5,000 religious relics.

5,000 Relics in St. Anthony's Chapel

Field review by the editors.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The largest public collection of Catholic relics in the world is in -- Pittsburgh.

Relics.

"It's like stepping into Europe," said Carole Brueckner, director of St. Anthony's Chapel and one of its several tour guides. "People walk inside the front door and just gasp."

What causes them to inhale Pittsburgh air are the floor-to-ceiling displays of holy relics, the bodily remains, possessions, and incidentals of Jesus, Mary, and a long list of apostles, martyrs, and saintly confessors, widows, monks, penitents, hermits, and virgins. The exact number is "a little over 5,000" said Carole, and they're displayed in over 800 gold and jewel-encrusted reliquaries.

The saintly remains are here and not in the Vatican -- which preserves the largest private collection of Catholic relics in the world -- thanks to 19th century European political upheaval, and Father Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger.

St. Elisabeth relic.

Father Mollinger was the pastor of Most Holy Name Parish, an inconsequential congregation in what was then the boondocks north of Pittsburgh. He also turned out to be the greatest collector of Catholic relics in history. Born and raised in Belgium, from a wealthy noble family, he had credibility, connections, and money -- and he used them to acquire thousands of relics from churches and monasteries in the politically chaotic Europe of the mid-1800s. "He rescued them," said Carole of the relics. "Most of them would have been destroyed."

Wanting to share his collection with his sleepy American parish, Father Mollinger spent his inheritance to build the chapel in 1883. Nine years later he again tapped his bank account to more-than-double the size of the chapel, to display eerily lifelike statues of the Stations of the Cross, carved in Germany, which were also paid for by Father Mollinger.

Two days after the grand opening of the chapel, he died.

Father Mollinger's demise was a blow to the tens of thousands of sick people who annually made pilgrimages to the chapel in hope of a cure, either from venerating a particular relic, receiving a blessing from Father Mollinger, or ingesting one of his patent medicines. A small museum above the chapel gift shop displays crutches, canes, and blackened eyeglasses left behind by the faithful who claimed to no longer need them.

Skeletal remains of Saint Demetrius.
Skeletal remains of Saint Demetrius.

If you believe in the supernatural power of a single relic, then standing inside St. Anthony's Chapel is to be surrounded by the serious holy mojo of the best-and-least-known saints in the Church.

Carole pointed out some of Father Mollinger's top acquisitions. There are skulls from several saints (some of them beheaded virgins), and the complete skeletal remains of Saint Demetrius, which lie in a glass-fronted sarcophagus under the altar. One reliquary displays bone chips from each of the Apostles -- not an easy collection to assemble. There are two pieces from the Last Supper table, 22 separate splinters from the cross of Jesus, a fragment of Mary's veil, and a thorn from the Crown of Thorns. Reliquaries shaped like small cathedrals contain the bones of at least three popes.

Stations of the Cross.
Stations of the Cross.

Some of the relics, said Carole, can be documented through Church records to before AD 500, and all of them are just where Father Mollinger placed them over 130 years ago.

Father Mollinger was not a meticulous record-keeper, and the chapel didn't complete its relic inventory until the mid-1990s (You can buy the list in the gift shop). Carole said that if a visitor wants to venerate a specific relic, the tour guide can look it up in the catalog and point out its location.

The last stop on Carole's tour is historically one of the most powerful relics in Father Mollinger's collection: a tooth from the chapel's namesake Saint Anthony of Padua, who was seen in his hermit cell talking with a glowing Baby Jesus shortly before his death in 1321. His tooth also appeared to glow on our visit, but only from Carole's helpful illumination with a flashlight.

St. Anthony of Padua's Tooth.
St. Anthony of Padua's Tooth.

"It's like being in heaven for a while," said Carole of the chapel. "You are surrounded by the relics of so many saints." Despite its religious significance, the chapel is a popular destination for non-Catholics, who may just enjoy its artistry or be curious about all the bones. It really is something you don't expect to see in Pittsburgh.

According to Carole, no one from Europe has ever asked for their relics back.

5,000 Relics in St. Anthony's Chapel

Address:
1704 Harpster St., Pittsburgh, PA
Directions:
I-376/Parkway West to downtown Pittsburgh. Stay in the left lane going through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, then merge into the far left lane onto I-279 (North Shore). While crossing the Fort Duquesne Bridge, get into the right lane and take Exit 1D (Hwy 28/Chestnut St./E. Ohio St.), then quickly get into the far right lane and exit onto Chestnut St. At the light, turn left onto Chestnut St., staying in the right lane to the second light. Make a quick right at the St. Anthony's Chapel sign onto Phineas St./Troy Hill Rd. Drive past the brewery and continue up Troy Hill Rd, past North Catholic High School, then turn right at the funeral home onto Lowrie St. Drive to the UniMart and medical building, turn left onto Claim St., then right onto Harpster St., rounding the Most Holy Name Church. St. Anthony's Chapel is next to the Most Holy Name Rectory.
Hours:
Sa-Th 1-4 pm. Gift shop Tu, Th, Sa-Su 1-4 pm. (Call to verify)
Phone:
412-323-9504
Admission:
Donation requested.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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