As vocalist Justin McCord raised his voice in song inside a large white tent near Crawford Street Friday, words of the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” echoed out over what’s now a parking lot. Thus did Bethel AME Church return its tradition of praise and hope to the Lower Hill.

Friday’s event, which brought together members of the city’s faith community and elected officials, was a celebration of an agreement with the Pittsburgh Penguins that sets aside a 1.5-acre parcel of land for the church. Bethel officials plan to use the land, part of the 28-acre site being developed by the Penguins, for low- and moderate-income housing and other developments to raise revenue for the church.

“I know our ancestors are looking down and smiling,” declared Bethel associate pastor the Rev. Prudence Harris.

More than 60 years ago, those ancestors were shoved out of their church, known as “Big Bethel,” when city leaders demolished the Lower Hill to make way for the Civic Arena. In doing so, they transformed a once thriving, vibrant, often struggling community into an entertainment venue surrounded by spaces for visitors to park their automobiles.

Members of Pittsburgh’s faith community pray during Friday’s ceremony. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

“We dedicate this land in the memory of the 8,000 people displaced and the 3,000 members of Bethel AME Church, for their tears cried in the pain of hope,” Harris said during a rededication reading. “We reclaim our ancestor’s land, taken away to build a playground for white people to play in.”

Church leaders dedicated a portion of the Restorative Justice Rededication Ceremony to a remembrance of church history, beginning with its formation in 1908 as the “African Church” on Front Street, Downtown — Bethel is considered the oldest Black church in the city.

Pittsburgh’s “Great Fire” destroyed Bethel’s building in 1845, at which point the congregation moved into the Lower Hill. There, at the corner of Wylie and Elm, Bethel became a center of worship, faith and community activity. During its history, Bethel pastors dedicated themselves to education, civil rights and offered grace and comfort to even the most forgotten members of the community.

Bethel was essential for Black people who “came here from the South, in overalls and straw hats, looking for a better way in America,” said Rev. Dale B. Snyder, Bethel’s current pastor. “Bethel was the church that taught literacy when the public schools wouldn’t allow us to learn to read and to write. Bethel was that place, when you came from Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia or Texas, that taught you the King’s English so you could go to the job, and learn how not to split verbs, to speak better.” 

Demolition crews arrived in 1957, and Bethel moved to Webster Avenue in the Middle Hill.

Church and community leaders have for years been calling for Bethel to receive reparations as a way to address past wrongs — in the 1950s, the URA paid only $250,000 for church property valued at more than $750,000.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said the agreement between an African American church displaced more than 60 years ago and a professional hockey team is “an example of what people can do when we come together.”

“Things can be taken, but they can also be replaced,” he said.

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at