Calvary Episcopal Church

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

A Brief History

Organized in January 1855, Calvary Episcopal Church began parish life as a frontier church in Pittsburgh, then the gateway city to the American frontier. Located in the city's rural but developing East End section, Calvary first rented space in a German Lutheran Church and then, in 1861, built its own building at a cost of $9,000.

Pittsburgh's industrial boom at the turn of the century fueled extraordinary growth for Calvary, its membership and finances, and its East End environment. As a result, in 1904, the Vestry acquired property at Shady Avenue and Walnut Street (a few blocks from the then existing church,) commissioned Dr. Ralph Adams Cram of Boston to design a new structure, and built one of the most extraordinary Gothic Revival churches in the United States. Cruciform shaped, the new church measured 208 feet from narthex to altar wall and rose to a ceiling height of 55 feet in the nave. During the winter of 1906, the Rev. James McIlvaine climbed 220 feet to the top of the wooden scaffolding surrounding the new church's tower to affix the cross to the spire atop the tower.

Calvary blossomed in its new home, becoming the largest and most influential parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. It was the Sunday home to leading Pittsburgh industrialists as well as the many middleclass families whose weekday efforts contributed to the growth of the many great industrial companies, banks, colleges and universities, hospitals and other enterprises that came to maturity in Pittsburgh in this era. Calvary enjoyed learned clergy, a membership of several thousand souls, weekly attendance that made good use of its 1,200 seat capacity, large adult and children's choirs, and financial prosperity. The Parish brought its joyful voice to the world, joining with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation to make the first radio broadcast of a church service from Calvary in 1921. More followed.

Calvary Episcopal Church, 1922

After World War II, Calvary rode the crest of post-war prosperity and with it the success of the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker's special brand of mid-century Episcopal evangelism. As prosperity yielded center stage to the social and civic issues and changes of the 1960s and 70s, Calvary's membership declined in number but grew in geographic and cultural diversity. Parish governance was made more open with the addition of a Parish Council to address programmatic issues in support of the Vestry and Wardens. A large and successful capital campaign enabled the renovation of the Parish House and an addition between the Church and Parish House of a large Parish Hall. The Rev. Beryl Choi became the first woman priest to hold a continuing appointment in a Parish of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Through this period, the Rev. John Baiz adroitly tacked against the shifting winds that buffeted urban Episcopal parishes everywhere, promoting new ideas in liturgy, music and mission while minding the light of Calvary's established position in the community and Diocese.

During the 80s and 90s, Calvary felt the diminution or loss of many of Pittsburgh's industrial corporations but emerged with an indomitable congregation and sound finances. Economic diversification in Pittsburgh and the capable leadership of the late Rev. Arthur McNulty brought incremental growth in the size and diversity of Calvary's membership as well as inflation-adjusted net increases in pledge revenues. Dr. McNulty guided the congregation in a successful capital campaign which resulted in an award-winning restoration of the main church, completed in 1993. His unexpected death in 1994 brought great sadness to the congregation.

Fortunately for Calvary, the search committee brought the Rev. Canon Harold T. Lewis, Ph.D. and his wife, Claudette Richards Lewis, from St. Mark's church in Brooklyn, New York, as our fifteenth rector in 1996. Since that time, the church has been very busy in many important ways. Dr. Alan Lewis, director of Music, has added much to the musical life of Calvary. Outreach programming has increased, the Rev. Leslie Reimer and the Rev. Nathan Rugh have intensified our parish worship and life with their concern and services to the congregation.

As our rector has said: "My sisters and brothers in Christ: We must be careful not to fall into the temptation about which St. Paul warns of 'thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think' (Romans 12:2). At the same time we must express our appreciation for the fact that God has richly blessed us. Our forbears left us 'a goodly heritage, (Psalm 16:6), a foundation upon which we continue to build.'"

The coming years will continue to challenge. Nonetheless, Calvary can look back with gratitude and forward with enthusiasm, praying for the grace of God and relying on the dedication of her people, the Church.

If you need additional information on the history of Calvary Church, please send an email to

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315 Shady Avenue at Walnut Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15206-4388
Phone: 412.661.0120
Fax: 412.661.6077