God’s House in UniversalChurch History

By Pastor Roger Stuart, CLP

The United Presbyterian Church of Universal in Penn Hills looms both old in some ways and new in others as present-day developments echo past achievements and mirror earlier deeds.

The congregation’s spiritual roots go back, of course, to Scripture, a striking fact reflected decades ago in the late Elder Claude W. Kelley’s brief history of the congregation. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain, he said, quoting Psalm 127:1.”

Mr. Kelley was the only surviving elder among the congregation’s original five when he wrote that history in 1958. The assignment, undertaken at the direction of the Session, culminated years of personal conversations and correspondence.

Now, in 2010, UPCU is celebrating its 95th anniversary of faith in, love for, and service to the Lord who has blessed hundreds of faithful members, their children and neighbors during the congregation’s history.

Norman Linhart comes to mind as the organist during roughly four of the congregation’s nine decades along with his midweek practice sessions and seasonal concerts broadcast to village residents from speakers atop the bell tower. Janice Blaskovich, his daughter, recalls weekly forays with him down behind the cement plant where he worked first, as a clock-house guard and later, as a cement tester, to pick wild flowers of all kinds and colors to adorn the church chancel.
“Noisy,” said William Roland Purdy, who was named after Dr. W.R. Thompson, a former pastor, using a single word to capture the congregation’s vigor and vitality during his youth and adult years. “You know how kids are, hollering and screaming.” It got to the point later on, when we sat next to each other in the choir that Kurt Krahling said to me, “Are you coming to the Christmas party tonight?”
“ ‘No way,’ I said.’
“ ‘Why not?’
“ ‘I can’t stand to hear those screaming kids.’
“ ‘How old do you have to be before you start to like them?’ he asked.
“ ‘About 45,’ I said.”

Put-offs and put-ons of various sorts long have been staples of the congregation’s humor. Consider how not long after my arrival at Universal in late 2004, I lost my way again during Sunday liturgy, Walter Zurasky piped up with, “Okay, Don [Swaney], I win the pool this week.” And a good Universal laugh carried the day.

Pig roasts, picnics and church suppers, Christmas carolers and church school plays mixed with a vast medley of preaching styles and shepherding skills.

Dr. H. Carlyle Carson, an interim pastor who referred to himself as “Parson Carson,” earned the nickname “Clip” from the many anecdotes he gleaned from newspapers and shared with members. He was in the pulpit, and never missed a beat, the day an owl dropped in for the service.

The Rev. D. Rayburn Campbell became known as “Flukey” back in the later 1930s and early 1940s, thanks to the many scratch hits and runs he scored playing softball on the team that he and the older boys in the church organized. “It was fast-pitch softball, and he couldn’t hit a lick, but he could run. So his favorite tactic was to bunt and then run like crazy,” the late Ralph Sabock recalls in memoirs he wrote for his daughter Ann and son Mike about growing up in Universal. “He wasn’t very big physically, and he could really get fired up behind the pulpit red faced, voice raising, pounding on the pulpit.”

Church neighbor Patty Berg, whose father, Walter, was a charter member of the church, recalled Dr. Thompson as a brilliant man who always wore a dark suit and a dark hat and often carried an umbrella. Although of retirement age, he presided over the present building’s construction during his 10-year tenure in the 1920s and 1930s. He became famous, among many achievements, for the biweekly and later monthly Universal Community Herald that he edited and the church published.

Dr. Anthony R. Barta, the longest-term pastor, served from November 1974 to January 2002 during which time the congregation engaged in a decade-long capital improvement campaign that ended in 1988 and included two major refurbishments of the church’s exterior. The senior high youth fellowship took five mission-work trips to VanderKam, Cleveland, New York, in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1985, and engaged in spring retreats at Camp Crestfield. The session and congregation also established the ministry of the Board of Deacons as a result of Dr. Barta’s doctoral studies in 1985.

Lay leaders and seminary students have served repeatedly in pastoral roles during sometimes long, lean cycles offset by more boom-time construction, reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The congregation experienced rapid growth under the Rev. Vern M. Butler, who arrived in 1951 as a student minister, was ordained in 1955, and remained at Universal until 1958. During his student years, while living in the village, the congregation retired its debt to the American Board of Missions. It also built a new manse on Austin Street in the summer of 1953 with the help of student volunteers. The Christian education wing was added in 1957 as Rev. Butler neared the end of his ministry here.

Although not chartered until May 28, 1915, UPCU’s lineage stretches back to 1856, when a Sabbath school was established in the “old” Washington School near the Thompson Run Road-Main Street intersection in what was then called Clarksville. The village, nestled at that time amid hills and valleys of farm country, was overtaken later by coal mining, railroading and cement making. The latter provided the town a new moniker in 1908 with construction of the Universal Atlas Cement Plant. Some raconteurs still recall muddy, dirty streets and wood sidewalks.

