In Pittsburgh, Saints Preserved

Sunday, September 28, 2003

I hadn't thought of it this way before, but I now realize that I have a relic. You probably have one, too. In my case, it's a briar pipe that once belonged to my late father. When I take it out from its place in my desk drawer, from among the 33-cent stamps, spilled paper clips and dry ballpoint pens, it reminds me of how he used to empty it and restoke it several times a day. And occasionally set fire to his overalls when he returned it to his pocket before the embers were completely extinguished. I can press its cold, stippled surface to my face, smell the ashy aroma of burned tobacco and think of the sunny June morning in 1988 when the embers cooled for the last time.

It's much the same for the Roman Catholic Church. Its relics are reminders of its loved ones, its saints.

You may picture relics as grisly anatomical spare parts: saintly skulls and sanctified shin bones watched over by little old ladies dressed entirely in black and praying in a Sicilian dialect.

True, many relics are in Italy -- or, more precisely, the Vatican. But the largest collection apart from the Vatican's is in Pittsburgh, at St. Anthony's Chapel, just up Troy Hill from the H.J. Heinz Co. pickle plant.

The chapel is the creation of one man, an imposing, heavily built guy standing more than six feet tall, wearing a beard that spread out over his chest and bearing the equally formidable name of Father Suitbert G. Mollinger. Born into a wealthy Belgian family, Mollinger studied medicine in Italy until he received "the call" to become a priest. How he ended up on Troy Hill in 1868, then a small German farming community, isn't clear, but he quickly became popular as its parish priest, in part because he applied his medical as well as pastoral skills. His reputation as a healer became international, he developed a line of patent medicines and, particularly on feast days, he attracted crowds numbering in the thousands.

And he also brought his hobby, relic collecting. Mollinger, it appears, had benefited from good timing. In the volatile political-religious life of late-19th-century Europe, monasteries were broken up and the relics the monks had safeguarded for centuries were scattered. Mollinger found some of them even in pawnshops.

His collection grew quickly (it now comprises nearly 5,000 relics) and needed a suitable home. In 1880, after the parish members rejected his plans for a grand cathedral of relics, Mollinger reached into his own deep pockets and financed the construction of a "chapel royale" on Troy Hill.

The chapel's interior at first seems merely like that of a small-town church, furnished in gilded, heavy dark wood, reminiscent of a German great-grandma's parlor. There are vivid stained-glass windows and a series of remarkably lifelike carved wood statues in the Stations of the Cross. The ceiling is a pale celestial blue.

But if you look forward, you can see shimmering in the heat waves that rise from the votive candles bank upon bank of what appear to be athletic trophies -- or candy dishes, or pocket watches. Some are over-the-top ornate; some are elegantly plain. Each is a reliquary, a sealed container holding one or more relics.

This isn't a gross-out, as the typical relic is a tiny scraping of bone no larger than a sunflower seed. If you can read the agate-type label, it identifies the veneratee. There also are a few skulls and other large bones. A tooth of Saint Anthony is given particular prominence at its own altar. But they are the exceptions; a more representative example might be one of the "calendar reliquaries" that hold a tiny relic for each day of the year. (They look disturbingly like jukeboxes.) There is a skylight above the reliquaries, and a shaft of sunlight occasionally will accent a particular display. Perhaps someone thinks you ought to pay attention.

Not all relics are of equal magnitude. A first-class relic is a body part of a saint (typically a bone fragment); second-class is something that physically touched a saint (clothing, for example); and third-class is anything that touched a first-class relic.

Most of the chapel's relics are first- or second-class. Some are from more contemporary holy persons -- the newest arrivals being the bones of Francis Xavier Seelos, an early-18th-century German missionary who was beatified in April 2000. Parish elders also hope to obtain a relic of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997. Nevertheless, the majority of the relics date from the Middle Ages, an era when relic collecting was so popular that sometimes people would congregate around a holy man who was merely seriously ill and start helping themselves prematurely to his body parts.

Thus, many of the relics are not merely centuries but sometimes millenniums old. So how do they know that's really Saint Anthony's tooth, Saint Ursula's femur, Saint Theodore's skull? Inevitably someone mentions DNA testing, but that would mean unsealing a reliquary, which is not permitted. Besides, what would you have to compare it with? Some relics can be traced via an elaborate documentation process, but, candidly, some things are better left to a higher authority.

Might Father Mollinger, himself, one day be canonized? He did cure many people, right up to his death in 1892. But his medical education might disqualify him, since it isn't clear whether his curative powers came down from Heaven or out of his little black bag.

It's a pity, but at least he gave us a lot to think about. Myself, I'm going to start looking in pawnshops for a reliquary the size of a briar pipe.

-- Jerry V. Haines

St. Anthony's Chapel (1704 Harpster St., Pittsburgh, 412-323-9504, is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 1 to 4 p.m., and Sundays, 12:30 -4 p.m. Guided tours are available Sundays at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Admission free.

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