St. Brendan's Memories:
The First Twenty-Five Years, 1987 - 2012
Written by Tom Waseleski, Senior Warden (2012)
Part I: The Founders
From the beginning, it was all about a journey. For Brendan the Navigator of Ireland in 530 A.D. and for the founders of Saint Brendan’s Episcopal Church 14 centuries later it was about acting boldly, taking a risk and stepping out in faith.
Saint Brendan did it, legend has it, to find an earthly paradise in the “Isles of the Blessed.” What he discovered, long before the great explorers, may have been the shores of modern-day Iceland and Greenland.
The founders of Saint Brendan’s did it in 1987 to extend the reach of the Episcopal Church into Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs and to bring more people to God. Their mission was simple, yet powerful: the realization of fullness of life through worship of God, service to the world, active concern for each other and education to expand the mind and spirit. Even in the early years, there were several choirs – senior, youth and chime; a food and fun fest called Soup, Salad & Song once every Advent; a summertime road rally; and an Adopt-a-Highway chapter, which earned Saint Brendan’s a sign with its name along I-279, the interstate that had triggered the idea for starting the parish.
Christ Episcopal Church, Ross Township. The church that gave birth to St. Brendan's Episcopal Church
Heritage Presbyterian Church, Franklin Park. Our original borrowed worship site.
“I remember the day Pat Carnahan came into my office with the idea of a mission,” Rev. Rodge Wood recounted in the diocesan newsletter, not long after Saint Brendan’s was founded. Rodge, who is now retired and a member of Saint Brendan’s, was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Ross. “Pat had just come from seeing some of our people at Suburban General Hospital in Bellevue. ‘Boss! We have to do something about the new highway,’ she said.” She was referring to the construction of Interstate 279, a highway link with downtown Pittsburgh that was about to trigger a housing boom in the outer northern suburbs. Pat told Rodge, “We have to provide a place for all those people to worship. Those communities are going to fill up with people, and we have to be there.”
Rev. Carnahan was associate rector at Christ Church and only the third woman to be ordained in the Pittsburgh diocese. In June 1987, she and 16 others left their mother parish to launch Saint Brendan’s – without a building and without even a sign by the road. Pat was the first female priest to lead a church in the diocese. Heritage Presbyterian Church on Rochester Road in Franklin Park was one of Saint Brendan’s earliest and staunchest allies; it donated worship space to the fledgling congregation on Saturdays at 5 p.m.
As for a church office, the group rented a few rooms in a modest frame building on West Ingomar Road. Affectionately dubbed “The Little White House,” it was the place where much of the hard work of church formation occurred. Pat and Betty Tatlock, Saint Brendan’s first parish coordinator, worked there full-time. On Wednesdays, members had an evening service and education program. On Sundays it was Morning Prayer, coffee and sweets, plus Chime Choir practice. Along the way, a strong sense of community was built.
Although Saint Brendan’s pilgrims were delighted to have Heritage Presbyterian as the place for its Saturday service while raising funds for their own building, the time slot posed some challenges. In a newspaper interview, Pat said, “Saturday at 5 p.m. is a terrible time for worship for families. That’s right at dinner time, it’s the end of a soccer game. It’s just not a good time for young families. … They want to go home and eat.” Regardless, that weekly worship window enabled Saint Brendan’s to function as a real church from the start. In its first year, the faithful could offer not only a weekend Eucharist service, but also Sunday School and a youth group, a chime choir, a Thanksgiving service and the Festival of Lessons and Carols in Advent. It sold mince meat pies to support the youth group, collected Christmas gifts for the needy, sponsored a car wash run by the teenagers, held a church picnic and launched a unique commitment called CRIES Advocacy to devote 10 percent of all parish contributions to outreach.
Pat described CRIES this way: “Ten percent of our income goes out the door. Over our young life, we have distributed over $16,000 [by 1993]. We’ve done this all along because we wanted to make sure we were a church in the true sense, even if we didn’t have walls or a building.”
