St. Paul of the Cross Monastery Church: A Short History from 1852-1967

by Norbert Herman, C.P.

This history of the building of St. Paul of the Cross Monastery Church with renovations, additions, and decorations was written by Father Norbert Herman, C.P. [1913-1978] archivist at Pittsburgh sometime between 1967 and 1978.

Dates of building additions are included in this photo
of St. Paul of the Cross Monastery Church.

In Late November, 1852, Bishop Michael O’Connor brought four Passionists from Rome to Pittsburgh where the latter intended to found a new Monastery: three priests, Fathers Anthony Calandri, Albinus Magno and Stanislaus Parczyk, and one lay-brother, Lawrence di Giacomo. The first section of the present St. Paul’s Monastery, situated above the south side of Pittsburgh, was ready for occupancy on June 4, 1854. Another duplicate wing was added in 1855 and a third frontal wing in 1856. The Monastery church was built in 1858-1859. Construction began in June, 1858; the cornerstone was laid on Sunday, July 18, 1858 and the dedication took place on Nov. 13, 1859 when Bishop Josue Young of Erie, Pa., solemnly blessed the new church.

Charles Bartberger, the architect, who had just finished supervising the construction of the second St. Paul’s Cathedral, Pittsburgh, 1851-1855, (this second Cathedral was built at the corner of Fifth and Grant streets, Pittsburgh, where the present Union Trust building now stands.) was assigned by Bishop O’Connor to supervise the construction of St. Paul’s Monastery Church. Bartberger designed a church in the prevailing mode of the early 19th century that is, one of classic design, somewhat after the manner of churches built in England by Sir Christopher Wren. Thus the church combined Romanesque features in its general style but also included a touch of Grecian architecture in the interior pillars or columns, which are Corinthian. This Grecian effect he continued even on the outside walls of the Church, where several piers of red brick extend outward surmounted by Corinthian capitals made of cast iron.

The original church (there were two extensions made later: the first in 1882 extended the front of the church, adding some 22 feet and involving the construction of a new front wall or facade; the second in 1948-1950 which extended the sanctuary wall about the same distance) much smaller then than the present church contained five wooden altars, three in the sanctuary space and two in side chapels which were sunk into the side walls of the church. At that time, over the main altar, there hung a large painting of the dead Christ in the arms of his Mother. The paintings over the other four altars were: the Immaculate Conception, Blessed (now St.) Paul of the Cross, St. Michael the Archangel and the Holy Family. These paintings were done by an Italian artist, a layman, who lived at the Monastery, Cajetan Alessandrini. Only four fluted columns formed a square in the middle of the original church, corresponding to a series of piers projecting from the walls. Both the columns and piers sustained the wooden ceiling which was divided into regular compartments by arches springing from columns and abutting upon the piers. In the center of the main arch of the ceiling was a fresco painting of the Ascension with smaller paintings of the Four Evangelists at each corner. Four confessionals massive and made of sturdy walnut and ornamented to suit the style of the church were conveniently located on the side walls of the church. The original church was able to seat about 300 people; it never, in its history exacted what was then called ”pew rent” and its total cost for construction and furnishing in 1858 was $19,000.00. It was built over an abandoned coal mine and its foundations had to go underground some twenty or thirty feet.

Until 1882 when the church was extended twenty two feet at the front which necessitated the building of a new facade, no major changes occurred but the following acquisitions were made: in 1869, the original wooden main altar was supplanted by a slate altar, manufactured in New York City; in 1872, a large oil painting, belonging to the Vatican, was placed over the main altar of the sanctuary (this painting is now under the rose window) and in 1873, two more paintings from Rome, works by the artist Sporigi, one, the Sorrows of Mary and the other, the Agony in the Garden, were placed over the side altars; in 1875, the church received a full sized wax figure of the early Christian martyr, St. Victoria (also the fragmentary relics of this saint) and both the wax figure and relics were placed and sealed under the side altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Later, another wax figure and the relics of the early martyr, St. Benedict, were sent from Rome by way of the Provincial Monastery of the Passionists in West Hoboken, N. J. (now Union City) and placed and sealed under the, side altar dedicated to St. Paul of the Cross. These wax figures were the work of the Roman artist, Sievola, the greatest craftsman in the specialized art at that time. These two figures, with the relics of these saints housed in silver urns placed underneath, are still located under the side altars of the present church.

The first major change was the addition of twenty two feet to the front of the church in 1882. The architect for this project and particularly for the designing of a new facade was an Austrian by birth, Joseph Stillberg. This extension required the construction of two more Corinthian pillars in the back of the church, but this time they were constructed entirely in wood. This extension required a greater excavation than at first anticipated, because of the abandoned mines underneath. So seven massive pillars of stone had to be built from the bottom of the mine upwards to support the facade and side walls of the new extension. Also, part of the side walls of the church were broken though [through] for the purpose of recessing the confessionals.

