Saint Mary Roman Catholic Church:
A Brief History
By James Wudarczyk - November 30, 2004
No history of the Lawrenceville area would be complete without a discussion of Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Forty-sixth Street. One of the oldest Roman Catholic institutions in the area, this parish dates back to September, 1853, when the Most Reverend Michael O’Connor, first bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Pittsburgh, commissioned Father Andrew Gibbs to found a parish for the Catholics living in the suburb of Lawrenceville. The depression of 1847 in Ireland, followed two years later by a severe potato famine, drove many Irish immigrants to America, and subsequently to the Pittsburgh area. Reverend Gibbs, who was born in Leix County, Ireland, in 1815, studied at Saint Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia, where after ordination on September 20, 1840, by the Most Reverend Francis P. Kenrick, was assigned to the west end of the diocese of Philadelphia. Living with Father Edward Garland, pastor of Saint Patrick’s Church, Reverend Gibbs soon established a reputation for missionary zeal as he traveled on horseback with his Mass Kit to Saint Phillip’s, Crafton, which had a brick church and a congregation of 150 souls. Between 1844 and 1846, he served as an assistant to Father Lemke at Saint Michael’s, Loretto, Pennsylvania, where he baptized Ferdinand Kittel, who would serve as his assistant at Saint Mary’s some twenty-seven years later. Father Gibbs, the first pastor of Saint Aloysius, at Summit, wrote of his hardships in the early years in the rural regions of the state, “I rode through three feet of snow for six miles to answer a sick call.” There are indications that Reverend Gibbs considered becoming a Jesuit but later decided against it. His mission territory included Saint Mary’s Pine Creek (now Glenshaw), Saint Alphonsus at Wexford, as well as serving the Catholics at Foxburg. He also founded Saint Joseph parish in Sharpsburg, which he continued to serve long after the founding of Saint Mary’s in Lawrenceville. Sources
The deed for the sale of Saint Mary’s property, recorded in court on November 14, 1853, revealed, “The said property located in Collins Township was originally owned by Richard Ewalt, bought in trust by James and Brigid McCabe in 1849, and then sold to Saint Mary Roman Catholic Congregation for church purposes for the sum of $600.00.” A 50 feet by 40 feet brick church was erected at a cost of $4,800.00. The early history of the church was marked with problems as bigoted members of the Know-Nothing Party hindered construction of the church by filling in the foundation and harassing the faithful as they made their way to services at the home of Mr. Richard Donohue on Drury Lane. Since the Donohue home could not accommodate the large gathering, many people knelt outside in the rain and snow.
The first chapel was dedicated on January 23, 1854. A windstorm destroyed the frame school early in 1866. The school was replaced with a larger brick structure facing the church on 46th Street. Reverend Gibbs was the first teacher of religion. Other early religious teachers in the school were Sister Regina Cogrove and Sister Bernadine Kittell, who traveled daily by horse car from their motherhouse on Webster Avenue. It was not until 1867 that a convent was built.
In 1868 Sister Aloysius Ihmsen opened a private school in the parlor of the convent. Saint Mary’ Academy for Girls was closed in September 1894, since it was felt that maintaining of two schools was dividing the parish. Some of the students transferred to Mount Mercy or Ursaline Academy.
The current edifice was designated as a historical landmark. Architect James Sylvester Devlin executed the church in Victorian Gothic style with red brick and Cleveland stone trim. Measuring 156 feet long and 56 feet wide, the church is relatively plain, and contains neither belfry nor steeple. Confessionals, choir lift, and sanctuary were in oak; while the Saint Anne Chapel, added much later, was designed by John Comes. Dedication of the shrine took place on June 23, 1873, with Bishop Domenec presiding at the Pontifical High Mass offered by Bishop Tobias Mullen.
Alexander McBride, who was for many years affiliated with the U. S. Arsenal, was a member of the congregation. McBride collected pew rental, and along with Thomas Kelley, organized the Saint Mary’s Total Abstinence Cadets that enlisted 132 young men.
A brief parish history to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the founding of the parish noted, “In the year 1897 the Catholic Directory listed fourteen Sisters of Mercy teaching 420 children in St. Mary’s School. A larger structure was needed and this was completed in 1881. With the completion of the new school building, the private school conducted by the Sisters in the Convent was moved into the former school building. This building became known as the Academy Building, a name that it still bears.”
