Behind the Monastery Walls: Daily Life in 19th century St. Paul’s Monastery Excerpts from Memoirs
by Brother Dominic Noble, C.P.
The historical reflections of Brother Dominic Noble, C.P. were handwritten in a bound, red leather notebook of approximately two hundred lined pages. About three-fourths of the notebook consists of two types of information. One type is reflective essays on Passionist life and ministry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Dunkirk, New York; and West Hoboken (later Union City, New Jersey). A second type is biographical information on 19th century Passionists. Indications are that Brother Noble completed the essays by February 9, 1917. For many years these Memoirs were in the Brother Noble collection in the Pittsburgh archives. During the summer of 2002 the Pittsburgh archives was moved to the Passionist Historical Archives, Union City, New Jersey. In order to retain the strength of Brother Noble’s historical insights they are printed without editorial comment. Also spelling and punctuation remains as it was in the original.
Who was Brother Dominic Noble, C.P.?
A member of St. Paul of the Cross Province in the United States, he was born Richard Noble in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1838, he was the son of Clement Noble and Sarah Lewis. He was educated in local schools and then helped on the family farm. He met the Passionists as his family were among the first benefactors of the new congregation when they arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In November 1860 he entered the novitiate and professed his vows on December 9, 1861. He died as a member of the Pittsburgh community.
“Arrival of Rev. Father Gaudentius [Rossi, C.P.,] an experienced Religious in all that pertains to mission work. He was very zealous for the conversion of non-Catholics.
Rev. Father John Dominic [Tarlattini] very soon realized the necessity of conducting missions & retreats, but at that early period there were none of our Fathers who could conduct the great & noble work in the [English] language of the country.
All our Italian Fathers were earnestly & fervently striving to learn our language, and certainly they deserve much credit for the good will they evinced; every available opportunity was turned to advantage. Americans were not expected to become Italians. English was the language of the [Passionist] house, no matter how imperfectly our recen[t] arrivals attempted to convey their sentiments in our own parlance. Certainly, it was sometimes rather difficult to understand them; but with care and close attention, this difficulty seemed to wear off in time. The Americans [sic] brethern might learn the Italian language if he so wishes. Some who were naturally disposed or inclined to acquire a foreign language took advantage of the opportunity, and several in [the] course of time, could read and understand the Italian very well. Quite a number of our students have from time to time been sent to Rome for the purpose of finishing their course of studies in the Eternal City, where they spent several years, and acquired a good practicle [sic] knowledge of the Italian language, which proved a valuable acquisition in after life.
They were however, zealous, efficient missionaries in their native tongue, and had conducted a large number of missions ere leaving their native country. It’s time, they were earnestly endeavoring to acquire a knowledge of our language, and customs; but this required time, study and much patience ere they could convey their ideas so as to be fairly understood by these American [people.]”
“The hill district in the vicinity of our Monastery for many miles South, East, and West, was many years ago a coal mining district; but at present very little coal is to be found in the immediate vacinity [sic] of our Monastery, as the coal has long since been removed.
About the year 1860 it is stated that a party then residing quite near our Monastery, entered the adjacent mines, and removed all the coal that had been left for columns and arching above the coal strata.
It is the opinion of some individuals, that there remains some coal under a portion of our Monastery property; but underneath our buildings, the coal was removed prior to 1852. However, some coal remained under a portion of our garden, which served this Community up to about 1862. At that period, less coal was used than at a later date; for the Monastery was not heated as we find it at present. In earlier days, (as was customary in Italy & Rome,) the only place where a fire was considered a necessity was the kitchen. There was a stove in the choir, which was utilized in the winter[;] a very limited number of small stove[s] in other parts of the Monastery. In our Refectory [the Monastery eating area, there existed], no provision whatever for artificial heating.
The opening into the coal pit can yet be seen, near the barn, it is however closed by a heavy door. Possibly, at some further day, a further search, under an other portion of our garden, there might be discovered another coal bed. In order to secure a solid foundation for our present Church, it was necessary to excavate to the depth of sixty feet, build pillars & arches, so as to secure a solid foundation.
The site on the brow of the hill where the monastery proper was erected proved to be solid and to this day, there has been no evidence of anything to the contrary.”
“During Father John Dominic [Tarlattini’s] absence [in] 1856 – the Vice Superior, Father Albinus [Magno], was the acting Superior, and some very important improvements were accomplished. Seeing the great need of more ample waters supply, Father Albinus turned his attention to building a large cistern, situated not far from the South East corner of the monastery. This cistern is supplied by rainwater flowing from the South side of [the] monastery. This cistern was intended to supply rain water for general household purposes. In earlier days, there was no provision whatever for city water services, except down in Birmingham proper. There were however some medium size tanks inside the monastery but they did not supply the actual need.
For drinking water and kitchen supply the brethren relied upon a well on our hillside on the North Side of the monastery on the slope a short distance from the monastery.
By means of a force pump, connected directly with, and to operate which it was necessary that one [person], and sometimes two [people] should descend the rugged slope and having reached the pump, and it was no mere child’s play, if he pumped until the kitchen tank would overflow, which would be indicated by an overflow pipe, when the one who had been so appointed, would simply close a valve in the kitchen, and the individual at the pump would rejoice that the tank was full; for the pump handle would work no longer. In winter season, it was not always an easy task to descend or ascend the rough hillside. It is true, that a sort of footpath led to the well; but in rough winter weather when the surface was covered with ice and snow, the individual whose turn it might be, to fill this tank complied with great good grace or otherwise. I have seen some who were more shrewd or prudent wraped [sic] twisted straw around their feet; thus roughshod, in a way, they could with less danger to limb and life, in the discharge of so enviable a duty, climb and descend with a greater degree of security.
Many years afterwards, the Very Rev. Father Rector, built a direct line of wooden stairway closely roofed in, so that, the said well could be easily reached, night or day, summer of [sic] winter, rain or shine.
A few years ago these were for residences on our hill-top; but since that period, the inhabitants have increased over ten fold; sewage made their way into the old coal mines, and contaminated the springs and wells; the city authorities have condemned the use of these water supplies hence our old well shared a like fate. A few years ago, our superiors thought that by boring, they might obtain an artesian well, but this attempt failed, their hopes & expectations were not realized. After boring to a considerable depth, however, water gushed forth, which having been analyzed by professional experts, it proved unfit for general family use; though to the naked eye, it appeared quite clear nevertheless; chemical and michroscopic [sic] tests proved it to be loaded with microbes and other impurities.
Accordingly, further boring was deemed useless, & the project abandoned. Since then, the city water supply is used. And our cistern is large enough to supply drinking water for many months. That is allowed to flow into the cistern in the winter season, after the roof has been freed from coal and other impurities thereon collected during the summer months; then the leaders are connected, and the clear rain water flows until [the] Sistern [sic] is full. A filtering process is constructed therein, and the water flows out quite clear.”