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Western Pennsylvanians come together to pray

Saturday, September 15, 2001

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Western Pennsylvanians joined millions of other Americans yesterday in heeding the call for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the victims of Tuesday's terrorist attacks.

A woman wipes away tears at an emotional prayer service yesterday at St. Mary of Mercy Church on Stanwix Street, Downtown.

They gathered in Polish Hill and the Hill District, in Cranberry and Downtown, in Washington, Pa., and Moon, and elsewhere. Many were dressed in red, white and blue.

In some instances, pastors hadn't even scheduled special services. Worshipers simply showed up, filling pews to capacity.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters fanned out yesterday, attending the services. Here is their report:


Silent, yet saying so much, they clogged the street and sidewalks outside the red brick walls of St. Mary of Mercy Church.

They had come to pray. Unable to squeeze inside, they stood on Third Avenue at noon yesterday and spilled onto Stanwix Street, unwilling or unable to leave.

No one knew what to do next. All they knew was that on this day, they needed to be somewhere, with co-workers and strangers alike, to deal with the overwhelming burdens of an unprecedented week.

Then, the silence of the more than 2,000 people was softly breached.

"Amazing Grace, how the sweet the sound ... "

A few voices and then more rose in song. Tears welled. Heads bowed. People embraced.

Auxiliary Bishop David Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese presided in an impromptu 10-minute service held in the middle of Third Avenue.

More than 1,500 people inside St. Mary of Mercy -- 500 more than capacity -- attended Mass celebrated by Bishop Donald Wuerl, while those outside prayed along with Zubik.

Zubik beseeched God to hear prayers "so we may help heal our broken world."

Under a bright sun and cooled by a soft breeze, the crowd held hands and said "The Lord's Prayer" aloud as trucks rumbled by on Stanwix. They offered one another the sign of peace. They sang "God Bless America."

Elsewhere Downtown, the solemn strains of a lone bagpiper garbed in blood-red tartan drew 2,000 people into the pews and aisles of the 1,500-seat First Presbyterian Church. Ushers ran out of bulletins, the cover of which showed the Statue of Liberty raising her torch against a New York skyline bereft of the World Trade Center.

Those assembled were of many traditions and colors. It may have been the first time that the Rev. Robert Leslie Holmes heard each line of his sermon affirmed with fervent calls of "Amen" from black Baptists and Pentecostals.

It certainly was the first time that Woody Blackwell of Homewood had set foot in First Presbyterian.

"This is good, all the diversity of people coming together for one cause," he said.

At First Lutheran Church on Grant Street, the weekday noontime service that usually attracts a dozen or so worshippers drew an estimated 600, including office workers and jurors from Common Pleas Court.

The church has a capacity of 400, so worshippers spilled out the doors, stood, and sat in pews reserved for the choir. Some carried small American flags.

Sept. 14 is Holy Cross Day on the Christian liturgical calendar, and Associate Pastor Philip H. Pfatteicher said the date took on a special significance this year as Americans "come to terms with what happened to us and our country this past Tuesday."

"We know human sin, we see it in displays of terrifying destruction in the ruins of what was the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a crater not far from here," Pfatteicher said. "We see human sin in ourselves too, in our anger, rage and a desire for revenge to pay them back for what they did to us."

Four women and a man gathered in the Highmark cafeteria on the third floor of Fifth Avenue Place just before noon to recite Psalms in Hebrew and English.

It is customary for Jews to recite Psalms at times of distress. The group also prayed specifically for Jews who are still missing or who were badly injured in the terrorist actions.

"I'm Jewish and this is what Jews do. People are sick or, God forbid, missing," said Andrea McAllister, who organized the meeting. "There is power in communal prayer."

Elaine Krasik said the attacks this week had given Americans new understanding of what it meant to live under the threat of terrorism.

"I think it's an understanding for the first time of what it's like to be in Israel," she said.

-- Michael A. Fuoco, Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Rob Owen and Susan Jacobs


Hundreds lined up in the plaza at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall to pen messages of hope, encouragement and love to New Yorkers on a long scroll of white paper that will be sent to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"May God be with you all in this time of great sorrow, and may He grant you peace and comfort that only his love can provide," one note read.

"Please know that the thoughts and prayers of Pittsburgh are with you," said another.

All along Forbes Avenue in Oakland, someone had stuck small American flags in planters on every block.

Dave Shields Jr., the museum's assistant curator, handed out hundreds of flags to the masses, who returned the favor by slipping money into the slot of a donation box covered with a swag of red, white and blue fabric.

