If a loved one dies, it’s natural to want to hang on to something to remind you of them—maybe a ring, maybe a favorite book or picture. That’s the same idea, in a very basic way, behind the relics of the saints held in high esteem by many faith traditions. And in Pittsburgh, oddly enough, there is said to be the largest Catholic collection of relics outside of Rome. Join us for a visit to Saint Anthony Chapel in this episode of Faith Full.
In this episode: Of Relics, Saints, and Solace
With a reverent whisper, Deacon Greg Jelinek kneels behind an altar to highlight one of the thousands of holy treasures in St. Anthony Chapel.
Inside an ornate receptacle are purported to be the remains of St. Demetrius, a martyr saint.
“His effigy is portrayed on the top of the casket with his sword, he was a soldier,” Deacon Greg says, pointing to the metal likeness of an ancient saint.
“Various bones of his are wrapped in silk, and mounted on a velvet panel behind the glass. The certificate of authenticity for this reliquary even records the streets that this piece was carried on its way to Troy Hill to find its resting place here,” Deacon Greg says.
St. Anthony Chapel sits in the Troy Hill neighborhood overlooking Pittsburgh from a hallowed perch.
Just inside, walls are lined by alcoves housing life-sized and realistic Stations of the Cross—the 14 occurrences on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.
They’re carved from wood, and are exquisite.
Rows of old, dark wooden pews fill in the chapel’s center, to allow visitors to reflect in wonder at what look to be shadow boxes or glass display cases lining the walls.
Glints of metallic gold draw eyes to chests, boxes, and what resemble candle-stick holders.
Those contain relics–they’re reliquaries.
There’s purported to be a tooth from St. Anthony, a thorn from the crown of thorns Jesus wore when tortured and crucified, a thread from the veil of Jesus’ mother Mary.
And each item has documentation showing its provenance.
That the remains of St. Demetrius and so many others ended up in this chapel is because of a priest named Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger, from the Kingdom of Belgium.
He had studied medicine, and came from a wealthy family.
Eventually he met an American Bishop looking for missionary volunteers, and in 1854 he arrived in America ready for seminary.
He spent a little time in Ohio, and worked in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and ended up in Pittsburgh in 1868.
“He had a dream to bring together these remains of the saints in one place, so that they could be venerated by the faithful, and so that St. Anthony’s Chapel could be erected as a sign of faith amidst the immigrant peoples of Troy Hill,” Deacon Greg says.
“Originally he wanted to make the parish church into a church of relics,” he continues. “But the pastoral council, the elders, at that time were not in a position to provide the financial backing, so Father Mollinger said, ‘that’s okay, I’ll do it with my own money.’ And he built it as pretty much as his private chapel, attached to the house where he resided here.”
Fr. Mollinger’s father held a political position of some kind in Belgium, and Deacon Greg says he probably spent 300,000 into the project of his own money, which would be an even bigger amount today.
He had spotters in Europe, looking for relics, amid a wave of European Protestantism and cultural revolution in Italy.
“So the field was pretty hot for picking up relics,” Deacon Greg says.
And those spotters were instructed to seek certificates of authenticity showing provenance, so to the best of their and Fr. Mollinger’s knowledge, the artifacts would be genuine.
Above the archway in St. Anthony Chapel is written in Latin corpora sanctorum in pace sepulta sunt: the bodies of the saints are buried in peace.
What followed in the old Roman Missal was et nomina eorum vivent in generatione et generationem: and their names shall live for ever and ever.
Just as we might like to hang on to something of a loved one after they die, so their memory and names live on, similar is the thinking behind relics.
St. Augustine wrote in his work The City of God, that if we valued a ring, or clothing of a deceased loved one, “how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing!”
He goes on to call the body part of man’s very nature.
Still, the ideas of relics can seem morbid, maybe, or confusing, or unsettling.
There are three classes of relics, depending on what exactly the artifact is. A first class relic is a piece of a body, a drop of blood, a piece of bone, of a saint. This also includes something directly linked to the life and Passion of Christ.
Second class relics are items used or owned by saints.
Third class relics are items that touch a first or second class relic.
It’s the remains of saints that typically draw the strongest reactions, and perhaps confusion about their purpose.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that we should, “honor any relics of [saints] in a fitting manner: their bodies, which were temples, and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and are destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God Himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence.”
In the Catholic tradition, it’s not about worshiping relics, nor do Catholics worship saints.
Honoring the relics is a reminder that these holy people existed, and the Church is pretty sure they made it to Heaven. Because of that, they can continue to pray with and for the faithful on Earth.
The Catachism of the Catholic Church (which lays out the tenets of the faith) says the saints “proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus.”
Catholics aren’t praying to saints as if they are gods, rather they are treated as fellow travelers with whom we can pray to God.
This respect and fellowship is the underpinning of a place like St. Anthony Chapel.
That St. Anthony Chapel became such a remarkable and unexpected place in Pittsburgh can only be because of divine intervention, according to Deacon Greg.
“There are so many unusual or surprising things that had to take place for this chapel to exist today: the right time and place, the right person in Fr. Mollinger, a community that was receptive to the idea of St. Anthony’s chapel, the money to do it, and so on,” he says.
“But to boil it down to two words I would say this: God’s will.”
Also in this episode:
On faith and medicine:
“Fr. Mollinger who built the chapel had a reputation as a healer in his own time. He had apparently studied medicine in Europe…he brought that medical expertise and wisdom with him when he came here to Troy Hill. So many of the people who came here seeking the intercession of the Saints at the chapel met with Fr. Mollinger, and he was very careful to speak with them individually, and he did several things: he prayed with them, he gave them various penances they might perform–something beyond the usual extent of their faith, and thirdly he dispensed prescriptions…he had a small apothecary behind the rectory here…and so many people came here and they were cured either by the power of prayer, the intercession of the Saints, the blessings that were given through Fr. Mollinger, but also possibly through the medical remedies or maybe even pseudo-remedies that were dispensed at his hand.”
On Deacon Greg’s faith journey:
“This place has made my faith stronger. I think I’m a better Catholic, and a more sympathetic listener, and I do a better job in my active ministry as a teacher at our local high school here in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, in my ministry to the sick and the needy in our own parishes, this place has helped me to do that perhaps a little more effectively and a little more sincerely…through the examples of the saints, as well as the support and strength of the people that form the worshiping community here at St. Anthony’s Chapel.”
On whether the chapel is relevant today:
“It’s most relevant, not only in the present Church, but in the present world. We have a strong need for good, healthy models. If you look to the world of sports, or the world of politics, so often our expectations are raised, and eventually dashed, by those who fail to live up to our expectations. The Saints will never disappoint…these are the stories we need to teach our children.”