The Stairway to Heaven is Closed
Finding God on the Pennsylvania Turnpike has, apparently, become too much of a safety hazard.
MILEPOST 129, Pennsylvania Turnpike
I’VE BEEN DRIVING — or riding along — the Pennsylvania Turnpike since I was a kid in the early 1970s. And all during that time, one of the landmarks I always remember was the place we called, simply, “The Church on the Turnpike.”
It is St. John the Baptist, a gorgeous and remarkably imposing Catholic church that looms over the roadway from its vantage point in a town called New Baltimore. For those of you not from Pennsylvania, this is a patch of land not too far from the place where Flight 93 went down on Sept. 11, 2001.
What always made this church unique — and a roadside icon — were the two sets of precipitous stairs, one on the eastbound side and one on the westbound side, flanked by black railings. For decades, if you were driving the turnpike, you could pull off the highway, ascend the steps and attend church. Signs by the steps showed the times of services. Sometimes I’d fly by at 65 or 70 on a Sunday and see clusters of cars pulled off and people climbing the steps.
As a decidedly nonreligious person, I nonetheless found this intriguing for a number of reasons:
- It was smack between the Somerset and Bedford exits, which are separated by a whopping 26 miles — the longest distance between exits on the entire pike. That meant that the town of New Baltimore, where the church was located, was entirely isolated from the cars that passed through on the turnpike below — except for the steps.
- The notion of travelers passing through and being able to attend church services was, to my mind, somehow both exceedingly modern and deeply ancient all at once.
- I was fascinated by the notion of the church as a nexus between the local and the itinerant. It was part of why I became (and remain) so obsessed with highways and the interplay between passers-by and the communities that are arrayed along them. It’s why I became interested in Breezewood, the onetime “Town of Motels” just off the turnpike 25 miles further east, and spent a lot of time there in the late 1990s writing about it.
The church, with its illuminated cross reaching into the sky in bright red at night, has been a constant for me across more than three decades of driving — first between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, the first city where I worked just after college, and for the past nearly two decades between Pittsburgh and New York, where I now split my time.
So it was with some trepidation several weeks ago that I drove past St. John’s and saw construction underway — construction that looks like it is widening the highway and overrunning the small hills where the steps once sat.
Were the steps gone for good?
DETERMINING WHY they’d been installed in the first place was a pervasive mystery of my childhood, much discussed as we passed the place in various 1970s Datsuns and Ford Pintos and Mavericks. When I became a journalist, I finally had an excuse to ask some questions and find out. I actually did it twice.
The first time, in 1992, I pulled off in my little red Nissan Sentra, climbed the steps and visited the Rev. Barry Baroni, then the pastor. He told me that when the turnpike — the nation’s first — was being built as the 1940s dawned, St. John’s was a Carmelite seminary as well as a church. The builders of the turnpike wanted right of way. St. John’s refused … unless the turnpike was built with two sets of stairs along it — one eastbound, one westbound — and a pull-off area for weary travelers to come worship.
Astonishingly, the turnpike folks agreed.
For a long time, the steps took their place as a part of the New Baltimore community, which had grown more isolated from the highway that bisected it after a nearby rest area closed and Greyhound ended its practice of stopping at the foot of the steps to pick up passengers. Sometimes, Baroni told me then, the congregation would swell by 100 people on Sundays when turnpike travelers would pull over and come up.
Baroni waxed poetic about that notion. “Many times they’re searching for something,” he told me about the people who pulled off. “It’s so peaceful here. You can come here and feel the holiness of the place. Maybe we can help them find what they’re looking for.”
Six years later, I went back to write about the place again for another news organization. This time around, the parish priest was the Rev. Mark Begly. As we stood at the top of the steps and gazed down upon the turnpike’s speeding cars, he said this to me: “Traveling is a pretty lonely business. So maybe they come here to get in touch in some deeper way — some small way — with what’s important.”
That made eminent sense to me. I’ve always written about interstate highways with deep interest. Like streams, rivers, canals and trains before them, they connect things in exciting ways and turn smaller stories into bigger ones. But in making those connections, highways like the turnpike disconnect, too. A road that cuts through the human and natural landscapes with nothing accessible to its travelers except for exit ramps can be a deeply alienating place, an incubator for contemplation and loneliness.
Long ago, in 2008, well after the road became a central part of my psyche, I made the conscious and difficult decision to be someone who haunts the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was a difficult gambit to try to balance work and family, and I have sometimes succeeded and sometimes screwed it up.
I’ve certainly had lots of time on the road to think about it. For huge parts of my life since then, I have split time between Pittsburgh and New York City, with the turnpike my main connector. At one point, I was on it so often that one friend joked about how I could be a turnpike-obsessed itinerant serial killer (I am not, I assure you). With another friend, I text when I’m at the Midway or Sideling Hill service plazas, just because he expects it. I find the turnpike a romantic yet almost melancholy strip of road. From Exit 39 to Exit 247 at least, I know it almost by heart; its valleys, its mountains, its curves and its hairpin turns are things I navigate almost by instinct these days.
I’d certainly noticed that the westbound steps up to the church had all but disappeared in recent years, and the steps on the eastbound side were decaying and seemed to be falling away. That was not a good omen. Then, as I zoomed by at the end of this spring, I saw the construction take root at Milepost 129 in front of the church. I couldn’t help but take notice.
WHY WAS I CONCERNED? I’m decidedly not Catholic, not religious, not someone who would ever stop to seek sanctuary or solace there except out of sociological and journalistic curiosity.
I guess it’s because I want to believe that not everything is standardized and sanitized ostensibly for our protection. I do recognize that for many of what we now call “stakeholders,” it’s easier and safer and more legally sensible not to have variations where something could go wrong or somebody could go off script. Those steps were alluring and inviting, but they almost demanded that people go off script. In America 2023, we don’t love that kind of thing.
Yet the nonreligious me deeply wanted those stairs to remain. They connected something to something else. They linked people focused on travel and faith to those in New Baltimore focused on community and faith. Faith was the common ground; the other stuff was there to learn about and be learned about. That’s where interesting stories unfold.
It turns out the steps’ demise has been looming for nearly a decade. But I didn’t know that when, two weeks ago, I called up the church. I was hoping that the disappearance of the steps was temporary and that they would return, in some form, when the apparent road widening was completed. I was looking for news of a reprieve.
I found none. The steps are, it seems, gone for good. A cheerful woman who answered the phone at St. John’s told me so.
“That was the turnpike’s decision. It was a safety hazard,” she said. “So sadly, no, they’re not coming back.”
As I pondered this tiny loss of a tiny connection, I dredged up the stories I’d written a quarter century ago and more. In rereading them, I found this quote from Father Begly, which says it better than I could. I’ll leave you with it.
“If we’re always on the go, always moving, then we’re not connecting with people in an intimate way over the long haul,” he told me. “And I think that without intimate relationships, we’re all done.”
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
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©2023, Ted Anthony. All rights reserved.