Monday, September 15, 2008
The Church of the Turnpike
NEW BALTIMORE, Pa. – There is one exit from the Pennsylvania Turnpike where the tolls collected from drivers are routed to heaven.
Tucked into the side of a steep hill hugging the berm east of Somerset, Pa., is a flight of steps to St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in the village of New Baltimore.
“It’s certainly the only place of its kind along the turnpike and might well be the only of its kind in the United States,” Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spokesman Joe Agnello said.
Motorists do pull off the toll road at mile marker 129 and climb one of two sets of stairs to attend Mass or simply reflect in the historic church, he said.
The stairways are part of a deal reached 70 years ago when the highway opened and cut a path that split the town in two.
“The church wanted that setup so people could continue to get to church. Today, they would never allow this … but it was grandfathered in,” Agnello said.
At one time, monks were cloistered at the church that had been built on purpose in a peaceful remote area before the highway brought a steady stream of noisy tractor-trailers buzzing past its front doors. The town founded in the late 1700s is now home to fewer than 200 residents.
The stairs, however, are supposed to be demolished under a plan to modernize the highway section, beginning in 2009. The church is hoping that the commission changes its mind about them, and is collecting signatures on a petition opposing the move, the Daily Republican of Somerset reported in 2007.
To demolish the roadside stairways would be a shame, especially for curious fresh-faced drivers who might want to take a moment to explore "The Church of the Turnpike," whose doors are open to visitors during the day. At 101 Finley St., it has an 84-foot clock tower and steeple and a beautiful sanctuary hidden. Once inside, the rumble on the highway is silenced with the help of a row of tall pine trees that shield the redbrick building from the traffic.