By Kirk Petersen
Trinity School for Ministry has acquired a large church building a few blocks from its campus in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, increasing the seminary’s ability to host large events.
The Rev. Dr. Henry “Laurie” Thompson III, president of Trinity, said the United Presbyterian Church of Ambridge will seat up to 600, whereas their current chapel cannot seat more than about 100. The school has about 100 residential students, and after adding faculty and staff, people sometimes end up sitting on the floor for the mandatory Wednesday Eucharist. He said there also are about 100 online students, and 100 more in special programs, and enrollment has been steady for the past few years.
Thompson said he was “astonished” at the asking price of $199,000. “When the pastor came to me and asked if we were interested, I was a little bit stunned. Once she said the price, my jaw nearly fell off.” They had looked into building a large space and concluded it would cost about $6 million, which they could not nearly afford.
“Ambridge prices are very low,” he said. The median price of single-family homes for sale in Ambridge is less than $60,000, according to Zillow, an online real estate database.
Even taking that into account, the price for the church seems remarkably low. Thompson said part of the reason was that the Presbyterians wanted to see the building continue as a place of worship.
Pastor Beth Wierman, who has led the congregation for the past three years, said the Trinity purchase is “a tremendous blessing.” The church, which has about 40 worshippers on an average Sunday, has been struggling financially and considering a sale for 25 years. Wierman splits her time between Ambridge and another Presbyterian church in a nearby town.
The church recently spent close to $100,000 on furnaces and roof repair, and other work is needed. “They just don’t have that kind of money. And it’s exhausting. It’s all you talk about,” she said. She didn’t know exactly when the church was built, but said it was more than 100 years old.
Wierman said she doesn’t know where the congregation will go, but for the time being they’re staying put. Trinity has leased the building to them rent-free for six months, so the church just has to pay the utilities. She said the tight-knit congregation is excited about using the purchase price to focus on mission in a way they have not been able to in recent years.
Thompson said Trinity will have architects and other consultants evaluate the building during the six months. “We’re going to take our time and do it right,” he said.
He said he’s excited by the ability to host conferences and make better use of audio-visual equipment, given the size, sight lines and acoustics of the church. Trinity has relationships with seminaries and colleges in Myanmar, the Arctic, Kenya and Nigeria, and “one of the things I want to do is to be able to include them in our worship experiences.”
Ambridge, which is about 15 miles from Pittsburgh, is named after the American Bridge Company, and was once a booming steel-mill town. The company now is headquartered in nearby Coraopolis, and their website says 54,000 tons of structural steel for the Empire State Building was produced in Ambridge.
“When steel collapsed in 1976, everything else collapsed with it,” Thompson said. The town now has less than 7,000 residents, versus more than 20,000 at its peak.