New energy enlivens Strip District parish

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 - Updated: 10:15 am

By JOHN FRANKO Staff Writer

It was a Friday night in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, so it wasn’t a surprise that the place was jumping. It was quickly filling up, and there was a feeling of real joy and fellowship.

But the setting wasn’t one of the many bars, restaurants or nightclubs. It was a church. St. Stanislaus Kostka Church of St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish was truly alive. On a night when the temperature was in the single digits, with a wind chill well below zero, more than 450 people filled it almost to capacity Jan. 5 for a candlelight Mass.

Forty-five minutes before the Mass, the sanctuary was almost half-filled. Guitarist Jonah Soucy, youth minister at St. Bonaventure Parish in Glenshaw, and drummer Chris McGurn set the reflective mood by singing “Open My Eyes, Lord.” More than a dozen people waited in line to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Others talked quietly, and there were embraces of greeting.

“We yearn for God, and when it’s cold out we know that God warms our hearts,” said Father Nick Vaskov, pastor of St. Mary of Mercy Parish in Downtown Pittsburgh and executive director of communications for the diocese. “And being with others warms our hearts.”

St. Stanislaus Kostka hosts the candlelight Mass every first Friday of the month at 8 p.m. Music and confessions begin at 7 p.m. The first candlelight Mass in December attracted about 250 worshippers.

Father Vaskov said that it offers something different for a Friday night. People have the opportunity to experience different priests and types of music.

There were people of all ages in attendance, but young adults made up a large part of the Friday night congregation. Among them was John Paul Gaston, 21, of St. Barbara Parish in Bridgeville, who was handing out programs. Not enough people his age realize the beauty of the First Friday devotion, he said, and it was a good opportunity to receive the Eucharist and hear good music.

“Coming here and worshipping with people like this provides an opportunity to really enliven ourselves to be the new evangelization,” he said.

The candlelight Mass is another sign of the rather dramatic transformation that has taken place at St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus. With renewed interest in nearby housing and the increasing number of hotels in the area, Mass attendance has gradually increased to where the sanctuary is often full on Sundays.

“The church has become a destination location,” said parishioner Derris Jeffcoat. He cited its design and beautiful interior, as well as its long, storied history.

Because of its location, he noted, it attracts people from all over the world, from all faiths and backgrounds. “They say there’s a peace and comfort here they can’t explain,” he said.

Jeffcoat said the different scheduled Masses reflect the varied people who worship there — shoppers, the “old guard” and the young, cosmopolitan faithful.

“We’ve always been an open and diverse community,” he said.

Like many parishioners, Jeffcoat comes from outside the immediate area of the parish. He is a resident of Pittsburgh’s North Side. Also in attendance was Alexis Samulski, who lives in Glenshaw.

Her grandparents were married at St. Stanislaus in 1906, so she has always had a connection to the church. But she had fallen away from the faith until a visit to the church — and a charismatic pastor — brought her back almost 20 years ago.

Samulski spoke of the growing vibrancy she has seen over the years, adding, “It makes for a very interesting combination of people — to come together as a community every week.”

The celebrant for the Jan. 5 Mass was Father Anthony Sciarappa, parochial vicar at St. Paul, St. Peter and St. Michael the Archangel parishes in Butler. He asked those in attendance what their vision of holiness is, noting that we often prejudge people and draw conclusions about them. It is a sinful act that triggers the kind of anger so prevalent today.

He pointed out that Jesus loves us and knows what binds us. Our sins can’t conquer him, and they are washed away in the confessional. We can turn to God time after time and be freed. If God has given us that type of grace and love, Father Sciarappa said, how can we not strive to love others as well?

“Freedom is contagious,” he said. “The more free we become, the more we invite others into that freedom.” Father Sciarappa asked the congregation to take the grace from that evening and pass it on to others.

Father Harry Nichols, pastor of St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka, said that the once-elderly median age has dropped to about 47 and continues to decline.

“It really has come back,” he said of a parish whose future was doubtful after its school closed more than three decades ago.

The church’s beautiful interior prompts many inquiries about holding weddings there. Noting that he has to turn down more than three dozen requests a year, Father Nichols said he tries to approve weddings for those who have a connection to the parish, or couples who supply a priest.

“Otherwise, we would be a wedding factory,” he said good-naturedly.

Jeffcoat often enhances the atmosphere at weddings by climbing to the ceiling of the church and dropping rose pedals to the floor.

Bob Butter, a pastoral council member and Mount Lebanon resident who first came to the parish 17 years ago, said, noting the increased attendance, “We honor the tradition, but we also welcome people back in whatever way makes sense for the community.”

The parish has a perfect location, he said, in the middle of an increasingly vibrant living, social and work environment. “This becomes a part of their everyday life,” Butter said.

Many lingered after the recent Mass, offering goodbyes to friends and those they had just met. A number were heard expressing their desire to make a habit of attending the candlelight Mass. The next one is set for Feb. 2, with a four-voice choir providing the music. Fellowship will once again follow at the nearby Harp & Fiddle. Information on the Mass is available at facebook.com/beholdpittsburgh.

St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is at 57 21st St., and St. Patrick Church, which features the famous Holy Stairs representing the 28 steps between Christ and Pilate, is nearby at 1711 Liberty Ave.

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