Pittsburgh Church Has Collection of Relics Second Only to the Vatican

Via Atlas Obscura:

At 1704 Harpster Street sits St. Anthony’s chapel, which houses the second-largest collection of Christian relics in existence after the Vatican. Within the greige brick facade are the bones, blood, teeth, ashes, hair, and personal belongings of the holiest members of the Christian church: the apostles, saints and martyrs. There are approximately 5,000 relics in total.

Inside the church, the eye is first drawn to a ceiling painted with religious symbols and names and then to tall walnut cases displaying hundreds of metal artifacts behind glass. There are miniature metal churches, monstrances, chasses (caskets), and medallions pinned to burgundy velvet. Each ornament contains a tiny, mysterious particle, tied in red embroidery thread and sealed with wax, which can be viewed through a clear glass or crystal aperture. There are what look like fingernail slivers and jagged pieces of porous grey bone. Some hold bits of cloth stained with drops of dried brown liquid.

The word relic comes from the Latin relinquere, or “to leave behind.” The relics at St. Anthony’s are mostly first or second class, which means they are the physical body parts of a saint, an item that came directly in contact with Christ, or an item worn or frequently used by a saint or martyr. These relics are investigated and certified by the church hierarchy and thought to be genuine.

Some of the most astounding relics at the chapel include: 22 splinters of the True Cross, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, a splinter from the table at The Last Supper, the skull of St. Theodore, a tooth from St. Anthony, and pieces of bone from all of the Apostles.

I had to double-check this because I had never heard about this church in my many trips to Pittsburgh. This is an amazing collection. The story of how it came to be is pretty interesting too.

St. Anthony’s was built in 1880 by Father Suitbert Mollinger, a wealthy Belgian aristocrat who attended medical school before becoming a priest. He was sent by the Catholic church to Pittsburgh in 1868 at the age of 40, where he became the first Pastor of Holy Name Diocese. According to Brueckner, “It was a big culture shock for him. He was mostly placed here because he spoke German and most people were German.” Mollinger brought many gifts to the community: a campaign for child literacy, his own formulas for medicinal compounds that were dispensed free of charge at the local apothecary, and enough money to build a rectory and convent. He also brought the collection of (at that time) 2,000 relics.

During the mid to late 1800s, the political and religious upheavals of the Kulturkampf in Germany and the Unification of Italy resulted in churches being looted and their reliquaries either smashed or sold for their precious stones and metals. Father Mollinger was given many relics to bring with him to the United States for safekeeping, and the collection continued to grow. To store the relics, which were overflowing from side rooms and the rectory, he used his private wealth to construct the chapel, a 30-by-30-foot structure in a Victorian meets Romanesque style. The reliquaries are still arranged to his specifications.

When I’m on the road I always enjoy going to Mass at different churches around the country and I’m definitely putting this on the list the next time I work in Pittsburgh. They’ve also got a mall that has a pierogi place in the food court. Between that and a visit to St.Anthony’s, I may not even wait until I have a gig there again. It’s a perfect mini-trip for a Polish-American Catholic boy.