The Feast of All Saints has its origins in the annual celebration in Rome of the transformation of the Pantheon, the famous temple dedicated to “all gods”, into a basilica dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary and All the Martyrs. As a part of the ritual of consecration, Pope Boniface IV (d. 615) had gathered the relics of the martyrs laid to rest in the underground catacombs on the outskirts of the city. From there, the grand procession began. Behind the Pope were 18 chariots full of relics being carried among the immense crowd. The procession made its way through the streets of Rome until it came to the heart of the city at the Pantheon, where the remains of the martyrs were reverently interred. As the Benedictine monk Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-75) wrote, the people of Rome “now burned before the saints the incense they had refused to offer to her idols.”
Despite this, not even the Pantheon can claim to have the largest collection of relics outside of the Vatican. This claim lies in far less likely place.
On a quiet street in Pittsburgh’s Troy Hill neighborhood stands an unassuming two-steepled church named for St. Anthony. Inscribed above the high altar are the words Corpora Sanctorum in Pace Sepulta Sunt—“The Bodies of the Saints Rest in Peace.” It is a fitting statement since this chapel houses an astounding collection of over five thousand of their relics.
How did so many treasures of our Christian religion end up in Pittsburgh? It is all thanks to the faith, determination, and wealth of a missionary priest to the United States named Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger.
Suitbert was born to an aristocratic family in Belgium in 1828. His father was a Protestant and his mother a devout Catholic who insisted her eight children be raised in the Church. Suitbert’s father died when he was only eight years old. A few years later he accompanied his uncle on a tour of Europe, which was a common practice for aristocratic children so they could both learn and determine which field they wished to study at the university. Suitbert chose medicine and studied at medical schools in Naples, Rome, and Genoa becoming a practicing physician. Not content with being a doctor of the body, Suitbert felt the calling to also become a doctor of the soul. He began his studies for the priesthood at a seminary in Ghent which greatly pleased his devout mother who sadly did not live to see him ordained. His mother’s death left him with a vast inheritance.
Perhaps the most impressive quality of Suitbert was his generosity. He did not settle for a comfortable priesthood in Belgium with his parent’s wealth but generously answered the call in 1854 to come to the United States—a mission field in great need of priests. German-speaking priests were especially in demand to minister to the many German immigrants settling the farmlands of the American Midwest.
It is not known when or where Fr. Mollinger was ordained, but it is clear that by 1859 he was working in the Diocese of Erie. After a dispute with his bishop, Fr. Mollinger decided to join the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The first record of him serving in this diocese comes from the baptismal registry of one of the early parishes in which he served. He was eventually assigned as pastor of Most Holy Name in the Troy Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It was there that he would amass his famous collection of relics.
Fr. Mollinger left Europe in a time of revolutionary upheaval. The Ancien Régime recognizing the natural cohesion between altar and throne was rebelled against by various nationalist movements. Modern nation-states began to replace old kingdoms. The new governments in Italy and Germany were particularly suspicious of the Church and confiscated much of its property. Many relics were destroyed, lost, or later appeared in pawn shops as a result of this turmoil.
Concerned abbots and others were eager to find not only a place where their collection of relics could be safe but also could be properly venerated. Fr. Mollinger was the perfect agent for this: he was stationed in the peace and security of the United States, he was European himself with many contacts on the continent, and he had the financial resources to offer donations to the struggling churches and monasteries in exchange for the relics.
His collection became so big that he built a chapel with his own funds to house them and to make them more accessible to pilgrims. His favorite saint was Anthony of Padua, and so the chapel was named for St. Anthony and the cornerstone was laid on his feast, June 13, 1882.
This is how the unlikely setting of the Troy Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh became home to the largest collection of relics available for public veneration in the world.
Fr. Mollinger’s collection at St. Anthony’s Chapel includes 22 splinters from the True Cross, a piece of the Blessed Virgin’s veil, fragments from the bones of all twelve Apostles, the entire body of St. Demetrius held in large gold sarcophagus, the skull of St. Ursula and those of a number of her martyred companions, and what was probably a favorite of Fr. Mollinger, a tooth of St. Anthony which is the only cranial relic of this saint outside of Padua.