In 1886, the church was consecrated. One of the requirements for this ceremony was that the church be free of debt. There was enough money on hand, however, to replace the slate altar with a marble one, so constructed in various slabs of color-grained marble, with the front columns in Corinthian design in red Languedoc [marble] and the columns of the throne above the tabernacle, of Mexican onyx. The church remained unchanged for many years except for a new coat of paint periodically and some interior decorations. In 1887 the firm of S. S. Marshall and Bros. of Allegheny City put in stained glass windows for the first time. In 1892, a gallery or choir loft was built in the back of the church; a new pipe organ was installed by Mr. L. Harrison of Bloomfield, New Jersey and a large out-door statue of St. Paul of the Cross was placed in a niche on the facade of the church. New stations of the Cross were erected at this time, 14 oil paintings which came from Columbus, Ohio.

The second major change took place in the interior of the Church in 1902 when the Passionists celebrated the 50th anniversary of their coming to Pittsburgh. The aisle floors of wood were replaced by marble tiling; the floor of the sanctuary was paved in mosaic; the altar railings were constructed of marble with onyx columns; all four side altars of wood were replaced with marble and onyx; all statues for the new side altars were made of marble, the work of Mr. Joseph Sibbel of New York City: statues of the Sacred Heart, Our Lady, St. Joseph and St. Paul of the Cross. (These statues are still located in the present church as well as two of the altars. The altars of Our Lady and St. Joseph were dismantled in the 1948-50 renovation and replaced by smaller marble altars. Later the altar of St. Joseph was removed to make way for the positioning of the sanctuary organ, an Allen electronic, in 1967). The main altar was topped by a large Crucifixion sculpture, the work of Mr. Joseph Sibbel, depicting the dead Christ in the presence of Mary, Mary of Cleophas, St. John, Mary Magdalen and the Centurion. This piece of sculpture was framed within two Corinthian columns of marble which in turn supported a triangular marble sculpture of the Passionist emblem. (In the 1948-50 renovation, this Crucifixion group was transferred to the back of the church, opposite the shrine of the Pieta). Sibbel also designed the present 14 stations at this time, but the two scenes in the life of St. Paul of the Cross which he created in alto-relievo for the side walls of sanctuary, were dismantled in the renovation of 1948-50). The church was illuminated by electric light for the first time in 1902. In 1909 the shrine and statue of the Pieta were placed in the church and blessed.

In 1919, the present Rose Window in the back of the Church was donated by the designer and creator, Mr. George Sotter, in memory of his parents. The Sotters had originally come from the south side and one of the sons was a Passionist, Fr. Boniface Sotter. This window is a gem, priceless and unique. Mr. Softer had gone to Paris to study the medieval art of stained glass, particularly at the Cathedral of Rheims. This Monastery window was his first attempt at this revival of producing “medieval” windows. (Later the windows of Sacred Heart Church, Shadyside, were also designed and made by the same artist who had his studios in Holicong, Pa. The painting of St. Michael in St. Michael’s Church, S. S. is also the creation of this artist).

In 1923, a small self-contained chapel, dedicated to St. Gabriel, Passionist, was erected adjacent to the church on the northeast side. The original decoration was carried out in a Byzantine scheme in miniature similar to that to be seen in the apse of San Clemente in Rome. A marble statue of St. Gabriel was placed above the chapel altar. Recent acquisitions have been the plaster statues of St. Mary Goretti and St. Gemma Galgani.

In 1927, when the Passionists celebrated their Diamond Jubilee (75 years) the firm of Rambusch and Sons from New York repainted in striking colors and plenty of gold leaf (something like the work done at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh). For example Sibbel’s stations were turned into Wedgewood plates, with a startling blue background for the ivory-white figures. To harmonize with the Rose Window, Mr. Sotter designed and erected new stained glass windows, replacing all the old ones. Four paintings from the life of St. Paul of the Cross were placed in the central ceiling arch.

The third major change took place in 1948-1950 in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the Passionists coming to Pittsburgh in 1852. The sanctuary was extended about 20 or more feet; a new marble main altar was erected plus two new side altars dedicated to Our Lady and St. Joseph; the new sanctuary floor was made of Moravian tile; the organ loft was removed and the old pipe organ dismantled; new lighting was placed in the church; a large life-sized crucifix of wood was placed over the main altar and all new oak pews were placed in the church. A new vestibule was built to replace the old organ loft. The massive Crucifixion group over the old main altar was cut down and placed in the rear of the church. A new electric organ was purchased. This organ was eventually replaced by an Allen electronic one, in 1967 and dedicated by the famous Berj Zamchocian [Zamkochian] of Boston who for some years has been the official organist for the Boston Symphony and Pops.