Whither The Church Goeth

St stephens church before construction.

Ruth Tolbert stood in the City Brewing parking lot in Latrobe on Thursday, pointing out pieces of the “old neighborhood.”

“There were houses here, a butcher shop at the end of the road, this warehouse wasn’t here,” she said as she studied a portion of the brewery. “This used to be a lot different.”

Before yesterday, only one piece of that neighborhood remained: a small, yellow church that sat along 33rd Street, looking out of place surrounded by concrete buildings and warehouses.

The church, St. Stephen’s AME, has been in that spot since 1906, when it was used as a German benevolent society. Now, that piece of the forgotten neighborhood is gone. To Tolbert’s delight, however, it was not demolished — it was moved about 1,000 feet away to a new home along Oak Street to make way for the brewery’s new $7.5 million wastewater treatment facility.

Bernville-based Wolfe House and Building Movers started the process Wednesday by inserting two long beams into the church’s foundation and then moving them — and the 40-by-20-foot church — about three feet in the air. The movers then inserted several small beams underneath the building before resting it on three hydraulic transport dollies.

Wolfe foreman Nevin Buckingham then controlled the transport dollies with a remote, guiding it across the parking lot and to its new home.

“It’s really a simple process,” said Buckingham, who has moved buildings as big as 840 tons — which called for 21 transport dollies. “This one hasn’t given us any trouble.”

Dozens of brewery workers watched as Buckingham guided the 37-ton structure atop 12 wheels. The move took less than an hour, and Tolbert was the only member of the church’s congregation able to witness the event, but she was more than happy to record the entire move on her cell phone.

“I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself,” she said as the wheels started turning.

Tolbert’s grandmother was a founding member of the church in 1928. Over the years, the congregation has become smaller and older, and now has just six active members, she said, adding that at age 62 she is the youngest of them all. Tolbert said the congregation is hopeful that the new location will help bring more people to the church.

“People will have a straight shot to us now. We’ll be very visible,” Tolbert said.
“This will make us more accessible. People would drive from Pittsburgh and couldn’t find us because they didn’t know to go through the (brewery’s) gate.”

When it was a part of the old neighborhood, Tolbert said the church used to host picnics and invite anyone who would like to come. Denny Holzer, who has been at the brewery since 1975, said he remembers attending a couple picnics when he first started.

“I was on my break, sitting outside here on a step, and I saw some tables set up”
at the church, he said as he watched the church come to rest beside its new foundation. “Nosey me, I decided to see what’s going on. I walked over and a woman told me for a couple bucks I can eat, so of course I did.”

Tolbert and church Pastor Prudence Harris said now that the church is back in a neighborhood, they hope to be able to get more involved in the community.

“That’s where the first churches were — in communities where people could come worship and learn and not talk about religion, but about connection and unity in your area,” Harris said as she was on her way to see the church at its new location. “Ministry isn’t just about the word. It’s about teaching and helping out each other.”

In addition to paying for the move, the brewery has agreed to build a 32- by 20-foot addition to the church that will be used for banquets and meetings, said City Brewing controller Zack Mazzoni. The addition should be completed within two months, Mazzoni said, which is when congregants hope to resume worship at the
church. In the meantime, services will be held at Greater Parkview Church in Greensburg.

Mazzoni said construction of the wastewater treatment facility should start the second or third week in July and should be complete by August next year.

Tolbert, meanwhile, said she was ecstatic that her place of worship is once again part of a community.

“I feel like a little kid,” she said. This is incredible. It’s truly a blessing.”

By Cody Francis

Friday, June 24, 2011