History of Redeemer
The Church of the Redeemer has been blessed with a line of strong rectors who have left a distinctive imprint on the lives and ministries of our church. Looking back, it is clear we are a congregation that embraces its traditions while continuing to adapt and change. What has remained constant through the years is:
- the appreciation of and commitment to liturgy and music;
- the continuous formation of all parishioners in Christ’s teachings;
- a celebration of our diversity in all of its manifestations;
- dedication to outreach, and
- an empowered lay ministry blessed by a number of dedicated and talented parishioners.
The Church of the Redeemer is a microcosm affected by the shifting demographic forces of the Pittsburgh region and the erosion of mainline churches worldwide. Forces within the diocese and the congregation have accelerated these changes. As with many congregations, our numbers have fluctuated since our founding, with a noticeable and precipitous decline since the late 1990s. Today, we have stabilized as a smaller congregation, focused and energetic in our pursuit of evocative worship, personal spiritual growth, and Christian living. We continue to look for better ways to share this energy with others.
Founding the Congregation – 1900 to 1936 – The Reverends John R Wightman and Robert Nelson Meade
The Church of the Redeemer began as a Sunday School organized in 1900 by Mrs. Charles P. Smith at her home. The first services were held in 1901 and by September 1902 the women, with help of Archdeacon John Wightman, had built a temporary chapel. The following spring the parish of the Redeemer officially organized, and Archdeacon Wightman became the parish rector. By 1910 when he retired for health reasons, the Rev. Wightman had led the congregation in organizing a church school, choir, Altar Guild, and Women’s Guild, begun outreach activities, and secured a new church site on Forbes Avenue. The new rector, the Reverend Robert Nelson Meade, drew up the plans for a church on the Forbes site, built it in 1913, purchased an adjoining lot on Darlington Road, constructed a Parish House, and worked with architects on plans to rearrange and enlarge the worship space. Meade had a vision of a larger building and oversaw plans for a major enlargement and remodeling. Those plans resulted in the current building, with the 1913 building turned 90 degrees serving as the nave of the current church.
Building the Congregation – 1936 to 1969 – The Reverend Hugh Clark
Dr. Meade died in March 1936, just a month before the cornerstone for the enlarged church was laid. His successor, The Reverend Hugh Clark (1936-1969), carried Redeemer into a new phase of our history. Hugh Clark completed the physical plant construction projects begun under Dr. Meade, including construction of a rectory facing Darlington and in 1944 directed the construction of a second floor to the Parish House.
Dr. Clark’s ministry at Redeemer focused on visitation and crisis counseling, with an emphasis on traditional Morning Prayer Service and mission outreach. Some of the fondest memories of Dr. Clark, as recalled in the Parish Forum on May 6, 2012, involved his charisma and outreach. Two current parishioners recall their meeting at the Canterbury Club organized at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). Dr. Clark married the couple on June 15, 1954, and they remain active members of our congregation. Other parishioners recall Dr. Clark’s gift of building relationships. Many recall his being like the “pied piper” who knew how to connect with people regardless of who they were.
During Dr. Clark’s tenure, in 1940, Robert Izod joined Redeemer as organist and choirmaster. Liturgy and music flourished, culminating with an active Men and Boys’ Choir. During the early 1950s, in response to an appeal by Bishop Austin Pardue, the Church of the Redeemer offered space in its Parish House for a small school initially called Ascension Academy, after the parish church in Pittsburgh where it originated. The Academy named Robert Izod headmaster and appointed Dr. Clark chaplain. In late 1952 the school changed its name to St. Edmund’s Academy in honor of a major benefactor, Edmund Mudge (a Redeemer member). In 1955 St. Edmund’s moved all eight grades out of Redeemer and into the new facility next door. For the next twenty years the two institutions were closely intertwined. St. Edmund’s continues to hold weekly chapel services and occasional school activities in the parish hall or in the Church; however, our rector is no longer the chaplain, as St. Edmund’s now contracts independently with local clergy for religious services.
A Modernizing Congregation – 1970 to 1994 – The Reverends Stephen McWhorter, William Coats and Roger Ferlo
The liturgical changes in the 1970s are among the most profound memories of our older parishioners. They recall how The Reverend Stephen McWhorter (1970-1977) initiated the use of the “new Prayer Book,” and under his stewardship, the liturgy became more centered in the Eucharist. During this period, there was a considerable shift in the makeup of both the Redeemer congregation and St. Edmund’s Academy.