Father Gibbs passed away on July 19, 1885, after forty-five years as a missionary priest. He lived to see Saint Mary’s completed in every way and free of debt, as well as encouraging nine young men from the parish to enter the priesthood. These men were James Aloysius Cosgrove, Joseph Blakely, Francis Timothy McCarty, John Edward Reardon, William Ryan, Thomas Devlin, Gregory Michael Kelly, Joseph Patrick McSteen, and John William O’Connell.
The second pastor of the parish, Father William George Pollard, served from 1885 until his death on September 16, 1888. Noted for simplicity, gentleness, learning and eloquence, Reverend Pollard, prior to coming to Saint Mary’s, was the pastor of Saint John the Evangelist Church in Birmingham (now the South Side of Pittsburgh). There he built a brick school, a convent, a rectory, and enlarged the church, as well as assisted the Sisters of Charity in acquiring a farm, which to this day is known as Seton Hill.
Following the death of Father Pollard, the Right Reverend Monsignor Francis L. Tobin, a seminary professor, was assigned as pastor. In 1877 Reverend Tobin was offered the Bishopric of the newly formed diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, but protested to Rome that his age would interfere with him performing well in such a position. His petition was granted, and he was permitted to remain a parish priest. Monsignor Tobin was credited with the formation of an emergency conference that collected and distributed food to the needy during the Depression of 1893. A scholar, he issued a pamphlet, which condemned the single tax theory advocated by Henry George, and was an outspoken opponent of clergy, other than himself or those authorized by the bishop, making political speeches. The latter sparked Father Edward McKeever, another neighborhood priest, to issue a pamphlet upholding the right of priest to speak as citizens on politics or economics. Monsignor Tobin was also an exponent of temperance, evident by the fact that on Sunday, October 12, 1898, he joined Bishop Phelan at Schenley Park where they addressed 3,000 young men on the subject. It was during the tenure of Monsignor Tobin that the parish house was remodeled, twenty stained glass windows were added to the church, and the parish donated the Saint Francis de Sales window to the new Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland.
It was also under the administration of Father Tobin that St. Mary’s Private School for Girls was closed in September of 1894. Father Tobin was opposed to the idea that the parish was operating two schools: an elementary school and a private academy for girls conducted in the Academy Building. “He believed that it divided the children and made them class conscious.”
The stained glass windows installed in 1906 illustrate the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, the four Evangelists (Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), four doctors of the church (Saints Augustine, Gregory, Ambrose, and Jerome), as well as Saints Agnes, Rose of Lima, Aloysius, and Anthony.
That same year, 1906, additions to the front and the back of the rectory were made, and electricity was installed.
Saint Mary Parish eventually became the mother of three other Irish ethnic parishes in the vicinity. These were Saint John the Baptist, Saint Kieran, and Saint Lawrence O’Toole.
Father Charles J. Coyne, who succeeded Monsignor Tobin, was known as the builder. A highly energetic man, he served as pastor from 1912 until his death in 1938, and was instrumental in building an addition to the school, construction of the Lyceum in 1914, installation of the Shrine of Saint Anne in 1920, and the opening of a high school for boys and girls, which operated from 1921 until 1931.
The next pastor, Father John J. Greaney served only a short period from January 1, 1940, until his death in August of 1942.
Father Raymond Conway, who served from October 1, 1942, until his death in June of 1959, engaged in a vigorous campaign to recondition the church and school. His greatest achievement was the writing of a definitive history of the parish.
The 1978 history noted, “Fr. Daniel J. McCullough came as Pastor in July of 1959. He came at a time when the parish was beginning to feel its age. Like the Church as a whole the parish was in need of rejuvenation. This universal need was brought out clearly in the Ecumenical Council, which opened in Rome in 1960.
“On a local level the physical plant began to show its age and its need for repair. The ‘Post-World War II’ exodus to the suburbs was beginning to show in the decline in membership in the parish. This decline began to be noticed clearly in the decline in enrollment in the school. The parish was beginning to get old. This is probably what motivated Fr. McCullough to form the ‘Golden Age Club’ in 1966.”