A year after its founding, Saint Brendan’s purchased four acres of land at the corner of Rochester and McAleer roads for possible development as a church. By 1990, despite weekly services still on Saturdays at Heritage, Saint Brendan’s had 125 members. The congregation had $300,000 in cash and pledges and needed $360,000 more to start building. In the meantime, the young parish was establishing its identity.
“People expect a non-traditional congregation when it’s led by a woman,” Pat said in an interview then. “We look traditional, but I think we are on the cutting edge in what we’re doing. We feel that the church doesn’t exist for itself – it exists for the world. It’s about making real what we pray, what we teach and preach. For us it means to see Jesus as a liberating spirit and all the things that brings with it, whether it’s poverty, physical abuse, or drug and alcohol abuse – all the things that mar the face of man.”
In September 1990, the diocesan board of trustees approved the start of construction for Saint Brendan’s, saying the congregation had demonstrated strong growth and had secured enough funds and pledges to begin building. Two parishioners oversaw the project: Ellen Groves was the site development chair and Gail Gagnon ran the capital campaign, raising more than $600,000. The following May 8, ground was broken. Ralph Alster of Shadyside was the architect and Horn Brothers the contractor of the anticipated one-story brick and stucco structure.
One year later, on May 16, 1992, Bishop Alden Hathaway consecrated the new basilica-style, 140-seat church with worship space, offices and classrooms. It was the 76th church in the 11-county diocese. Cost of construction was $750,000. Besides parishioner contributions, Christ Church had donated $45,000 toward the groundbreaking and $40,000 toward construction, the diocese gave $100,000 and Heritage Presbyterian contributed $1,000. Membership hovered around 150 and the weekly worship time had finally gone conventional: Sundays at 10 a.m.
Not so conventional were the adornments in the nave, some of which came from 137-year-old Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oakland, which had just been decommissioned and scheduled for demolition. From Saint Peter’s came a white marble altar with gold mosaics and fleur de lis pattern, a wood and brass pulpit, a wood and brass altar rail and a processional cross. From Trinity Cathedral came a brass eagle lectern. And from Saint Mary the Virgin Church in East Stoke, Dorset, England, came a 700-year-old stone baptismal font acquired by parishioners Sylvia and Bob Affleck through family members and the Diocese of Salisbury.
In the next few years, Saint Brendan’s grew and unique ministries shaped the personality of the parish. Parishioner Dorsey Doddroe made a generous donation to establish Saint Brendan’s Scholarships, grants to young members designed to encourage their participation in church life. Teen parishioner Lane Shadgett developed Saint Brendan’s Peace Garden in 1993 as his Eagle Scout project, including benches, landscaping and a peace pole with the inscription “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in six languages -- English, Swahili, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Seneca.
Even in the early years, there were several choirs – senior, youth and chime; a food and fun fest called Soup, Salad & Song once every Advent; a summertime road rally; and an Adopt-a-Highway chapter, which earned Saint Brendan’s a sign with its name along I-279, the interstate that had triggered the idea for starting the parish.
From its earliest days, Saint Brendan’s developed a knack for raising funds for its mission. One year after its founding, the parish held the first annual Unique Boutique (in the Little White House). No one was calling it the Holiday Happening or Holiday Craft Show, and the Cookie Walk had yet to be conceived, but the initial homemade crafts sale raised $2,200 for the first building fund. Likewise, the youth group held a flea market in August 1991 at a 7-Eleven – not yet Pittsburgh’s Classiest Yard Sale, but the notion had been planted that Saint Brendan’s someday could raise big money from people’s donated goods.
In 1997, with one decade under the church’s belt, Rev. Dr. Pat Carnahan stepped down as Saint Brendan’s rector to move on to a new chapter in life. The parish was on the move, with talk and plans to expand the size of the building. Saint Brendan’s congregation was also about to be tested on what it believed and where it wanted to go.
