Just north of the Alleghany River from downtown Pittsburgh lies the unassuming working-class neighborhood of Troy Hill. Since its founding in 1833 by German immigrant farmers, the tiny, sloping cluster of drab multi-story homes has been a solidly low-key, blue collar, and off the radar affair. But at the center of the neighborhood, recessed on the little side road of Harper Street, sits what may be one of the most deceptively remarkable chapels in America, if not the world.
From the outside, St. Anthony’s Chapel doesn’t look like much—just two towers, grey-brown rough hewn stone, and a steeple rooftop like you’d find anywhere else in America. Inside, though, the church is sumptuousness incarnate—all life sized statues of Jesus’s procession to the crucifixion, rich carvings of golden and mahogany hues, and near-glowing murals. It’s not the décor that makes the place stand out, however. It’s the collection of relics, about 5,000 in total, the largest outside of the Vatican, that lie in reliquaries throughout.
The Troy Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Photo: Creative Commons/Wikipedia
The relics housed in St. Anthony’s are no trifling things, either. There’re no pieces of cloth that touched a piece of cloth that touched a saint or suspicious duplicates of saints’ pinky bones found elsewhere in the world. Almost all of the relics are first or second class, meaning they include saints’ body parts and possessions. The more popular relics include: 22 splinters of the True Cross; threads from the Virgin Mary’s veil; a cloak of St. Joseph; and bone fragments of all 12 apostles; the entire skeleton of St. Demetrius; the skulls of several older and newer (and thus lesser known) saints; and a molar once belonging to St. Anthony, the very tooth missing from his skull in Padua. All of the reliquaries are marked on the back with letters of ecclesiastic authenticity, verified long after the heyday of falsified relics.
It is, in other words, as close to the real deal as you’re going to get. Yet almost no one—not American Catholics and not even residents of Troy Hill—know much about the chapel and its reliquary, or how such a massive collection wound up in a little German immigrant neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
St. Anthony’s. Photo: Commons/Wikipedia
The story of the relics starts with the chapel’s founder, Father Suitbert Mollinger of Troy Hill’s Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish. Born into a wealthy family in Mechelen, Belgium, in 1828, Mollinger studied medicine in Italy and theology in Ghent before just sort of drifting to Troy Hill as a missionary in 1868. Within his lifetime, Mollinger gained a following throughout the northeast not as a relic hoarder, but as a miraculous medicine man, founding a small medical supply company and marketing a variety of kidney pills. He also took on a number of poor patients from all around the region, so many that Troy Hill was at one point known as the “Mecca of Invalids” and the trolley running up towards the neighborhood was nicknamed Mollinger’s Ambulance.
Just as he was gaining a near-cultic following, says Carole Brueckner, a lifelong parish member and the Chapel Committee Chairperson and Docent for the past several years, “he also had agents who were looking for these relics… back in Europe.” The 1870s were a great time of strife for Catholics. Between Giuseppe Garibaldi’s libertine unification of Italy and Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik Kulturkampf in Germany, churches left and right were being stripped for parts by the emergent states. This included, according to Brueckner, smashing reliquaries not to resell the relics but to use the gold and gems in their cases. For whatever reason, relics were something Mollinger cherished dearly, Brueckner says. “With all of this going on in Europe, he was able to acquire them and bring them to the United States and save them.” Just to house his growing collection, he built the Chapel in 1880 with his own family wealth, enlarging it in 1892.