“Easter Sunrise Service in the park. It sounded good to our family. But the only one we knew about in Pittsburgh was held in Schenley Park, way on the other side of the city. It would mean at least an hour’s street car ride to get there, so, of course, we didn’t go. That was in 1932.” So recalled Northside resident Helen Nichols in 2008. She went on: “Then one day we heard that a group of people in our area were starting a sunrise service to be held in Riverview Park. That was in our backyard! So of course, we attended.”
And thus began what has become a nearly century-old Pittsburgh tradition—the Northside Easter Sunrise Service in front of Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park, now in its 84th year. The 2018 interdenominational community worship service begins at 6:30 a.m. April 1, with Pittsburgh Seminary alumnus and Miller Summer Youth Institute co-director the Rev. Derek Davenport preaching. From native Pittsburghers to visitors to our city from around the country, all are invited to attend.
Easter Sunrise Service in Pittsburgh
Since its inception, the NESS has had an ecumenical ethos. Helen Nichols noted, “The [initial organizing] Committee felt it was important to have pastors from different churches participate in the program. So we would visit various churches in the area to get acquainted with the pastors and to invite them to have a part . . . We invited high school choirs to provide the special music. Many of the same people attended year after year, and we became Easter morning buddies!”
That same thing still happens today, according to organizer Alice Hoffmaster, Helen Nichols’ niece. “I really think some people would just show up at 6:30 on Easter, even if it wasn’t advertised! It’s a joyous occasion!” As the last member of the Nichols family to be involved with this service—“but not the last member of the Nichols family!” Alice hastens to add—she does everything from inviting service participants to promoting the event online and through mailings to local churches. “Participants in the service always change,” she says, and “in recent years we have mixed more contemporary music in with the traditional Easter music.” Alice likes “that the service helps people start their Easter day in a positive, reflective, and meaningful way,” and without conflicting with people’s home church services later in the morning. As well, “It’s dark when the service begins, but the sun rises as the service progresses. I like that symbolism,” she says.
Sunrise Service Churches and Pastors
Over the years, many churches have participated in the NESS. Alice’s program lists church participants back to 1938, including: Riverview (previously Watson and Eighth United) Presbyterian, Shadeland Avenue Christian and Emmanuel Baptist (now the merged congregation of Emmanuel Christian Church), Shadyside Presbyterian, Trinity Lutheran, Central Pittsburgh Reformed Presbyterian (now Reformed Presbyterian Church of the North Hills), Mt. Zion Baptist, Bellevue Christian, North United Presbyterian, Evangelical and Reformed Church of the Ascension, First United Presbyterian of Allegheny, New Life Community, Mt. Troy United Church of Christ, Brighton Heights Lutheran, Lamb of God Lion of Judah, Mosaic Community, North Hills Christian and Missionary Alliance, Allegheny Center Christian and Missionary Alliance, Emmaus Deliverance Ministries, and Christ Church at Grove Farm.
Multiple Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students and graduates have also participated as preachers for the NESS. More recently, they include the Rev. Charissa Howe of Emsworth/St. Andrew’s PCs, Erin Angeli, the Revs. Steven Werth and Kellie Mills of Riverview PC, and now Derek Davenport. Alice notes, though, that “the speaker is not always a preacher or pastor. In the past, we’ve had as speakers the 1965 Miss America (Miss Vonda Key Van Dyke), a Christian author (the Rev. William H. Venable), and a missionary to Africa (Ms. Lorinda Robinson).”
Funding for the NESS is provided by donations from the people who attend the service. “The money goes directly to advertising the event, and all participants in the service graciously donate their time,” Alice notes. She sees the event as “a great opportunity, especially for smaller churches, to get involved in a community-wide service, something they may not be able to organize on their own.” Thankfully, as her aunt Helen said 10 years ago, “many of the responsibilities are now being carried on by the next generation of some of the original committee members. Some of those original members are now in Heaven, but it is our desire that the Easter Sunrise Service in Riverview Park will continue until Jesus Christ comes to take His own to be with Him.”