Newly built St. Brendan's Worship Site
The older Sanctuary is now the Social Hall across from our Main Sanctuary
The Lecturn from Trinity Cathedral
The Baptismal font acquired from the Diocese of Salisbury.
Part II: The Expansion
A search committee was formed at Saint Brendan’s to select a new priest while The Rev. David Barnhouse served as interim priest. After a search, Rev. Catherine Munz of Royal Oak, Mich., was called to be Saint Brendan’s next rector. She began her service in January 1998, when the church had 190 communicants, 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Sunday services, a 7:30 p.m. Wednesday service and a 6:45 a.m. Friday service.
Two weeks into the job, Cat told a reporter, “The congregation was very clear that what they hope to achieve is many more programs and a much larger parish. They’re ready to do ministries; they’re excited about being a church.” She said her vision for Saint Brendan’s is “one where all people are welcomed and celebrated, that has a strong, supporting youth program and that is a joyful witness to God’s love.”
Toward that end, the parish revved up its capital campaign to expand the size of Saint Brendan’s building and Cat inaugurated the use of the Episcopal Church’s Journey to Adulthood, or J2A, as the official youth program of the parish. Young parishioners began at age 13 in Rite 13, the program’s two-year entry-level component, then moved into J2A, the next two-year period which culminates in a pilgrimage of service, camaraderie, knowing God and discovering self. Car washes, hoagie sales, Super Bowl chili and pancake breakfasts became fundraising rituals for Saint Brendan’s youth and the pilgrimages that would take them to the Black Hills of South Dakota, the concrete canyons of New York and the cobblestone streets of Italy, among other places.
Saint Brendan’s expansion would prove a costlier undertaking. With the sanctuary crowded on Sundays and new neighborhoods popping up nearby, the congregation sought to triple the size of the church and create a new sanctuary, chapel, classrooms, a youth room, a music room and new offices. Cost of the new building was projected at $1.3 million, Ralph Alster returned as architect and Mistick Construction was the builder. Ground was broken on Sept. 5, 2001. Less than a week later the national tragedy of 9/11 struck.
Construction on the building proceeded through winter, while in March a crew of parishioners traveled to Saint Luke’s Chapel in New York City to support the Ground Zero recovery effort. Saint Brendan’s volunteers cooked, served food, handed out supplies and offered encouragement to firefighters, police and others who were still trying to retrieve, six months later, the remains of victims of the twin towers’ collapse.
In September 2002, with 240 members, the new 300-seat, two-level Saint Brendan’s was consecrated. The former sanctuary space became the parish’s new fellowship hall. “This house of God has been built for all people,” Cat said. “Like Saint Brendan sailing to a distant shore, our new church gives us a chance to expand our reach and service.” New ministries were begun, such as the Green Thumb Gang (to care for the church grounds), Second Saturday Suppers (to give members more social time), Circle of Women (to provide a spiritual and social connection), English as a Second Language (to acclimate immigrant neighbors), Brendan’s Mates (to engage children in community service) and Miryam’s (to cook meals for homeless women). Despite the parish’s growth and new ministries, a diocesan division was building and about to affect Saint Brendan’s.
With controversy brewing in parts of the Episcopal Church over the proper role of women and gays, a majority of deputies to Pittsburgh’s diocesan convention in November 2002 passed Resolution 1, promoted by Bishop Robert Duncan. It ensured that the diocese not use gender-neutral language in the liturgy, not permit priests to bless same-sex unions and not accept canons that were at variance with the worldwide (and more conservative) Anglican Communion. The historic vote, which made the split in the diocese official, was 72-14 by clergy deputies and 119-49 by lay deputies.
“Nobody joins the church to go to war,” Cat said of the decision to reject Bishop Duncan. “We decided we didn’t want to be in a war anymore. We want to get on with the ministry of the church. We know who we are as Episcopalians.”
A majority of Pittsburgh’s parishes left the Episcopal Church in 2008, and a court battle ensued over which faction owned the diocesan property -- the one that broke away or the one that stayed with the national church. (The court later ruled in favor of the Episcopalians.) That same year Cat accepted a call to lead a parish in Massachusetts.
