In ‘leap of faith,’ Catholic parish builds Protestant church

By Patricia Bartos
Catholic News Service

FRANKLIN PARK, Pa. (CNS) — A funny thing happened to SS. John and Paul Parish in Franklin Park, north of Pittsburgh, on its way to erecting a church — it built a Protestant church first.

SS. John and Paul and its immediate neighbor, the New Heights Church of God, shared the same problem; they each needed to build a church.

But the Catholic parish didn’t have enough usable land on its 12-acre property to construct a big enough structure to accommodate its 7,000 members. And New Heights, much smaller with 100 members, couldn’t raise enough funds to build on its 12 acres, instead holding worship services in a nearby community building.

The problem seemed insurmountable until representatives of both congregations took what all involved call a “leap of faith.” And it worked.

With SS. John and Paul parishioners contributing expertise in real estate, construction, development and legal matters, the two church communities agreed to a land swap that involved SS. John and Paul locating a new property for its neighbor, buying the land and constructing a church. In return, the Protestant community signed over its property adjacent to the Catholic parish.

At the June 3 dedication of the new Protestant church, special guests included Father Joseph McCaffrey, pastor of SS. John and Paul, and parishioners who oversaw the land acquisition agreement.

The all-brick structure, located on 12 acres and a five-minute drive from the original property, has seating for 150 and includes a worship center, offices, classrooms and a multipurpose fellowship area.

“It was unique,” Father McCaffrey told the Pittsburgh Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. “No money changed hands. We had the legal agreements in place, but it never got to that,” he said of the level of trust that developed between the two churches.

“At the end of the day we gave them their deed and keys to the building and they gave us our deed,” he added.

The New Heights Church of God had been raising funds for construction when SS. John and Paul approached them, said its pastor, the Rev. Ken Church.

“They offered to help us with the resources and contacts they had, to locate a property of interest to us,” he said. “It was a partnership of faith.

“We worked together to make this happen,” Rev. Church added. “We really believe God had a hand in this, to help us do what God called us to do in the community.”

Father McCaffrey calls the cooperation “a beautiful example of ecumenism” and said he takes “a little bit of pride and even humor in the fact that, as a Catholic priest, I built a Protestant church before a Catholic one.”

Actually, it was Father McCaffrey’s second non-Catholic building. While serving as chaplain at the state’s Youth Development Center in New Castle several years ago, he was the key force behind construction of a free-standing nondenominational chapel at the facility.

Parishioner Mike McCabe, an attorney who outlined the legal agreement with New Heights, said the project came in $200,000 under budget, because parishioners donated many of their services.

“If we would have had to pay all these people it would have been cost-prohibitive,” said parishioner Jerry Horn, whose firm, Jerry Horn Construction Inc., built the church, which includes 4,000 square feet of worship space and 2,000 square feet of office and meeting space.

“Now we can move forward,” said Father McCaffrey as SS. John and Paul Parish accepted the deed for the 12 acres adjoining its property. That land acquisition doubled the size of the parish to 24 acres and will provide enough space to build its first church.

The rapidly growing parish has close to 1,900 families, adding an average of 10 to 15 new families a month. By contrast, two families may rotate out each month — “far below the level of those moving in,” Father McCaffrey said.

The church will feature rough-cut timbers and “lot of natural materials” inside with beautiful stained-glass windows the parish acquired from the former St. Anthony’s School in Oakmont, Father McCaffrey said. It will have seating for 1,500, a choir loft, a full basement to house parish offices, meeting space and a grotto chapel with seating for 150.

The parish’s present building will then house religious education programs and the parish social hall.

The parish hopes to raise $8 million to fund construction, expected to begin next spring.