FIVE GOLDEN THINGS: First of five posts on holiday outings that underscore the Pittsburgh region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms.

Situated in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s East End is East Liberty Presbyterian Church, an impressive house of worship that’s also known as “The Cathedral of Hope.”

For generations the church has embodied sustainability in deeply personal ways to parishioners and residents of East Liberty. Through its religious services as well as a wide range of outreach programs, it’s been a reassuring stronghold in a neighborhood that’s been up, then down, and now up again.

The Best of Times

East Liberty Presbyterian Church has been a beacon in this city neighborhood since its best of times. Flash back to the early decades of the 20th century. Commerce was booming.  The National Biscuit Company, Isaly’s, Stagno’s Bakers and Pittsburgh’s first Sears & Roebuck were among the businesses driving progress and prosperity. The community flourished, too. A destination unto itself, East Liberty boasted movie houses, theaters for music performances (one venue could seat 3,200), department stores, a roller skating rink and plenty of retail shops. From the 1930s through the 1950s, East Liberty’s holiday parades rallied residents; in fact, its 1936 Christmas Parade was declared the largest in the country, outshining even New York’s.

Mellon Family Helps Fund Cathedral-style Gem of a Church

Amid this bright and bustling environment, the Mellon family – a name synonymous with Pittsburgh and its financial industry prowess – spearheaded the church’s construction. They hired Boston architect Ralph Adam Cram and gave him the freedom to build the finest church he could create. In June 1932, Richard Beatty Mellon laid the cornerstone, and the structure rose over the next three years as a grand church in the style of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. It occupied one city block and cost nearly $4 million to construct. Rich features – stained glass, wood and masonry and one of the country’s largest and finest Aeolian-Skinner pipe organs – added to the church’s status as a gem of East Liberty.

The Worst of Times: Urban Renewal Gone Bad

In 1958, difficulties began to descend on East Liberty – ranging from commercial vacancies and urban congestion to competition from the suburbs – and a well-intentioned but ill-fated urban renewal project. The associated disruption, deconstruction and dislocation forced residents and businesses away. Yet, East Liberty Presbyterian stood solid – more of a bulwark at that time than the beacon it was during East Liberty’s glory days.

Hope on the Horizon

Various attempts were made to reconcile what had gone wrong; some were successful, many were not. But in the late 1990s, situations finally began to change for the better. Hope was on the horizon in the form of a new community plan for revitalization that would build on local investment and success to re-create East Liberty as a self-sustaining community. And that is what has happened … and what continues to happen.

“Over the past decade, East Liberty has turned itself into a healthy residential and business destination of choice,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. “This didn’t happen by accident, but with thoughtful strides taken by community, business and government.”

The neighborhood’s revitalization is evidenced by a robust market place that now includes national retailers such as Whole Foods, Target, Anthropologie, Home Depot and Trader Joe’s, in addition to an array of independent retail shops and restaurants – all springing up around the “Cathedral of Hope.” But the church’s mission to the less fortunate remains strong and as vital as ever. Its Hope Academy of Music & the Arts offers after-school and weekend classes to kids. Parishioners work with a local food pantry, offer support to low-income homeowners through Open Hand Ministries, and address issues of poverty and justice.

No Place Like “Hope” for the Holidays

This landmark is ours to enjoy anytime, but is especially glorious during the Christmas holidays. Hop in your car or board a bus to to catch holiday services.  A Dec. 18 Advent/Christmas Hymn Festival featured handbells and a brass quartet, followed by a rare guided tour of the cathedral.)

After you’ve fed the soul, you can nourish the body at any one of an array of nearby restaurants. The Paris 66 bistro features help from a  Pittsburgh technology start-up for those who enjoy wine but would like to expand their tastes. RhoMania’s GrailTM digital platform uses an iPad to help diners make more educated selections. Gift yourself by trying a new glass or bottle of wine, and then finish up your holiday shopping for family and friends at nearby shops, boutiques or big box stores.

It’ll be like the good old (holi)days in East Liberty. Maybe even better.