts. Peter and Paul’s closure.
The Diocese sold the property to Everlasting Covenant Church in 1997, which had hoped to restore the structure for their own congregation and start a charter school in the former school building. In the interim, the charter school was held at another site in the neighborhood but folded after five years. When the charter for the school was not renewed, the church was left to sit again. In the years after, the building deteriorated steadily as it became a site for squatters, vandals, and curious neighbors.
New hope for Sts. Peter and Paul
After over a decade of starts and stops, new hope came for Sts. Peter and Paul when the community development non-profit East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) worked to acquire the sanctuary from Everlasting Covenant in 2014. Though a deal could not be settled, ELDI was eventually granted the deed to the property in 2018 through Pennsylvania’s Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act. Ever since, ELDI has been working to stabilize and find a viable new use for the church. With loans from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh and WesBanco Bank, the group invested $400,000 into the site. The church and school were abated for asbestos, the church’s roof and steeples were stabilized, and the collapsing rectory was demolished in 2017.
In 2019, in an effort to gather community feedback, ELDI sought the expertise of the non-profits ULEAD and Partners for Sacred Places. They organized “Space Walk and Talk Tours”, engaging over 200 people, including many living or working in close proximity to the church. The surveys from those tours showed that the majority of people preferred a multi-use option for the space, with a music and performance theater, event center, banquet hall, and community recreational center noted as some of the preferred re-use options.
“It’s a beautiful building so it’s easy to imagine wonderful things that could happen in the space. The problem is that the renovation of this church building will be so expensive that it’s going to be very hard to find a use that is financially feasible,” said Kendall Pelling, ELDI’s former director of land recycling. During his time at ELDI, Kendall is credited with spearheading efforts to acquire the church.
ELDI also engaged Robison Building Analysis LLC to conduct a detailed condition assessment of the property. Fortunately, the report was positive, with the roof and main structure found to be in generally good condition.
At the same time, to ensure preservation concerns were properly addressed, ELDI consulted with the Young Preservationists Association (YPA) and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
“We have to look at all the factors when preserving a historic building, especially long-term viability,” explained Matthew Craig, executive director of the YPA. “There is no need to pour a lot of money into a one-time fix and then let the property start to rot again. A long-term steward who understands the full value of the historic property is what we would most want to see.”
After years of community engagement work, it now appears that ELDI may have found such a long-term steward.
The next phase for the church
In July 2021, ELDI hired Tom Rooney of The Rooney Sports and Entertainment Group in partnership with David Stone of Stone Planning LLC, to provide an analysis of the concept of Sts. Peter and Paul Church serving as an event venue. After almost 30 years in the sports and entertainment business, Tom Rooney has developed large-scale sports and entertainment venues all around the country. But as a Pittsburgh native and resident who is active in his own Catholic parish, this project is close to his heart in more ways than one.
“To me, it’s a labor of love,” Rooney said. “I ran into so many people who said, ‘My brother went to school there.’ or ‘My mother was married there.’ I always say that churches never really close—they exist somewhere else. When I walk in there, I’m overcome emotionally. It’s surreal to stand up at the altar and look at the sun shining through the stained-glass windows.”
Rooney and Stone’s team have completed a feasibility study, drawing on information from an ELDI commissioned architectural study by Desmone Architecture and an economic impact study carried out by the Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh.
After their analysis, they recommend that the church be renovated for use as a multi-purpose events venue. Their report shows a strong market for events such as concerts, weddings, and business meetings and conferences, among others.
“The size of this venue, the location, and the timing are all very good,” Rooney said. “I always say that you don’t make your niche, you find it. And it’s not always that what the community wants is almost exactly what the studies show that they should do.”
The economic impact study showed that renovations would cost approximately $15 million, with the venue potentially being able to support 200 annual events reaching 58,250 attendees and adding over $1 million to the region’s local economy annually.
Rooney and Stone recommend adding a new two-story addition to the side of the church structure which would have bathrooms, kitchen space, breakout meeting rooms, and parking space.
The next step is securing funding. ELDI, together with Stone and Rooney, is currently in the process of applying for a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant from the Pennsylvania Office of the Budget. The grant is awarded to projects that can demonstrate a positive regional impact on tax revenues and job creation.
“ELDI plans to push forward to renovate and raise funds to save this amazing and historic community centerpiece so that it might serve the community for another one hundred years. Local jobs, local weddings, and celebrations will engage our neighbors, while nationally known artists, speakers, and businesses will attract people from all over the world to this unique venue,” said Ted Melnyk, ELDI’s director of operations.
To Rooney, saving the church is something of a personal mission:
“I love to see old structures like these reused. Not as some brewpub, but as some worthy-to-the-community public space. The East Liberty, I remember as a kid was a thriving community of businesses, churches, parks, and family dwellings. Today, East Liberty is thriving again but there is very little to recall the past. Saving the twin-spired church will always remind people of the old, vibrant place that was the original East Liberty, or as we called it ‘Sliberty.’”