Pastor James Hogan of Faithbridge Community Church stands with Bette Kallay after signing transfer paperwork.
By Jamie Wiggan
Plans for a building sale, a relocation and a congregational merger have brought three distinct faith communities into a web of shared fortunes.
Finalities pending, the growing congregation at Faithbridge Community Church is moving from its current location in McKees Rocks to the building formerly occupied by Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Stowe. Having held its last service inside the Russellwood Avenue sanctuary on June 27, Good Shepherd is in the process of merging with Ascension Lutheran Church in Robinson.
All three church bodies expect to benefit from the changes.
James Hogan, pastor at Faithbridge, said he had been seeking a larger building for several months when he was approached by leaders at Good Shepherd about buying their building.
Good Shepherd, born itself from a 1968 merger between the former Mount Calvary and St. John’s congregations, has meanwhile followed the pattern of slow decline common to many mainline churches over the past 50 years.
“We just ran out of members that were young people who can do things,” said Bette Kallay, church council president.
Hogan says he’s dealing with the opposite problem. After planting the church in 2005 with his wife, Teressa, and a handful of other families at a community center in the Meyers Ridge Townhomes public housing complex, Faithbridge has since outgrown two buildings and regularly draws nearly 150 participants on a Sunday.
Hogan, a McKees Rocks native, left behind a cushy job in San Diego to found Faithbridge after a series of nudges he reluctantly discerned as the will of God.
“It was this unrelenting thread that just kept pushing,” he said. “I didn’t want to hear it.”
Landing back in McKees Rocks, Hogan said growing a church in a community where people can’t hide their wounds is easy enough because people yearn for the structure and stability religious faith can afford them.
“Even in broken homes, you end up with a deeper connection, because in these old communities… people have sidewalks and front porches,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody.”
For Kallay and the other congregants at Good Shepherd, handing over the keys to a growing congregation makes the loss of their long-time spiritual home a little easier.
“That’s the joy of it all, that Faithbridge is so vibrant and healthy,” Kallay said.
As the product of two 19th century congregations that together cycled through six buildings, Good Shepherd’s planned merger with Ascension can be seen as the latest turn in a long line of change.
The two churches are currently working out contractual details, which Ascension’s pastor Joseph Murdy hopes will be ready to put to a vote in a matter of weeks.
He said the biggest challenges involve changing Ascension’s bylaws so they can expand their council numbers with representation from Good Shepherd – and determining how to operate the cemetery that comes part and parcel with the church’s 44 active members.
Murdy said despite any logistical difficulties, the outlook is entirely positive.
“There has been overwhelming support from members of both churches,” he said. “With a new congregation brings new insights, new experiences, new ministries.”
The merged church will continue under the Ascension name, but Murdy stressed they will retain a degree of shared identity.
“[Good Shepherd is] not closing,” he said. They’re merging – their ministry and their legacy will continue.”
Having secured the capital to close on the sale, Faithbridge Church is hoping to raise a further $50,000 to renovate the aging Russellwood Avenue building and install a cry room and air conditioning system. Donations can be made at www.supportfaithbridge.com. Rev. James Hogan is a columnist at Gazette 2.0.
The Good Shepard Lutheran Church in Stowe has a long history in the area, dating back nearly 170 years.
Good Shepherd: A product
of mergers and relocations
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church’s history dates back to 1852, when local landholder Martin Clever donated an acre of land in present-day Kennedy Township for a church and burial ground in the Evangelical Lutheran tradition. A building was soon erected and Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church was dedicated in September 1853.
Over subsequent decades, more and more acres were added to the burial ground on Middletown Road, which still operates today under the original name.
The church was rebuilt in 1891, and the congregation added a second location at Furnace Street in McKees Rocks just five years later.
In 1925, the church relocated to Russellwood Avenue in Stowe, where the congregation remained — through a 1968 merger with St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church where it took on the Good Shepherd name — until its final service on June 27, 2021.
St. John’s was established in a wooden frame building on Chartiers Avenue in 1886, which was replaced by a brick structure at the same location 40 years later. The building was sold at the time of the 1968 merger and is currently home to the Free Gospel Church congregation.