For some time after the beginning, classes were conducted only during summer months, with lessons taught straight from the Bible until a Sunday school primer containing illustrations and Bible stories became the new mode of instruction. Due to a shortage of rooms, classes were conducted in different homes until the “new” four-room Washington School was completed in 1909. In 1911, the mission moved into what later became the Stotler School. In the meantime, Dr. Blaine of New Texas acted as superintendent from 1893 to 1895 during which time attendance sometimes reached 100.

In 1913, a building used by the Pittsburgh Coal Company as an office was purchased, dismantled and moved to a lot on Reiter Road. James Thom, a seminarian, was put in charge and served until 1915, when James R. Curry, another seminarian, succeeded him. Later in 1915, the congregation was organized with 75 charter members. But student pastors remained the staple as Samuel R. Curry, E.S. Brown and Thomas Brown filled the pulpit until May 1917, when the Rev. Harvey W. Logan was called. He served until September 1919. The church limped along without a regular pastor for two years until the Rev. S.P. Montgomery accepted a call as pastor in July 1921 and served until July 1924.

The late Mabel Scaramucci and her sister, Florence Sabock, daughters of charter member Joseph Klinar, liked to reminisce until shortly before they died in their late 90s about attending and teaching Sunday School in the Reiter Road church and moving later to the new building on Main Street. They recall opening the trapdoor on the first floor to descend to the basement for classes and the time their mother was burned badly during a women’s group quilting session when her skirt brushed against and was ignited by a gas heater.

Kate Gladden, a missionary dispatched by the Board of American Missions, assisted Rev. Montgomery by establishing the Women’s Missionary Society and organizing the Young People’s Christian Union. “She not only helped people in the church, she helped people in the community, too,” Mabel said. “She taught us all about the Bible. She taught us the Commandments and the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Miss Gladden always had the young folks learning something, especially Bible verses, during Sunday morning walks for almost two years down the long hill from Universal to the Unity Church.

Sisters Mabel and Florence also recalled the day ground was broken for the new church and its dedication on July 13, 1930, roughly halfway through Dr. Thompson’s decade-long call as pastor. Florence stood during the groundbreaking with son, Ralph Sabock, in her arms. JoAnn Straka, who married Robert Sellers, was the first baby baptized in the new church and Jenny Berg the second.

“The church was the center of our total growth experience,” Ralph Sabock said. “Church, Sunday School and the young people’s group were simply a part of our lives that I took for granted.” It became the site of adolescent “crushes” and “puppy love,” with a young lady’s smiles making a lad’s day or a frown or glances toward another boy ruining everything, he recalled in his memoir. While his mother and aunt recalled young people’s picnics at Puckety Creek near Sardis, Ralph remembered later gatherings at Burke Glen, down the hill from what is now the Miracle Mile Shopping Center in Monroeville but back then was in the boondocks. Both generations recall Boze Hess transporting them to such affairs in his coal truck, with those rides always being regarded as treats. “The Christmas skits and performances were always exciting and filled with stage fright,” Ralph said in the book he wrote for his children. “It never failed but some little boy or girl would always forget what they were supposed to say and have to be coached through the whole darn thing.” For him, and many other folks, too, “the overriding sensation” of every social occasion lingered as coffee perking.

World War II sapped the congregation’s strength during Rev. Campbell’s tenure which extended from 1937 until 1943. Elizabeth Klinar established the Pioneers group for younger boys and girls in 1939, and the “Arrow,” a church newsletter was published with the young people’s help.

The congregation went for five years without a regular minister from Rev. Campbell’s departure until Harold J. Larsen took charge as a student minister and served until 1951. Session meetings and sacraments were held with great regularity. Dr. J.Y. Jackson of the Unity Church served as Session moderator, and a new organ was purchased in 1951 under Norman Linhart’s leadership. The Rev. Howard J. Rose succeeded Rev. Butler in 1958 and remained until 1964. The manse and church were redecorated during Rev. Rose’s term. The Women’s Association was established. Scout groups, the church library and family night suppers continued as the congregation continued to grow. There were two worship services on Sunday morning, and it was not unusual for 60 people to receive communion at the early service and 110 at the later service.

The Rev. Robert M. Bereit began a five-year call in August 1964 and led the membership until October 1973. Dr. Carson was ordained and installed at Universal in June 1969 and shepherded the congregation until October 1973. Dr. Carson served as interim pastor until Dr. Barta arrived in January 1975. The Rev. David Brownstein succeeded Dr. Barta as an interim pastor until October 2004. Roger Stuart, a retired journalist for The Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was called as the congregation’s commissioned lay pastor in December 2004 and remains in that capacity.

This chronicling of the congregation’s life story concludes as did the one produced for the 75th anniversary, with this statement: “The history of a congregation can often be more easily remembered in terms of physical achievements, but it is truly a history of the journey of souls to Jesus Christ. The congregation looks toward its hundredth year and years of growth and service.”