Joseph Dugan Jr., the museum's director, opened the ceremony at a flag-draped podium, two large American flags draped along the curved walls that flank the museum's entrance.

A former city firefighter, Dugan said he felt a special attachment to the emergency workers who rushed into the World Trade Center only to have the skyscraper collapse on them.

"It's a tragic event when these things happen in our country," Dugan said. "We turn around and have to unite."

The Rev. Michael Wurschmidt, an Episcopal priest with Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, led the crowd in prayer and a moment of silence.

"What brought me here was the prayer for everyone," said Valerie Pearson of Swissvale. "It brings unity."

"I have a lot of friends in New York, and when I turned on the TV on Tuesday and saw the World Trade Center building collapse, all I could think of was a friend who works there," said Eleanor Lewis of Squirrel Hill as she lined up to sign the scroll.

One of the most poignant moments of the ceremony came after the official proceedings ended and the microphone was opened to all.

Kamran Samakar, a 23-year-old bioethics student at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of the first to the podium. He walked over, a flag sticking up from his shoulder bag, after writing his message.

"I am an Iranian-American," Samakar said, riveting everyone's attention. "What happened a few days ago felt like a direct attack on my family. On behalf of everyone I know and everyone they know, this has just been a horrible thing that should be condemned and in no way celebrated."

Samakar stepped away from the microphone. After a moment, applause broke out.

Also in Oakland, the Rev. John Gabig found a parallel between Tuesday's terrorism and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. When Nehemiah returned from exile in Persia during the 5th Century BCE (Before Christian Era), he was shocked by the ruination of the city.

"He grieved deeply because he knew that the heart of God grieved deeply," Gabig told 35 worshippers at Church of the Ascension Episcopal parish.

Nehemiah's response was to rebuild the walls of the city. But he went beyond the physical restoration. He also rebuilt the society and led a resurgence of Judaism.

Nehemiah encouraged the Jews to take responsibility for their own sins. "He acknowledged that none of us stands fully justified before God," Gabig said.

Thus, when one is tempted to strike out in revenge, Gabig said, one should remember that justice comes from God. "He was a man of prayer who stayed close to the heart of God."

At the University of Pittsburgh, some among the crowd of 600 worshippers dabbed at tears as a rendition of "God Bless America" wafted from a noon Mass that filled Heinz Memorial Chapel beyond capacity.

The service and a two-hour prayer and reflection period that followed drew college students, workers at the nearby medical complex and others from Oakland and beyond.

Two Children's Hospital employees, Cindy Walsh of Greenfield and Marie Melnick of McKees Rocks, were still wrestling with emotion as they left the chapel. Each was clutching a small American flag.

Walsh said she came out of "love of country and the hurt that was bestowed upon us. What I'm really feeling are words I can't say and you can't print. It's just anger. I just wish I could do more."

Farther up Fifth Avenue, at St. Paul Cathedral, more than 1,800 people listened as the Rev. James Chepponis said Christ could be found in the efforts of the rescuers, in the tears that have been shed for Tuesday's victims and in the overwhelming church turnout yesterday. -- Jonathan D. Silver, Bill Heltzel and Bill Schackner

Polish Hill

Nearly 70 people gathered in the biggest Polish temple in Pittsburgh, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. The Rev. Joseph Swierczynski was ill, so he asked a lay member, Toni Majewski-Dobies, to preside.

"The only thing we can do for our brothers and sisters who died is to pray," said Majewski-Dobies. "It will bring our country closer to God, and us to each other. Our hearts are with the people from Somerset." -- Rafal Geremek

Hill District

The sanctuary of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church was dark and silent.

But in the basement sat the longtime faithful, gazing at a television as if it were a minister in a pulpit. In quiet reverence they listened to various clergy in Washington, D.C., and President Bush offer words of comfort and encouragement to the nation.

Then a boys' choir began to sing. Way below their soaring angelic soprano was a faint hum that grew just loud enough to hear. The 12 or so mothers and grandmothers, not knowing the words, found the tune.

They hummed the way black people have done for centuries when there were no words to express the depths of their sorrow.

The church had included as part of its regular Friday morning Bible study the televised service held as part of the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. -- Monica L. Haynes


"What is the Christian thing to do? To give our rage a voice," and yet, to "live lives of forgiveness and peace," said the Rev. Cal Wilson, who conducted a candle-lighting service yesterday at Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

The service consisted of hymns, opening with "America the Beautiful," silent meditations and readings from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and various contemporary authors.