With Stephen McWhorter, Redeemer continued to develop and strengthen the youth and young people’s program through a small theater group (including a production of “Jesus Christ – Superstar”). His tenure marked a dynamic transition period for Redeemer as three of our young people sought holy orders.
During the transition between The Reverends McWhorter and Coats, women were first ordained in the Episcopal Church with William Coats aiding the process. Several women from Redeemer began seminary at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1976, where “they saw themselves as comrades in arms against a forbidding system.” Since 1976, at least ten Redeemer congregants have sought Holy Orders.
The Reverend William Coats
During William Coats’ tenure (1979-1986), Pittsburgh was rapidly changing from an old rust belt steel town to a high-tech city focused on service industries. Redeemer’s changing congregation reflected many of Pittsburgh’s changes. Under Coats’ leadership, St. Edmund’s developed an identity separate from the church, while the parish became distinctive for its liturgy and outreach. One current parishioner recalled that “we came to Redeemer as lapsed Roman Catholics, anxious to have a church life again that could be shared with my family. At Redeemer, we found a church, a spiritual life and a home where we could use our hands, heart and intellect – and enjoy the company of others seeking the same.”
In the 1980s, as Pittsburgh’s economy shifted from heavy industry to service, William Coats involved the congregation in social justice actions such as protesting the steel mill closures, protesting corporate bankruptcies and the corporate dismantling of the pension funds for retired workers, and helping to develop the East End Cooperative Ministries (EECM) in 1983. Church of the Redeemer initially housed EECM after-school tutoring when we joined with a consortium of 40 churches and synagogues in the East End of Pittsburgh, to help those adversely affected by the shifting economies of the region.
The Reverend Roger Ferlo
The Reverend Roger Ferlo (1987-1993) continued the tradition of diversity and inclusion in the congregation. When he became our rector, he encouraged and strengthened our relationship with St. Edmund’s Academy, serving as an ex-officio member of their Board of Trustees. Under Roger Ferlo’s leadership, Redeemer grew in numbers of communicants, commitment to education of youth and adults, outreach and other activities, and financial stability. We benefited from his intelligent and inspiring sermons, his gift for encouraging and empowering lay leadership, and his keen sense of liturgy and music. Our EYC was the largest in the diocese, giving families a reason to come to Redeemer, and to stay.
The tradition of pastoral care and inclusion now became a hallmark of Redeemer. Roger Ferlo extended warmth to all, including those previously marginalized or excluded. From hospital visits in the middle of the night, to kissing a newborn during communion, to visiting the widowed before interring ashes in the garden, he was a presence to and for members of our church – both the long time and new members. During Roger Ferlo’s tenure, openly gay members of the congregation served on vestry and more LGBTQ people joined the church. Soon, AA groups began using the renovated parish hall, and some of their members began attending Sunday services.
Persevering through Crises – 1994 to 2020 – The Reverends Cynthia Bronson Sweigert and Michael Foley
The Rev. Cynthia Bronson Sweigert
After Roger Ferlo was called to St. Luke in the Fields, New York City, Redeemer called The Reverend Cynthia Bronson Sweigert, who served from 1995-2011. She served during a contentious period for both the Episcopal Church USA and for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. When she first arrived, she continued to expand our traditions of inclusivity. But she also needed to negotiate the growing rift that was dividing the church and the diocese, and her efforts contributed significantly to keeping communication open among individuals on all sides of the controversy.
Many people recall the joys of coming to church in the first years of her tenure, the laughter that was part of the children and youth pageants, and the deeply moving liturgies and memorial services that she led. In particular, she encouraged interfaith services among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and arranged the Matthew Shepard memorial service that was standing room only following the tragedy of his murder. Under her leadership, Redeemer continued to combine liturgical focus on the Eucharist and a focus on progressive social agendas.
Bronson Sweigert also led Redeemer in community outreach through helping to found PIIN, increasing involvement with EECM, and developing and extending interfaith dialogues between Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations. When the local Roman Catholic diocese evicted Dignity (Gay and Lesbian Catholics) from their properties, our rector not only welcomed them to have services at Redeemer, she occasionally provided services for them when they were without clergy. Under her stewardship, we also began to house La Escuelita Arcoiris, a Spanish language preschool, and maintained a strong relationship with St. Edmund’s Academy. We also had a Youth Arts Program, in which some of our young people arranged musical events in our auditorium in collaboration with others in the neighborhood.
