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St. John's is updating its sanctuary, but not its old-country traditional flavor

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

I wrote last year about a church on the South Side whose gorgeous interior knocked my WASP socks clean off. Well, I went back to St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church not long ago and lost my socks all over again.

The whole interior has been refurbished. The celestial mural on the ceiling and the opulent altar screen have been repainted. Never has heaven looked so bright nor halos so luminous. Even the carpeting at the front of the sanctuary has been replaced with tiles.

I gawked at the splendor a bit furtively during the Liturgy, letting the congregation's singing wash over me and incense fill my nostrils. The scented smoke made me sneeze a few times, probably because I was sitting in the front row. The priest must be used to it. Didn't seem to bother him a bit, and he was singing too. The censer has bells on it, which gave me an uncanny conviction that Santa Claus was about to appear. Not that St. Nicholas would be a stranger here.

The improvements have been made to mark the church's 100th anniversary.

St. John's was started by Eastern Europeans and Ukrainians who got together on the South Side in 1891. At that time, immigrants were streaming into Pittsburgh from Eastern Europe at such a rate that by 1900 the church was dividing; the Carpatho-Rusyns and Slovaks formed a second parish, today's St. John's.

The congregation worshipped in several different places, starting with a house, but it moved to its present home at 1720 Jane St. in 1958. The centennial party -- and renovations -- started a year ago.

The man who got the ball rolling is 30 years old and has been at St. John the Baptist since March 2000. He's the priest.

The Rev. Elias Rafaj has been a priest for two years. He didn't waste any time in seizing his church's milestone and blowing the dust off it.

"This church hadn't had any substantial improvements since 1958," he said. There had been some rain damage, and some replastering was in order. And then some repainting. And then ... a domino effect, as when you spill something on a rug, scrub it off and then realize you've made a clean spot and can't stop there. Father Elias saw it was "one of those times when you have to give the whole system an overhaul, a checkup."

While much of the painting has been done by Eikona Studios of Cleveland, the icons for the altar screen -- still to come when I visited -- will be the priest's own work. He studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"I look forward to seeing them," I said.

"I do too," he laughed.

Everything was supposed to be ready for a big anniversary celebration at the end of April, but just days before the event, one of the guests of honor, Pittsburgh's Byzantine Catholic archbishop, Metropolitan Judson Procyk, died.

St. John's went ahead with its Liturgy and dinner, but the mood was somber.

Father Elias remains upbeat about the future.

He spearheaded a very successful food and music festival in October, which offers the promise of keeping things lively.

"It's an older parish," he conceded. "We have a larger number of senior citizens, but that's a problem for Allegheny County in general." He views the church's deep and fresh Eastern European roots as a huge asset, however.

"The parish is wonderful -- they don't even realize what they have here," he said.

He may be spiffing up the building, but he agrees with the late metropolitan's emphasis on "returning to many traditions that had been lost in this country," a goal made easier when a congregation includes many immigrants and children of immigrants whose ties to the old rituals are strong.

The church's cemetery, set into a steep hill overlooking the corner of Route 88 and Connor Road in Bethel Park, is filled with names like Marhefka, Zdinak, Adamoyuro, Galajda, Jaczesko, Vansachik -- and Warhol. Though he was actually a parishioner of St. John Chrysostom in Greenfield, Andy Warhol lies near his parents among the faithful departed of St. John's.

Father Elias has been interviewed by Japanese magazines, and once the cemetery's caretaker called him, breathless, to report that Liza Minnelli was visiting the artist's grave. The priest is a bit bewildered by the fuss but admits that it's pretty cool.

As for the church's dampened centennial celebration, Father Elias affirms it will be held again when it can be joyful, and when the new metropolitan can attend.

"We love to celebrate!"

Samantha Bennett can be reached by e-mail at sbennett@post-gazette.com.

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