Wilson admonished the 100 or so in attendance that a violent response to violent acts "only breeds more of the same."

"You and I keep [the] option to pray," Wilson added, "to read our Scriptures and to seek peace and reconciliation for the whole world."

The mood was punctuated with the news that the church secretary's niece, a flight attendant, perished in one of the hijacked planes. -- Rick Nowlin


Safdar Khwaja of Murrysville was a picture of patriotism at the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

Koko Ahmad of Trafford participates in special prayers yesterday at the Muslim Community Center in Monroeville. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

He sported a red, white and blue baseball cap, a red- and blue-striped shirt and khaki slacks.

"I've been here 25 years, more than half my life. I took the oath of citizenship consciously, and I'm a U.S. citizen by conviction," he said.

Khwaja and several of the more than 50 people at the center said if Islamic extremists are responsible for the terrorist attacks, they don't reflect the true teachings of Islam.

"Islam condemns terrorism and all this kind of mischief on the Earth. . . . Our religion is a religion of peace," said Dr. El Hillal, a surgeon and the speaker at yesterday's service. "We are part of this nation and we have the same feelings of sorrow for those who have lost loved ones. And we feel angry because of such attacks."

Hillal said Muslim people in this country "cannot be scapegoats or blamed or threatened each time mischief happens. We aren't responsible for those who commit such actions."

Khwaja and Hillal said after the service that they did not know of any Muslims in the Pittsburgh area who had been harassed or harmed. Hillal said the five Islamic centers in the region, representing about 10,000 Muslims, are organizing donations of money, blood, medical services and other contributions to search and recovery efforts in New York and Washington.

"We all have to cooperate to put an end to this kind of inhumane behavior," said Khwaja, who is originally from Pakistan. "I hope my former country can help in solving this problem." -- Carmen J. Lee

Penn Hills

At Sri Venkateswara Temple, Hindus gathered for a special lunch-time service. Since Tuesday's attacks, daily prayers for victims and their families had been offered at 6 p.m.

Yesterday, two lines of about 50 worshippers, some in colorful saris and others in Western clothes, extended from the altar, where a statue decorated in flower garlands and silk stood in representation of Sri Venkateswara, a manifestation of God Vishnu, the Protector.

In a traditional archana, or offering, the priest chants ancient Sanskrit descriptions of the aspects of God while worshippers listen and meditate. The final benedictions are always a request for universal peace and happiness.

Usually, people pray for their personal hopes, so the priest says their names and ancestry during the chanting. Yesterday, however, no names were taken and the prayers were offered on behalf of Tuesday's victims. -- Anita Srikameswaran

Mt. Lebanon

After a 3 1/2-hour service celebrating the Feast of the Holy Cross, about 150 people at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church stayed in their pews for a 20-minute memorial service led by Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh.

Maximos ended the service by emotionally lamenting the loss of lives in New York, Washington and Somerset County caused by "unspeakable acts of the barbarous terrorists."

"I was outraged by the loss of life and material losses viewed on television and hoped they were not true," he said. "But of course, pictures do not lie."

After worshippers filed out with chunks of honey wheat bread and sprigs of basil, Maximos said he hoped that America continued to stand firm on its ideals of freedom, hope and life, and that the terrorists are "brought to justice, not only the individuals involved but the people and nations that sent them here." -- Don Hopey

Upper St. Clair

St. Louise de Marillac Catholic Church was packed for a noon Mass, the crowd made up of mothers with preschool children, people on their lunch hours, senior citizens and high school students.

The Rev. Thomas Kredel told the churchgoers not to search for answers to the tragedy but rather to pray for the thousands who were killed and for the future of the country.

"We want to have answers to what happened. Maybe we never will," Kredel said. "This is the best place we can come to seek solace and comfort and to support one another. None of us knows what lies ahead." -- Mary Niederberger


More than 50 worshippers prayed and sang in a spontaneous gathering in St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Moon, where the Rev. Bill Hower led a service of prayer for all races and groups in America, for enemies of the United States and for the families of those who died Tuesday.

Hower said he had neither planned nor announced any noon service. But after numerous inquiries, he decided at 11 a.m. to schedule a noon memorial. He had no time to call anyone or post signs, but those who work in offices along Beaver Grade Road came without invitation.

"I didn't recognize most of the people in the church," Hower said afterward. "It was a spontaneous, wonderful gathering." --Ken Fisher


Greensburg Bishop Anthony G. Bosco urged Americans not to respond to hatred with more hatred.

