How World War I Divided One of Pittsburgh's Historic Churches

Jul 29, 2014

The Smithfield United Church today
Credit Heather McClain / 90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh has always had a large German population, and for centuries the German Evangelical Protestant Church, now known as the Smithfield United Church of Christ, was the pride of the community.

The church featured opulent stained-glass windows and a steeple which at one point, could be seen from any part of the city. Pittsburgh’s oldest organized church is now hidden between towering skyscrapers, a reminder of the city’s past. Historian Donn Neal joined us to look back at an especially trying time in the church’s history: World War I, which began in earnest 100 years ago this week.

The church was important, Neal says, because it was the center of German community.

“People didn’t just go on Sunday morning for an hour and worship, but their whole social lives revolved around the church. And actually our current structure, built in the 1920's, still reflects that. There’s a bowling alley in the basement, a gymnasium, a stage, a movie theater, all of these things were for the benefit of the German population.”

Neal said that during World War I, many Americans saw Germany as the enemy, putting the church in a bit of an awkward position.

“I’m sure there were Germans in Pittsburgh who supported the German-Austrian cause right through the war. But the church took the position that we were patriots, that the members of the church were patriots even though they had German roots. They bought bonds, both as individuals and the church, they had 121 men who went into the military service… so the church bent over backwards.”