The first holy ground in Pittsburgh was a low knoll along what is now Sixth Avenue that had been used by local Native Americans as a burial ground. The knoll may have been attractive as a burial site because it was protected from the floods that regularly inundated what is now the Golden Triangle, or it may have been built up over the centuries like the burial mounds of the Moundbuilder tribes in Ohio. The French of Fort Duquesne (1754 to 1758) and the English at Fort Pitt (after 1758), as well as early American settlers, also buried their own dead there. Eventually over 4000 persons were interred in the block bounded by Sixth and Oliver Avenues and Smithfield and Wood Streets. The burial ground remains today, greatly shrunken (the remains of the dead having been reinterred in various city cemeteries, or else forgotten), reduced to the confines of the Trinity Cathedral burying ground.
The French garrison at Fort Duquesne worshipped in a small log chapel called the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the first European church in Pittsburgh. The road from the church to the Indian burial ground became known as Virgin Alley (now Oliver Avenue). Anglican services were held by chaplains stationed at Fort Pitt. The first settlers to cluster around the walls of Fort
Pitt included a number of Presbyterians, who held their first service in a log cabin in 1773. The principal Protestant denominations represented among the early American settlers of Pittsburgh were given a firm establishment in 1787 when the Penn family, which had just prepared a plan for the subdivision and sale of its lands in the town of Pittsburgh, donated several large lots near the corner of Sixth Avenue and Smithfield Street to them. These congregations included the Presbyterians (now First Presbyterian Church), the Episcopalians (now Trinity Cathedral), and the German Evangelicals (now Smithfield United Church). At first these congregations erected crude log chapels, but by the early years of the nineteenth century they were able to replace them with sturdier brick structures. It was not until 1829 that Catholic Pittsburghers were numerous enough to raise their own church in brick (the first St. Paul's Cathedral).
During much of the nineteenth century, the city of Pittsburgh was largely confined to what is now the Central Business District. Commercial activity was at first confined to the riverfronts and the Market Square area, while the rest of the city was largely residential in nature. The residential character of the Downtown area was confirmed and reinforced by the presence of churches there. In fact, churches in Downtown Pittsburgh were clustered in two sections: the Penn-Liberty district (which was a prime residential neighborhood in the nineteenth century) and the area bounded by Grant and Wood Streets and Fifth and Seventh Avenues. In 1872, as Pittsburgh was experiencing the height of the post-Civil War economic boom, there were six houses of worship in the Penn-Liberty section and seventeen churches in the latter area. These included eight Presbyterian churches, three churches each for Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans, two Baptist and Evangelical churches, the Catholic cathedral, and a synagogue.
However, as the city's economy continued to grow and industry to consolidate, the invention of the electric streetcar allowed the population to spread out over the surrounding countryside. During the 1880s and 1890s, the construction of office buildings and business blocks and the displacement of the residential population began to transform the Golden Triangle into a Central Business District. As a consequence, the churches started to follow Pittsburgh's population as it dispersed into outlying residential neighborhoods. By 1910, all but one of the churches near Penn Avenue had closed, and only seven of the seventeen in the Grant Street area remained open. St. Peter's Episcopal Church, St. Paul's Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the Third Presbyterian Church had relocated to Oakland and Shadyside after their buildings were purchased by Henry Frick for the Frick Building, the Union Trust Building, and the William Penn Hotel. The First Baptist Church moved to a new house of worship in Oakland as well. Christ Methodist Church split into two congregations, one settling in Allegheny West as Calvary Methodist and one in Shadyside as Christ Methodist (now, the First United Methodist Church).
Today, there are six remaining churches in the Downtown area of Pittsburgh. They serve congregations spread out over the metropolitan area, including the small residential population of the Golden Triangle and the large number of office and retail workers who inhabit the Central Business District during the day. They provide a unique spiritual and architectural counterpoint to the commercial and institutional structures that surround and in many ways tower over them.