St. Anthony's Chapel and rectory. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Usually, Pittsburgh makes national news because—with our blossoming dining scene and cutting-edge tech landscape—there are so many shiny, new things to talk about. But recently, Smithsonian Magazine took note of some of the oldest stuff in town: the relics at St. Anthony’s Chapel in Troy Hill. Pittsburgh is, in case you didn’t know, home to the most relics anywhere, second only to the Vatican. If you’ve never paid a visit to the church, Smithsonian paints a lovely picture:

. . . St. Anthony’s Chapel stands on a quiet street in Pittsburgh’s Troy Hill neighborhood. It’s an unassuming two-steepled church—not the kind of place you’d expect to find wood pieces from the Last Supper table or a golden sarcophagus with the full skeleton of St. Demetrius. The building is laid out in a classic cruciform shape, a painted Romanesque arch at its center and a crystal chandelier above the pews. The altar of St. Anthony, featuring a backlit statue of its 13th-century namesake, sits beside the arch, and gleaming glass cases of golden reliquaries line the walls up to the altar. [Rev. Suitbert Godfrey] Mollinger’s chapel is purportedly home to 22 splinters of the True Cross (on which Jesus was crucified), a scrap from the Virgin Mary’s veil, and bones from all 12 of Jesus’s apostles. His most prized relic was a molar from St. Anthony—the only part of the saint kept outside of his hometown of Padua, Italy. After blessing the afflicted, Mollinger would often touch their injuries with a golden cross-shaped reliquary that stored remains from multiple saints.

Smithsonian details that Mollinger collected relics of Catholic saints, and that by the time he died in 1892, he had amassed more than 5,000.

But why did Pittsburgh end up a holy haven?  Smithsonian writes:

The reasons behind Mollinger’s mission remain unclear. He was born to a wealthy family in Belgium in 1828, and his father died when he was 8 years old. When he was a young man, his mother sent him on the customary grand tour of Europe during which aristocrats were encouraged to choose their professions before attending university. Mollinger chose medicine, and became a practicing physician. In 1852, he began training for the priesthood. Two years later, at 26, he lost his mother. His parents’ deaths left young Mollinger with a vast inheritance. Brueckner speculates that ‘he was such a determined person that he was going to achieve something’ with it.

In 1854, a bishop recruited him for mission work in America. Europe was in chaos: Nation-states were forming, and Italy’s Giuseppe Garibaldi and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck were leading anti-Catholic campaigns. Relics were being confiscated, desecrated and even destroyed. Many wound up on the open market, sold on street corners or hocked in pawnshops. It was the religious equivalent of a fire sale.

As word got around that a priest in Pittsburgh wanted to rescue relics, European Catholics sought out the agents he’d hired, thinking it better to send the artifacts to safety in America than to risk their destruction in Europe. Mollinger insisted that all relics come to him with papers of authenticity, certified by a bishop and two witnesses. By 1880, the relic collection at St. Anthony’s had grown so large that it necessitated a new chapel. Mollinger paid for it.

In Mollinger’s heyday, he was more famous even than the relics. Smithsonian writes that according to the Pittsburg Dispatch, he was known to have healing powers. But when Mollinger passed away in 1892, the buzz around St. Anthony’s petered out. In the 1970s, when Pittsburgh was hit by a recession, the chapel decayed to the point that the diocese considered closing it. However, as things go in Pittsburgh, St. Anthony’s is once again on the rise. Per Smithsonian, American Catholics are making pilgrimages to the site once again, and the chapel reports they host 15 to 20 visitors per day.

For the full, photo-heavy story from Smithsonian Magazine,  go here.

Ali Trachta

Ali Trachta joyfully returned home to Pittsburgh after a long stint at LA Weekly. Most recently she served as its online editor as well as digital strategist for its parent company, Voice Media Group, which owns seven alt-weekly newspapers. She lives in Stanton Heights with her husband and little boy.