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Rector combines spirituality with his doctorate in medieval studies

Wednesday, December 26, 2001

By Jane Miller

Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 2, 2002) The Rev. Arnold Klukas of Mt. Lebanon served as rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Charleroi for one year, moving on to be an associate priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon before becoming rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Mount Washington. A story last week said incorrectly he served two years at St. Mary's before coming to Grace Episcopal.


A mausoleum near Sewickley lends a medieval atmosphere for worshippers at Grace Episcopal's Saturday evening services. Candlelight illuminates arched doorways and windows in the stone and marble walls above the floor in which 18 bodies are entombed.

And that's just fine with the Rev. Arnold Klukas of Mt. Lebanon, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Mount Washington, who has a doctorate in medieval studies.

The mausoleum is home to the mission church of Grace Episcopal, which is known for High Episcopalian services. Only one other church in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, St. Mary's of Charleroi, holds this type of service.

In these services, also known as Anglo-Catholic, an American version of the Church of England, worship is an art.

"We use old prayer books. It's Shakespeare's language, clouds of incense and lots of chanting," Klukas said.

The ancient traditions also combine a love for art and the ministry for Klukas, who not only holds a doctorate in medieval art but also taught at Oberlin College in Ohio and Smith College in Massachusetts before becoming a parish priest at St. Mary's in Charleroi in 1989.

Klukas grew up a Lutheran in Connecticut. In 1970, while a student at Yale Divinity School, he took a year's leave to study in Oxford, England, where his "fascination with art and religion jelled," he said.

He graduated from divinity school but wasn't ordained because of a dissatisfaction with the lack of spirituality in the church at the time, he said. He came to Pittsburgh in 1972 to work on a doctorate in English medieval architecture at the University of Pittsburgh.

A "mystical experience" during a 1973 trip to England convinced him to become ordained, he said. On a walking tour, he came across Burnham Abbey, a medieval ruin inhabited by nuns.

"A nun greeted me at the door. She said, 'Hello, Father. You must come in to see our chapel.' Then, she locked me in the room. This was a time when I was not serious about prayers after my seminary experience," he said.

He recalls the ancient room as feeling "saturated with prayer."

Klukas was ordained in 1975 and returned to the Abbey to inform the sisters of the conviction he felt in their chapel.

It was then he learned that Sister Felicity, the nun who had greeted him as "Father," had put him on "an emergency prayer list for ignoring God's call" to the ministry. He has stayed in touch with the convent of 30 nuns ever since.

A job change for his wife, Carol, a biochemist, brought the couple and their two sons, Christopher and Jeffrey, now 21 and 18, to Pittsburgh.

Klukas was rector at St. Mary's Church for two years before he was asked to revive the Grace Church nine years ago. Membership had dwindled to about 12 members, he said.

During the week, Grace Episcopal now offers classes that range from liturgical dance to textiles in worship.

Klukas occasionally offers a six-week series on the Origins of Christian Art. Some members became apprentices to artist Peter Boucher to create a new stained glass window for the church. A class on writing family history resulted in a book of memories for longtime church members.

"Father Klukas is trying to bring together people who have been in the church for seven generations with people like me who are drawn in by the style of worship," said Andrew Federle of Upper St. Clair, who became a member in October.

The mission church started last summer to commemorate the congregation's 150 th anniversary -- and because the congregation of about 150 members was growing out if its Mount Washington sanctuary.

The mausoleum was not an intended church site. Grace Episcopal had hoped to rent or buy the Shields Presbyterian Church beside the mausoleum that was built in 1867.

The building has been little used since the church merged with another congregation in 1978. But there were stipulations in the Shields family deed that prohibited its use by anyone except Presbyterians.

Acting on faith that somehow the circumstances would be resolved, the family permitted the congregation to hold its first service on the church lawn on Pentecostal Sunday in June, a date commemorated for the "tongues of fire" that rained down on the biblical apostles.

But rain poured onto the Grace congregation. A member of the Shields family had a key to open the mausoleum as a shelter from the rain.

The idea of services in the mausoleum caught on. A generator was added last fall, with a special acolyte assigned to start it before each Saturday evening service.

"We hadn't thought about using the mausoleum. But it seemed a perfect fit for our type of service," Klukas said, referring to the architecture.

"It has long been my vision -- a dream -- to found a church not based upon a neighborhood, but a style of worship. This mausoleum gives a feeling of going to a country church in medieval England," he said.


Jane Miller is a free-lance writer.



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