Nestled high atop the vista of Pittsburgh's Troy Hill neighborhood, Saint Anthony's Chapel looks much like any other church found within city limits. But a peek inside Saint Anthony's doors reveals an immense collection of 5,000 religious relics -- the largest collection of relics in the world outside of the Vatican.
So, what are religious relics? In simplest terms, a relic is typically either the physical remains of a saint (think bone fragments) or the personal effects of a saint (think clothing or robes). These items are extremely valuable for for believers of the religion from which the venerated individual comes, and, in fact, relics are common in a great number of widespread religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Shamanism.
When it comes to Saint Anthony's, however, the relics are all specific to Catholic saints, of which there are something in excess of 10,000, according to most estimates. This vast collection of relics is all thanks to Father Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger of Belgium, who came to the United States as a seminary student in 1854 and settled in Pittsburgh in 1865. On July 4, 1868, Father Mollinger became the first pastor of the Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in what is now Troy Hill in Pittsburgh's North Side. Father Mollinger was a strong believer in miraculous healing, and held annual healing services that would be attended by 10,000-15,000 pilgrims from around the world. It was Father Mollinger who became the driving force behind the creation of the Saint Anthony Chapel, and he was also the sole proprietor of its thousands of relics, each meant to provide believers with renewed inspiration to know, love, and serve God.
Father Mollinger's collection of relics at Saint Anthony's are joined by an impressive set of life-sized Stations of the Cross statuaries from Europe. Hand carved out of wood by artisans at the royal Ecclesiastical Art Establishment of Mayer and Company in Munich, Germany, these massive stations required an enlargement of the chapel as well as the construction of an addition. The addition was completed in 1892, and was to be dedicated by Father Mollinger at the Feast of Saint Anthony, but he collapsed on the day of the dedicated and passed away two days later.
In the years following Father Mollinger's death, the chapel fell into a steep decline of disrepair. In 1972, the Saint Anthony's Chapel Restoration Fund Committee began a campaign to raise money for a full restoration of the chapel, which was completed by 1977. The chapel was made increasingly available to the public as the years went on, relying on the contributions from pilgrims who flocked from near and far to keep the holy site up and running. A religious articles gift shop was opened across the street from the chapel in 1983 to help supplement donations -- as well as give visitors to Saint Anthony's a meaningful souvenir of their pilgrimage. Additionally, a museum dedicated to Father Mollinger was opened and dedicated on June 10, 1986. The Chapel has since been officially designated a historical landmark by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.
Visitors to Saint Anthony's can take a one-hour guided tour of the chapel every day except Friday. Tours run on the hour at 1PM, 2PM, and 3PM, and must be arranged by calling and scheduling in advance. Group tours can also be arranged with advance notice. Masses are held at the chapel on Tuesdays at 8:30AM, followed by the Saint Anthony novena. The Saint Anthony novena also happens nightly on Tuesdays at 7:30PM.
Those who come to enjoy Saint Anthony's are asked to respect its sacred nature by remembering to observe silence while inside the chapel. Photographs are strictly forbidden inside the chapel without special permission, and all cell phones and electronic devices should be silenced. Modest dress should be observed, and genuflecting (kneeling to one knee) is encouraged while passing before the tabernacle, which is kept in the center of the altar. Weddings are permitted within the chapel provided that a six-month notice is given. Full parameters for weddings at Saint Anthony's are provided on its website.
The Saint Anthony Chapel and Father Mollinger Museum is open Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 1PM-4PM, and for all scheduled tours.
By Gayle Pazerski, freelance writer, actor, and playwright