As the divisions in the Episcopal Church began to emerge, with Pittsburgh at the epicenter, our parish became the first in the nation to vote against joining the Anglican Network, set up by our then Bishop Robert Duncan. This action was the result of a unanimous vote at our 2004 Annual Meeting. The parish was deeply involved in Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh, the group that emerged to counter the movement towards schism, and hosted a reinvigorated Integrity chapter for LGBTQ people and supporters. As events escalated, we continued to worship together through the uncertainty, seeking together God’s will for our parish. The parish also began new ministries, starting a midweek worship service at Heritage Place (a nursing and rehabilitation center) in 2007 and initiating a “Blue Christmas Service” (the first in the diocese) for those to whom the Advent and Christmas season is one of loss and not one of celebration.
During Bronson Sweigert’s tenure at Redeemer, we celebrated our centennial, undertook a successful capital campaign, and accomplished significant building renovations. The many activities and tensions associated with the schism of 2008 took a toll on her, and The Rt. Reverend Kenneth Price, provisional bishop of the diocese, granted the parish and Bronson Sweigert a three-month discernment leave to begin February 2011. During the leave, the parish was served by the Rev. Michael Wernick. At the conclusion of the leave, the parish and rector began a transition culminating in her leaving parish duties at the end of 2011. The Rev. Diane Shepard became the interim priest and saw the parish through a nearly two-year search process culminating in a call to the Rev. Michael Foley, who was ordained priest shortly after he arrived at Redeemer in January 2014.
The Rev. Michael Foley
The arrival of the Reverend Michael Foley coincided with a return to peace within the diocese. The rebuilding that followed diocesan schism in 2008 had culminated in the election of The Rev. Dorsey McConnell as diocesan Bishop in 2012. Redeemer’s finances and membership also had stabilized. Although a new priest, the Rev. Foley had years of experience as a banker and school psychologist. He was enthused to be in a parish that valued traditional liturgy and had a strong social conscience. He worked to attract younger members, especially those in the 20-40 age bracket.
The parish had multiple turnovers in office staff and a change in organist/choir director, and we replaced the Spanish language immersion day school, which had outgrown our space, with a music academy. The parish added to its outreach portfolio a set of semi-annual community forums looking at major issues confronting society, while continuing its Heritage Place ministry, participating in the annual Pride Fest, hosting Dignity, and supporting the East End Cooperative Ministry, Shepherd Wellness (a support center for individuals with HIV/AIDs and their families), and PIIN. The Blue Christmas services continued and Foley began offering “Ashes to Go” on Ash Wednesday. The parish music program expanded to offer a celebration and concert every spring for Bach’s birthday, and a series of lecture/concerts called “First Fridays” that also served as a class in the Carnegie Mellon Osher Program (community education).
What came to mark Michael Foley’s time, however, were a series of external events that elicited parish responses. On October 27, 2018, a gunman invaded Tree of Life Synagogue, killing 11 and wounding six more. Tree of Life was a mere six blocks from Redeemer. The parish responded by participating in a number of vigils and protests, hosting one vigil at the church. Immigration issues exacerbated by a change in presidential administration resulted in the parish collaborating with Jewish Family and Community Services (located just a block from Redeemer–the JCC is almost next door to us) to train a core of parishioners to work one-on-one with those applying for citizenship. The parish also co-hosted protest events challenging the mistreatment of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. In 2019 the parish began English language conversation groups for immigrants in the community. The next external challenge was covid-19. Pennsylvania began a lockdown in early March. Redeemer immediately moved to on-line services, transitioning quickly to Zoom and building a core of laity who manage the technical and musical aspects of worship online. Redeemer is unique in the diocese in having regular virtual choir additions to their worship, through service music and anthem recordings. In the midst of the pandemic, Americans were shocked into protest by a series of deaths of blacks at the hands of police. Again, the parish responded by taking part in demonstrations and vigils.
Redeemer continues to be a welcoming community for those new to Pittsburgh, for those looking for a new congregation, for those no longer wanting to be unchurched, and for those who want a congregation that has advocated for LGBTQ persons in the spiritual life of the church – all of these groups have found a home at Redeemer. Today, our diverse congregation has a strong and stable core that is hospitable to new members.
We are currently a small but committed congregation, who although challenged in many ways over the last two decades, have combined our efforts to ensure Redeemer’s lively presence in our lives and those of our surrounding community. We’ve struggled with questions of programming and scheduling priorities, sometimes with part-time or interim clergy and always with volunteer parishioners who may be stretched thin. But we have emerged with a strong sense of the important place Redeemer holds in our lives. We are confident that we will continue to both maintain what is the best from Redeemer’s traditions and remain flexible for new challenges ahead.