The Shrines of Pittsburgh are non secular treasures wealthy in historical past

To visit
Diocese of Pittsburgh officials recommend registering for Easter Sunday masses here. The five Shrines of Pittsburgh are close in proximity, so people can make a pilgrimage on the same day.

They are holy places rich with history, decorated with magnificent relics, larger-than-life paintings, spiritual steps, embellished stained glass windows and massive domes that can be spotted from miles away.

Five Catholic churches — St. Anthony Chapel on Troy Hill, St. Nicholas in Millvale, St. Patrick and St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in the Strip District and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill — make up The Shrines of Pittsburgh.

“All five have a significant history in Pittsburgh,” said Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik. “We want to preserve the shrines. They are cherished shrines in the diocese.”

The pandemic shut down the churches last year for Easter, forcing people to watch virtual services throughout Holy Week. Not this year. The five will celebrate Easter Sunday with morning masses on April 4. All will be open on Holy Thursday evening, April 1.

“The foundation of faith and the celebration of the immigrant heritage of Pittsburgh and cultural traditions are important to be celebrated in the Shrines,” said the Rev. Nicholas Vaskov, director of the Shrines of Pittsburgh. “They certainly are treasures.”

During Lent, which began Feb. 17, these churches have had Stations of the Cross, a 14-step devotion to Jesus Christ’s last days on earth.

For 47 days, there is fasting and prayer. Many parishioners attend extra masses. They go to confession.

Many people celebrate Easter with family. Holy Saturday is a vigil Mass where new Catholics are welcomed. Good Friday is a solemn day; traditionally the hours between noon and 3 p.m. are reserved for prayer.

In the Catholic Church, Lent is a journey, a time of reflection. Holy Week is the final week of that journey, Zubik said.

“Holy Week is a call to holiness for all of us,” he said. “My Lenten journey is to become more like Jesus. We are blessed to be able to celebrate Holy Week in churches this year.”

St. Anthony Chapel

1704 Harpster St., Troy Hill

St. Anthony Chapel has more than 5,000 relics of saints. A relic is a part of a holy person’s body or belongings kept as an object of reverence. The only place with more is the Vatican, according to Zubik.

Walking in the door of St. Anthony Chapel causes many people to pause, Vaskov said.

The brilliance from the reliquaries, containers of holy relics, encompasses the entire front and most of the sides of the church. In the back, on either side are near life-sized hand-carved wood Stations of the Cross. Expressions on the figures appear real. The stations are one of two sets in the U.S. The other is at St. Patrick in Erie.

“It is a very holy place,” Zubik said.

Construction of the chapel began in 1880 under the direction of the Rev. Suitbert G. Mollinger, the son of a wealthy Belgian family and the first pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Church nearby. He was also a doctor.

Mollinger financed the chapel to house relics.

“People came to Father Mollinger for spiritual healing and for physical healing,” said Vaskov.

Mollinger made several trips to Germany to collect relics. Because of political unrest in Europe, he wanted to make sure they were preserved.

The chapel was dedicated on June 13, 1883, the Feast of St. Anthony.

An inscription written in Latin inside the chapel reads: “Here Lie the Saints in Peace.” Mollinger purchased the Stations of the Cross in Germany and expanded the chapel to house them.

Zubik has a collection of relics he’s been given as gifts. He said when he’s inside St. Anthony Chapel, he thinks of what it takes to become a saint.

“We are blessed with the opportunity to celebrate the holiest week of the year coming up,” Zubik said. “The beauty of the saints and the traditions they left us. We have an appreciation for the saints and look for them to intercede. People come from all over the world to St. Anthony Chapel.”

There are three classifications of relics. First-class relics are a piece of the saint’s body – hair, bone, teeth, etc. Second-class relics are something the saint owned like a piece of clothing.

Third-class relics are a piece of cloth or a medal touched to a saint’s relic.

St. Anthony Chapel has all three.

It has the body of St. Demetrius. There is a tooth from St. Anthony. There is a splinter from the cross Jesus was crucified on, a thorn from the crown of thorns and a piece of stone from the tomb, among other relics associated with the passion of Jesus.

Mollinger had matching reliquaries custom-made to house the relics. Some came with a reliquary. The majority of the relics have been authenticated by the Vatican.

People come to St. Anthony Chapel for many reasons, said Vaskov. They might have an illness or they are having trouble conceiving a child or they just want a private place to pray.

Tony Colega, of Scott, has been praying inside St. Anthony Chapel since the late 1980s.

“I am devoted to St. Anthony,” Colega said, as he clutched a pair of rosary beads. “St. Anthony has helped me immensely. This chapel is beautiful. It is such a holy place. I feel surrounded by saints. I would not be here without his help.”

He said the chapel has to be physically seen.

“When you walk through that door it hits you,” he said. “You are in awe. I just feel closer to God.”

Paul and Val Kapetanovich of the North Side said they’ve experienced the healing of St. Anthony. Their granddaughter was born with a heart condition.

“We prayed for a miracle,” Val Kapetanovich said. “She is perfectly healthy now.”

St. Nicholas

24 Maryland Ave., Millvale

The murals in St. Nicholas are so detailed they evoke emotions and images one might not necessarily expect to see in a church. These paintings inside St. Nicholas in Millvale tell a story.

