Church-turned-nightclub again a worship site

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A brick structure on Penn Avenue in the Strip District, most recently known as the Altar Bar, is about to undergo an unusual reversal of fortunes.

Built as a Catholic church that served an ethnic Slovak congregation for much of the 20th century, the building had a 15-year run as a nightclub and a concert venue.

Now, the building is on its way back to becoming a church.

Orchard Hill Church, a large non-denominational congregation based in suburban Franklin Park, purchased the former Altar Bar late last year for $800,000, and now it is working with architects and contractors to plan a restoration.

It’s too early to predict an opening date, said Joel Haldeman, pastor of the Strip District campus.

It will serve the satellite campus that Orchard Hill launched in Pittsburgh in 2013. The campus has rented various locations, from the August Wilson Center to its current digs at Our Clubhouse, which is located elsewhere in the Strip.

If the original church was built for one kind of immigrant, the current one aims to reach modern sorts of nomads, such as young Millennials rediscovering the city, Haldeman said.

The campus draws about 130 worshipers to its Sunday morning services, he said. That’s small compared to attendance at the church’s main site, known as its Wexford Campus, but it’s a viable group, he said.

“We’re just learning new things about how to do ministry in a different day,” he said.

The structure was built in 1908 by St. Elizabeth Catholic Church.

Then in the 1990s, St. Elizabeth Church was closed in a wave of downsizing by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. It merged into what’s now known as St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, which incorporates the historic Irish church around the corner and the Polish one a few blocks away.

The diocese sold the St. Elizabeth building in 2001. The structure served two incarnations as a bar and music venue, called Sanctuary and then the Altar Bar.

In its nightclub incarnation, the building had a stage where the altar used to be, plus a dance floor and wrap-around balcony. Musicians ranging from Snoop Dogg to Twenty One Pilots to Leon Russell performed here, and more recently it was the center stage for the annual Strip District Music Festival.

At times, the goings-on seemed to sport with the building’s religious legacy, such as an early event at the bar featuring waitresses in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms and a later one featured a fetish act.

When the building came on the market about a year ago, it seemed to fit the goals for Orchard Hill’s ministry — which was to find a permanent city campus location where it expand its reach from its Wexford Campus, a large complex built near a literal orchard on a hill in a distant northern suburb.

Orchard Hill was founded in 1989 by a core group seeking new ways to reach people alienated by church. Like many evangelical Protestant churches, it places a strong emphasis on the authority of the Bible and the need for salvation through Jesus Christ. The main campus features streamlined, theater-like architecture and contemporary, guitar-infused worship. The church says it has about 2,500 regular participants.

The launch of Orchard Hill’s urban campus reflects a wider trend. Many large churches in recent years have started satellite campuses rather than continuing to enlarge a single sanctuary.

During a recent tour of the Strip District building, the interior looked much as it did after the Altar Bar closed last year. Posters still advertised for past musical acts. Light still poured in the stained-glass windows high up in the octagonal cupola. A bar stretched nearly the length of the building on one side; the church may preserve some of it as a coffee bar.

“As you can see there’s a lot of work that has to be done,” Haldeman said with undiminished enthusiasm during a recent tour of the building, when things looked much as they were left from their nightclub era.

A building inspection at the time of the 2016 negotiation had revealed some structural problems that have been stabilized, Haldeman said.

The basement includes a large kitchen that will need some upgrades. The former bar’s basement bathrooms pose an unusual problem for an old building — rather than being too small, they actually are too large for the church’s needs. Haldeman expects the basement may be subdivided for children’s activities and other functions. The church also will have to work on its handicapped accessibility.

Haldeman said he hopes to work with neighborhood leaders and get involved in the Strip District, with its mix of tourists, retail, restaurants, new residents and redevelopment projects.

“We want to figure out how we can serve this community,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is be seen as the big church that comes in and sets up an outpost.”

If the church can serve as a venue for artists, and maybe even help to host a music festival again, he’s open to exploring that.

If “there’s an expression of art and poetry and meaning, we’re all about supporting that even if it does nothing to advance our church here,” he said. “We believe in building society and seeing humans thrive.”