"We must be peacemakers," Bosco said in a brief homily during a noontime memorial service outside the Greensburg Diocese Pastoral Center.

"We pray for the victims and we pray for their families. And, as good Christians, we pray for our enemies," Bosco told a crowd of more than 100 who gathered near a newly dedicated monument to Jesus the Good Shepherd and other figures.

The statuary by John Collier was dedicated Aug. 19 to mark the 50th anniversary of the diocese. "Our mood was very different that day," Bosco said. "But we are reminded ... that we are always in the shadow of this shepherd ... and we shall fear no evil." -- Ernie Hoffman


The Rev. John Gallagher of St. Ferdinand Church had celebrated Mass as usual at 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. He wasn't planning another. All that changed, though, when calls began flooding the rectory.

"The secretary told me I'd better be doing something at noon because people were coming," Gallagher recounted.

And come they did. The church, which seats 1,000, was filled past capacity, with people lining the walls and spilling outside the sanctuary.

Gallagher, his vestments adorned with a red, white and blue stole, told those gathered: "The power of good is stronger than evil ... Goodness is exploding all over this country now ... There will be healing. We can see it taking place ... The last word is not Calvary, it is Easter." -- Karen Kane


At Seneca Valley Middle School in this Butler County town, 1,100 12- and 13-year-olds spilled outside to sing "God Bless America."

Most of the other schools in the Seneca Valley School District held a moment of silence at noon. The middle school had been doing that every morning, however, and decided to go for something more.

Chorus teacher Toni Keefer climbed onto a flatbed truck parked at the front doors of the school and conducted the seventh- and eight-graders. -- Brian Lyman

Washington, Pa.

A midday Mass at Immaculate Conception Church combined faith and flags in a homily and prayers by the Rev. John Forbidussi that emphasized that "good can come from destruction."

Forbidussi, who prayed for "government leaders to find a solution to put an end to violence and destruction in the world," expected a good crowd for the 12:10 p.m. Mass but expressed surprise to see 300 to 400 people filling the pews.

Jessie Wood, a lector dressed in an American flag jacket, read verses explaining how Christians should react to serpents that bite them.

And Marianne O'Brien of Washington carried a flag to receive communion.

"I'm a flight attendant with US Airways and that's why I'm so affected by this. It brings back memories of Flight 427," she said, referring to the plane that crashed in 1994 in Beaver County. "I feel helpless and want to do something. This is a symbolic thing to show pride in my country, but I have mixed feelings of fear and hope." -- David Templeton


At Midway United Methodist Church in Washington County, doors and stained-glass windows were open to welcome anyone who wished to come in for prayer and peace.

Pastor Jayne Verner said she might have organized a service had President Bush given more notice. But a few of her flock of about 50 did come in, including members of one family who said prayers of gratitude that a grandson who worked at the World Trade Center survived.

Others in the congregation still were awaiting word on relatives and friends missing in New York. They were in the prayers Verner said when she arrived at the church yesterday morning. During the noon hour, amidst the sound of crickets and the smell of fresh-mown grass, she sat at her desk and began to work on her sermon for tomorrow, titled "Seeking the Lost."

Sunshine from the window behind her fell on her yellow legal pad as she wrote her notes: "Symbolic of mourning as dust falls on head."

She explained that all the dust in New York had reminded her of how in the Old Testament, mourners covered themselves in dust and dirt.

"I have to give people peace out of this," she said. "I have to give people direction out of this."

She wanted to make the point that "amidst the pain there's still joy going on," and had proof in something else she was preparing to do: a rehearsal for a wedding. -- Bob Batz Jr.


Thelma Mitchell looked around at a nearly empty sanctuary as she began ringing the bell at the First United Presbyterian Church in this Washington County community.

"I wonder if anyone knows they're supposed to come to church?" she said.

Around noon, eight people sat in pews as the Rev. Clarejean Haury began to speak. By the time the service ended some 45 minutes later, 10 others had arrived.

Haury began with a message of resurrection and salvation for those lost in the attacks. She also said, "One of the hardest things we're asked to do by our Lord is to pray for our enemies."

Mitchell later wept during several minutes of personal prayer in which taped music was played. She expressed concern for her daughter, Jennifer, an Air Force pilot, and Jennifer's fiance, also a pilot.

"You know what they have to look forward to," she said, fearful they soon may be sent into combat. -- Pete Zapadka

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