The tale includes the early days of Croatian immigrants who came to the U.S.. They worked in steel mills and coal mines and helped to build the church, which was dedicated in 1900. It burned to the ground in 1921 and was rebuilt.

Former pastor the Rev. Albert Zagar met an artist named Maxo Vanka at an exhibit of his work. Zagar hired Vanka to paint murals, which he had never done before. Vanka painted 11 murals in eight weeks in 1937 and came back in 1941 to do an additional 14.

Vanka told the story of Croatia, where the Blessed Mother is revered. He depicted her as strong, with large expressive eyes.

In one picture, the city of Pittsburgh is in the background along with its bridges. Blue-collar workers carry a model of a church.

Vanka worked six days a week from 9 a.m. to past midnight. He lived on Coca-Cola, sandwiches and cigarettes.

The murals, created with a water-based paint, depict turmoil and war. There is one of the Blessed Mother mourning the death of her son. There is blood and swords and daggers. One of the figures is wearing a gas mask.

“This is not what you expect to see in a church,” said Vaskov. “They are more than something to look at. They are history. They are art and they represent social injustice.”

St. Patrick Church

1711 Liberty Ave., Strip District

At St. Patrick Church, people climb a staircase on their knees to get to the second-level worship space.

The first Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, it dates to 1808, originally built Downtown where The Pennsylvanian apartments are now located. The current location was dedicated on March 17, 1936.

As one enters the property there is a garden with an outdoor grotto in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes. Statues honor the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Bernadette. There are Stations of the Cross on the outside wall.

Upon entering there is a staircase with 28 steps. People are required to crawl each step on their knees to reach the altar while praying.

The only people who can walk the stairs are a bride and her father and then the bride and groom, Vaskov said.

The staircase represents the 28 steps between Christ and Pilate when he condemned Christ to death. These are replicas of the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa) in Rome.

The stairs were placed in St. Patrick when the church was rebuilt in 1936.

The ancient order of Hibernians worked to restore the church and continue to do so.

The church hosts blessings of the animals in the garden outside and Mass on St. Patrick’s Day, in addition to weekday Masses and other celebrations.

“It’s an intimate church,” Vaskov said.

St. Stanislaus Kostka

57 21st St., Strip District

St. Stanislaus survived a flood and nearby explosion that blew the bell towers off.

It is one of the most recognizable churches in the Strip District. It’s visible as drivers make their way along Smallman Street.

“It is uniquely located,” said Vaskov. “It is a centerpiece to the Strip District. For many years produce wholesalers erected a nativity scene of live plants and trees outside the church during the Christmas season.”

The church is the tallest structure in the area. No other nearby buildings reach seven stories – the height of the church, Vaskov said.

With all of the development of the Strip District, “St. Stanislaus still remains because of its rich Pittsburgh history,” Vaskov said.

St. Stanislaus was founded in 1875 as the first ethnic Polish parish in the Pittsburgh diocese.

The current building is the third location. It was dedicated on July 31, 1892. The stained-glass windows came from the Royal Bavarian Art Institute in Munich, Germany. The largest window is 26 feet in diameter.

The church was designed by Frederick Sauer, a German immigrant. It survived the St. Patrick’s Day flood in 1936 and an explosion at the nearby Pittsburgh Banana Company in December that year. The bell towers that were blown off were replaced.

Before he became Pope John Paul II, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla visited the church in September 1969. In 1972 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Immaculate Heart of Mary

3058 Brereton St., Polish Hill

Immaculate Heart of Mary is a scale replica of the central dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

It is the largest of the shrines.

Many of its original parishioners belonged to St. Stanislaus, but it became too dangerous to cross the railroad tracks from Polish Hill to get to the Strip District.

The statue of the Blessed Mother at the front of the church wears a locket that has names of the original contributors who built the church.

One of those names is an ancestor to parishioner Mark Dobies of Polish Hill. Five generations of his family and four of his wife Antoinette’s have belonged to the church, including their daughter, Theresa Rockey, of Ben Avon, who said “she is a Polish Hill resident at heart.”

The two are involved in everything from the extensive decorations for Christmastime to the weekly Lenten fish fries and making sure there are flowers for Easter.

Last year, they spent Holy Week, including Easter Sunday, decorating for the virtual masses. Rockey said she and her dad decided to adjust the decorations so that those watching could still enjoy the traditions just like they were there.

“We wanted to let the parishioners know that the church still cared about them even though they couldn’t attend in person,” Rockey said. “I felt very privileged to to have the opportunity to be in church on Easter Sunday. It didn’t feel like Easter until we were in the church decorating.”

“We do what we do for Jesus,” said Dobies.

The church was founded in 1896. It is celebrating 125 years this year.

Displayed as a relic is a blood-stained piece of the cassock (garment) Pope John Paul was wearing when he was shot in Saint Peter Square in 1981.

“This is about more than going to church,” Rockey said. “It is about being part of the church. We help because we love this church. This church is family to us.”

It is the only church where the main entrance is on the side. It was built on a hill to be closer to God, Vaskov said.

The bells have to be manually rung.

“The shrines inspire others to learn about their own churches and see if there is any family history there,” Vaskov said. “Families like the Dobies have been a part of the same parish for generations. That’s pretty special.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062, or via Twitter .

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To visit
Diocese of Pittsburgh officials recommend registering for Easter Sunday masses here. The five Shrines of Pittsburgh are close in proximity, so people can make a pilgrimage on the same day.

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