When I was able to offer Mass at this chapel, I offered a votive Mass of All the Saints. It was deeply moving to know that within the altar I was offering Mass upon was a splinter from the Holy Mensa of the Last Supper.
All the relics on display for veneration in the chapel have proper certificates from the Church affirming their authenticity. Today, these certificates, many of which are centuries old, are kept in an acid free safety deposit box in a local bank. The painstaking process of digitizing them all has finally been completed. Of all of these certificates, one is kept on display in the chapel. It is a large certificate affirming the authenticity of a single reliquary located on one of the side altars of the sanctuary containing seven hundred relics.
The collection does contain many more relics that lack certificates of authenticity. These have been removed from the chapel but are reverently kept in a room not open to the public in the museum across the street. Some of these are slated to be studied to see if their authenticity can be confirmed.
When St. Anthony’s Chapel was built, Troy Hill was a rural area consisting of only 50 farm families. But the neighborhood grew in prominence as more and more crowds were drawn not only by the incredible collection of relics but also by Fr. Mollinger’s own reputation for holiness and healing.
In addition to being a priest, Fr. Mollinger was also a trained physician. He would meet with sick pilgrims visiting his chapel, diagnose their ailment and prescribe medicine for them that was supplied by a local pharmacist. Eventually a drug store was established nearby under the name Mollinger’s Drug Co.
Many extraordinary cures were reported at the chapel. As evidence for these claims and as a sign of their gratitude, cured pilgrims would leave behind the crutches, canes, and eyeglasses they no longer needed.
Crowds came to St. Anthony’s Chapel seeking both spiritual and physical healing. Local papers reported that up to 6,000 would come for the celebrations on the feasts of Corpus Christi and St. Anthony. The crowds were so big there wasn’t nearly enough room available for lodging them all. Many would have to sleep in the parish school yard and on the front steps of the church.
On St. Anthony’s feast in 1892, a large addition was made to the chapel to house stunning life-sized Stations of the Cross acquired in Germany, as well as to provide much needed room for the increasing number of pilgrims. Fr. Mollinger died peacefully with a crucifix in his hands two days later.
In the century following Fr. Mollinger’s death, fewer and fewer pilgrims came to St. Anthony’s.
The first blow came immediately after the remarkable priest died. Fr. Mollinger neglected to leave behind a proper will and many of his greedy family heirs descended upon the chapel for their own profit. They took its beautiful crystal chandeliers, black onyx altar and other portable items such as many of the chapel’s candelabra. Everything else was sold to the Parish of Most Holy Name for today’s equivalent of almost a million dollars—not an easy burden for any parish to shoulder.
Then came the unfortunate current in the Church so dominant in the mid-twentieth century that so often compromised the faith at the expense of doctrine and traditional devotions. Devotion to the saints through their relics was often dismissed in this period as “medieval superstition.” Appreciation for St. Anthony’s Chapel waned as a result and by the 1970s it had fallen into such disrepair that it was almost closed. It was thankfully saved by a number of concerned Catholics of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh. With their local bishop’s blessing they raised the necessary funds to completely restore the chapel in 1978.
Today, St. Anthony’s Chapel is part of a network called “The Shrines of Pittsburgh” which includes four parishes and six church buildings near downtown Pittsburgh with unique historical and spiritual significance. A board has been established to promote the Chapel as a pilgrimage destination and to raise the necessary funds for its maintenance.
On this All Saints Day we can ask ourselves: what inspired Fr. Mollinger to accumulate this vast collection of relics?
The relics of the saints are an important reminder that the saints in heaven once lived upon earth. They knew the sufferings and trials we all must endure—challenges that inevitably come with life in this valley of tears. Yet animated by divine grace and living according to the Beatitudes they were able to reach the heavenly fatherland. Their relics reminds us to look to their example as a sailor looks to a lighthouse to guide us in the midst of the darkness and dangers of this life to the safe harbor of Heaven.
(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally on November 1, 2020.)
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