“I find it really hurtful that there are people all over the church who think it’s OK to render other people invisible,” Cat said at the time. The following year, Gene Robinson, a priest who was gay, was elected bishop of New Hampshire, further fanning the flames of division in some corners of the Episcopal Church. Although Bishop Duncan was about to pull a majority of Pittsburgh’s parishes out, Saint Brendan’s knew its allegiance and its future was with the national church. The vestry voted in 2003 that the parish would not follow any diocesan canon that would conflict with a canon of the national church. In early 2005, after two months of discussion, including two meetings with the congregation and a session with Bishop Duncan, Saint Brendan’s Vestry voted to seek DEPO, Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight. Duncan approved the request, and in April the parish came under the pastoral care of Bishop W. Mike Klusmeyer of West Virginia.
Part III: 25th Anniversary
Rev. Dr. William Pugliese arrived as Saint Brendan’s interim rector in November 2008. After a long career as a priest in several states, he had just returned home to Pennsylvania to retire, when the opportunity in Franklin Park presented itself. Bill’s challenge was to give leadership and guidance to a still-young parish poised for growth that had been stunted by two forces: an ugly, public schism in the diocese and a large mortgage balance that was a drag on the church’s mission.
With his considerable experience, skillful leadership and relevant sermons, Bill brought a sense of stability and security to Saint Brendan’s at a time when it was needed most. Today the challenges remain, but newcomers keep arriving. New ministries continue to evolve: the Sticks and Strings knitting group, the Musical Maniacs children singers, Men’s Night Out, Circle of Women and others. The church also has a new memorial garden, a project that was spearheaded by Tammy and Bill Spoonhoward, to hold the cremated earthly remains of church members.
Saint Brendan’s greeted its 25th year with 284 members, average Sunday attendance of 101 and a $232,000 budget. Cries Advocacy, its 10 percent tithe for outreach, had donated more than $300,000 to various humanitarian programs, efforts and causes over the life of the church.
More than four years into his “temporary” role at Saint Brendan’s, Father Bill said, “It has been a privilege and an honor to serve as the interim rector during this transition time in the life of both Saint Brendan’s and the diocese. In the near future a search committee will be in place to seek out and then call the next rector, who will help lead Saint Brendan’s into a future filled with promise and expectation, serving all God’s people with open heart, open hands and open minds. The journey continues.”
Between its historic baptismal font and its peaceful memorial garden, Saint Brendan’s has become a church that symbolically and literally realizes the fullness of life – its joys and sorrows, its youth and maturity, its revelation and wonder. That’s an incredible journey for only 25 years. Only God knows what awaits in the next 25.
Part IV: 2012-
Written by Annemarie Malbon
In the past five years, St. Brendan’s has continued to change and to face its challenges head-on, with hope and vision. In the fall of 2013, Fr. Bill Pugliese celebrated his last service as interim rector and St. Brendan’s was joined by Fr. Scott Russell who led St. Brendan’s until March of 2016 when he was called to return to his life as a campus chaplain. Fr. Ted Babcock, canon to the ordinary (aka the bishop’s executive officer), served as St. Brendan’s interim priest until June of 2017. Beginning in July 2017, Fr. Regis Smolko, who interned with St. Brendan’s under Fr. Ted, is served as our priest-in-charge. After shepherding St. Brendan's through the first years of the Covid pandemic, which included introducing hybrid streaming services and adjusting our ministries to serve parishioners both remotely and in-person, Fr. Regis retired and stepped down from St. Brendan's in December 2021. In May 2022, Mother Robin Jarrell was called to lead St. Brendan's as our current Priest-in-Charge.
Our journey has not always been a smooth one, but St. Brendan’s continues to face the uncertainty of the future with faith and determination, as our namesake did so long ago.
Priests and members may leave and ministries may fade away, but new priests come and new members bring new life to the parish and start new ministries. And, through it all, our spirit remains the same.