The declining Catholic school population in Lawrenceville prompted a meeting on April 10, 1966, to discuss the possibility of a merger among Saint Mary, Holy Family, and Saint Augustine schools.
Father McCullough served the parishioners of Saint Mary’s until July of 1966 when failing health prompted him to resign the pastorate. Replaced by Father Joseph P. Sullivan, Sullivan’s pastorate served the parish until March 18, 1968. The 1978 parish history contended, “In a letter dated June 27, 1966, Msgr. Shinar, the dean of the district, wrote to the then Bishop, John J. Wright: ‘The condition of St. Mary’s plant is below standard, both from a physical point of view and also from a financial standpoint.’ It was from this statement and the remainder of this letter that the tone for Fr. Sullivan’s short pastorate emerged.”
The next pastor named to serve Saint Mary’s was Father John J. Seli, who shortly after coming to Lawrenceville was named a monsignor by Bishop Wright. During his pastorate, the school was renovated, the consolidation of the three schools became a reality known as the Lawrenceville Catholic School Merger, and by the fall of 1971 the church facility was renovated. The lyceum was over-hauled, the bowling lanes removed, and a new kitchen installed. Monsignor Seli left the parish in November 1974, to assume the position of National Director of Family Planning in Washington, D.C.
Like other parishes in the vicinity, Saint Mary suffered a loss of populating, and its congregation was no longer as homogenous as it once was. The convent, constructed in 1867, and noted for its magnificent iron railings, was demolished in 1967. The rectory was sold to Saint Mary Cemetery and demolished sometime late in the 20th or early in the 21st century. The Academy Building, a fine example of mid-19th century Gothic Revival architecture, remains standing at this writing, but there are tentative plans to sell this structure to Catholic Cemeteries Association. As for the Italianate school, it was sold to Mercy Manor for the purposes of a senior citizen home, and the exterior was beautifully restored.
When reviewing a parish history, the author of the 1978 history said it best, “The ‘History of a Parish’ is not unlike the history of an individual – or a family of individuals, We can always look back and find the good times and the bad times: the times of strength and the times of weakness; the times of stability and the times when great and momentous changes had to come about.
“The present time is not exempt from any of these developments. As in all history the present is the inheritor of the past. We can only work with what we have handed down to us.
“As far as the future goes, we not openly have to build on the past, but we must be ready to change, if need be, in order to continue the growth begun 125 years ago.
“Whatever the future may hold, we enter into it with the belief that the same Holy Spirit that guided our forefathers will continue to guide us. With this though we enter the future with faith and confidence.”
In 1993 as part of the Diocesan Reorganization program, all six Roman Catholic parishes in Lawrenceville were closed and merged into the creation of two new parishes: Our Lady of the Angels and Saint Matthew. The former Saint Mary Church was merged with Saint John the Baptist, Holy Family, and Saint Augustine to create Our Lady of the Angels Parish under the auspices of the Capuchin Franciscan friars. For the next eleven years, the doors of the Saint Mary Church edifice remained opened for church services.
The decision to close the edifice resulted in continued loss of population within Our Lady of the Angel’s parish and financial difficulties of maintaining multiple churches and other buildings. In his letter of September 22, 2004, to his parishioner, Father John Daya, wrote, “Before anything else, I want to acknowledge the difficulty and sadness this brings to the lives of many parishioners, particularly those who belonged to St. Mary parish before the merger eleven years ago. “ The closing Mass was scheduled for Sunday, October 31, 2004, at 10 a.m. All other Sunday liturgies in the parish were cancelled.
As of this writing, November 25, 2004, Our Lady of the Angels hoped to sell the church edifice to the Catholic Cemeteries Association for the purpose of a mausoleum. Tentative plans also included the sell of the Academy Building to the Cemetery Association, removal of the altar to Holy Family Church facility, and the transferring of the Saint Anne Chapel to Saint Augustine Church.
Reverend Raymond Valentine Conway, Saint Mary’s Church, Forty-Sixth Street, Pittsburgh, Pa. 1853-1953. Baltimore, 1953.
Saint Mary’s Church 1853-1978 (A short history written in honor of the 125th Anniversary of the parish).
Letter, Father John Daya, O.F.M., Cap., September 22, 2004.
Our Lady of the Angels Parish Bulletin, November 7, 2004.