An Unusual Collection of Relics

FROM UP ON the hill, you have a perfect view into the past. Bend your ears back to the 1800s and you can hear horse drawn carriages clanking along muddy roads. Watch the paddle wheel boats puffing along the river banks, and catch the smell of horse radish drifting up from the Heinz plant. This was Pittsburgh, Pa., before the turn of the century—and it was the most unlikely place for one of the most fascinating treasures of the Catholic faith.

Into this rugged corner of western Pennsylvania came a man from Belgium. His name was Suitebert Mollinger, and though a Catholic priest, he was educated in medicine and dabbled in homemade potions. Since he was from the royal court of Belgium, he had money—and a desire to serve God in a most unusual way.

He was assigned to serve the Most Holy Name of Jesus Church in Troy Hill, a tiny community overlooking Pittsburgh. Since there was no rectory, Father Mollinger reached into his own pocket and had one built.

Relics were a fascination for this priest. He had an interest in religious artifacts. He began collecting these rare items from all around the world. When the collection grew faster than the parish and the rectory, Father Mollinger again used his own family wealth and had a small chapel constructed, naming it in honor of the great Franciscan preacher St. Anthony of Padua.

Inside the chapel he arrayed small bone fragments of saints, pieces of clothing from these holy people, and an assortment of other beautiful relics. The prize of the collection was a tooth—one of St. Anthony'—which was set in a case apart from the rest of the collection

In all there are 3,000 relics in this chapel, some allegedly dating back to Old Testament prophets, such as Elijah. They're housed comfortably in solid wood and glass cases that were custom made for the chapel more than 100 years ago. Some 500 cases house these sacred mementos. It boasts of being the second largest collection of relics in the world. Only the Vatican has more.

In one case is a series of relics depicting the passion of Christ. Several pieces are on display, arranged in the shape of a cross. Another contains fragments of clothing from the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, Jesus, St. Mary Magdalene, and others. Each of the Twelve Apostles is represented in relics. Life-size representations of some of the saints depict the manner in which they died. There is even a calendar of relics from many of the saints.

But probably the single greatest element in this collection isn't an artifact at all. For years the church parking lot was home to several mysterious crates containing huge but unknown parts of the collection. They sat in the rain and snow, quietly enduring the rigor of the seasons. One day when there was enough space to display them, Father Mollinger revealed a life-size collection of the stations of the cross, hand-carved in Munich, Germany, specifically for St. Anthony's chapel.

Are all the elements of this unusual collection genuine? Though numerous items have supporting documentation, many others do not. However, visitors come not to challenge authenticity, but to become better connected to their faith and its history.

Those wishing to come should note that Troy Hill isn't easy to find. Some of the long-standing residents don't know about “the chapel on the hill.” In order to find it, you may to have to search a bit. The chapel's hours vary from season to season, so call ahead at 412-323-9504.

St. Anthony's is located near downtown Pittsburgh on the north side. From the city, take Interstate 279 to East Ohio St. and look for the H.J. Heinz plant (the ketchup people). From there, you must follow the blue road signs directing you to the chapel. Wind your way through the narrow residential streets keeping your eyes peeled for its handsome double spires.

Hotel rooms within a mile or two of the chapel are a little pricey. The better bargains are near the airport, just off Interstate 279 South, or along Interstate 376 near Monroeville, just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Both areas are 15-20 minutes away from the chapel, but you'll save a bit on your night's sleep.

You won't find too many of the usual touristy things in the vicinity of the chapel. Even the food is the mom-and-pop variety of pizza stands and convenience stores. But down the hill, in downtown Pittsburgh, food is abundant and reasonably priced. On almost every street corner you can get a different kind of meal to please the palette.

When you're done on the Hill, head down into downtown Pittsburgh and browse through the Carnegie Science Center. It's part of the Carnegie-Mellon University and worth a visit. In back of the museum is an old submarine anchored in the river waiting to be boarded by visitors to Pittsburgh. If subs are not your preference, travel down the river about a quarter-of-a-mile and board an old-fashioned paddle wheel boat for a cruise through Pittsburgh past.

In the vacation season, you can always head up the river three or four miles to Kennywood Park, a first-class amusement center just a few minutes from downtown. And right next door to Kennywood is Sandcastle, a summertime water park to soak away those hot days of summer.

If you have an affinity with relics, or want to share in the emotion of a man who did, come see St. Anthony's Chapel in Pittsburgh. Listen to the guided tours; stare into the faces of the stations of the cross; then sit alone for a while and surround yourself with saints.

Chris Winters is based in Pittsburgh, Pa.