South Side German Catholicism & Passionist Ministry: From the Short History of St. Michael’s Parish, 1886

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by Father Philip Birk, C.P.

In 1886, Father Philip Birk, C.P., at the request of Father Bernard Hehl, C.P., pastor of St. Michael’s Parish wrote Kurze Geschicte der St. Michaels Gemeinde. Written in German for the 1886 consecration of the parish, this 163 page book brings into focus some of the key forces that shaped Pittsburgh German Catholicism in the two decades after the American Civil War. Among them were diocesan and Passionist leadership, lay participation in parish life, economic realities, church architecture, and devotional life. We are fortunate that in 1942 Father Christopher Berlo, C.P. (1902-1979) translated the ten-chapter book into English. The entire 1886 German book, as well as the English translation by Father Berlo (except for chapter seven which was lost), is in the Passionist Historical Archives.

Who was Father Philip Birk, C.P.?

A member of St. Paul of the Cross Province, he was born on January 14, 1843 at Serrig near Treves, Germany. He came to Pittsburgh with his family as a young boy. He grew up in the shadows of the monastery. In 1858 he pleaded and received from Father Anthony Calandri, C.P. permission to enter the Passionists novitiate. He professed his vows on August 16, 1859 and was granted a dispensation so as to be ordained a priest on July 23, 1865. For two and one-half years he was the assistant priest at St. Michael’s German Parish Church, Pittsburgh. Then he was a missionary to Bulgaria. Back in the United States he was a Passionist seminary professor, pastor of St. Michael’s Monastery Parish, West Hoboken, New Jersey, and retreat preacher. In 1918 he moved back to Pittsburgh. On July 23, 1919 he suffered a slight stoke and died on January 12, 1920.

Trustees of St. Michael’s German Parish April 3, 1848

At the request of Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh, Father Stanislaus Parezyk, C.P. became pastor of St. Michael’s in February 1853. Parishioners numbered 3500. Successful membership was due in part to the original parish trustees. 1848 trustees were Bernard Laut, John Mittler, John Baptist Wolpert, Jacob Bronder, Michael End, Urban Neumayer, John Hirsch, J.A. Lippert, Jacob Hertz, Jacob Heisel, Anton Hennigen, Philip Jageman, Conrad Kovermann, John George Ackerman. Father Birk, wrote in the parish history how he knew almost all the men and “hardly any one of them could have been considered a well-to-do man.”

Generous South Side Benefactors: 1860s

German Catholics at St. Michael’s sustained the early Passionists who lived in the monastery on the hill above the parish. Father Birk wrote: “And in the name of the Monastery, may we here add a word of thanks for the countless proofs of sincere good-will and generosity which the Monastery has received from the members of the parish from the time of its foundation to the present day.” Moreover, because Birk grew up in St. Michael’s Parish he wrote about his personal experience. He “remembers the time when water for daily use had to be carried a great distance because they were too poor to have a well dug under the monastery. He recalls the bitter cold suffered in winter in the Monastery, because there was no money for the purchase of stoves and coal. He remembers the miserable black coffee which they often drank, because they had no money for the luxury of milk…. There are gentlemen still living in St. Michael’s Parish today,” wrote Birk, “who can remember the time when they as boys, went from house to house in the parish with the writer, each one with an immense basket on his arm or strapped to his back, collecting for the Monastery, bread, flour, bologna, butter, eggs, potatoes, in fact anything they could lay their hands on, for they attended to their business with edifying zeal, and the Monastery was in need of everything.”

Piety grounded daily life in St. Michael’s Parish. Birk wrote how there was “scarcely a day of the week on which several High Masses are not held in the church. Weddings or funerals without a High Mass or at least a low Mass are extremely seldom.” Strong was daily Mass attendance and reception of Communion, as well as May, Advent and Lenten devotions. However, what really made the parish a success was the wide variety of sodalities and parish organizations. In 1886, wrote Birk, “almost every man, woman and child in the parish is a member of one or more of these confraternities.”

Even though benevolent societies were so essential to parish life, it is important to remember that their success required resolving ongoing tensions with which Father Birk had personal experience. These societies consisted of “men of the parish for the purpose of mutual assistance in case of sickness or death.” However, Birk wrote how even the priest himself had to request to join the society and be admitted by a committee and then pay the required dues. In other words, membership did not come with his clerical state in life. In fact some voted against the priest. As a consequence of this policy, Father Birk explained that such a benevolent society ceased operation. Fortunately most sodalities and societies nurtured Catholic life.

  • St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Benevolent Society was the oldest organization. It was founded on May 24, 1849 by 40 men of the parish. The first president was Mr. J. Ackerman and the first secretary was Mr. J. Hirsch. In December 1869 it had 329 members. In December 1885 it had 77. In June 1886 it was dissolved because the treasury was empty and it could not fulfill its obligations.
  • The St. Boniface Charitable Institution was founded June 7, 1854. It began with 60 members. The first president was Mr. Magnus Segner and the first Secretary was G.A. Feldung. In December 1869 there were 445 members. In 1886 it had 80 members with $1300 in the treasury and its effectiveness was coming to an end.
  • St. Roche Society was founded on February 4, 1866 After four months it had 75 members. The first president was G. Kunkel and the first secretary was Adam Franz. P. Jochum was the first treasurer. In June 1867 there were 177 members; in June 1868, 250; and in June 1869, 309; in 1874, 375 and a cash reserve of $4176. Beginning in 1886 there were 176 members and six months later the treasury had $4558; so its future looked bright.
  • Roman Catholic Confraternity began on November 27, 1870 by 37 parish men for the purpose of mutual assistance in case of sickness, and assisting the needy, as well as widows, and orphans of deceased members. Financially it was one of the “best benevolent” societies. In 1886 there were about 170 members and the group, since the early 1880s, had been able to fulfill its obligations without assessing the membership.
  • St. Aloysius Benevolent Society was founded on June 30, 1872 and incorporated November 16, 1872 for the “mutual encouragement in the fulfilment of the religious duties of a Christian; mutual assistance in case of sickness; the assisting of needy members and of the widows and orphans of deceased members.” Numbering 200 members in the mid-1880s it was the youngest benevolent society in the parish and “most outstanding in the diocese.” All death benefits, as stated in the regulations, were paid out of the treasury which was in the best financial condition of any society in the parish.
  • Societies for the Furthering of the Material Interests of the Parish included the Building Society founded in 1858 by parish mission preacher Father F.X. Weninger, S.J. Later in order to purchase a new organ, the Organ Society was founded by Fr. Luke Baudinelli, C.P. In 1884 St. Michael’s Church Society was founded by Fr. Bernard Hehl, C.P. Another society was the Crib Society which allowed for children of the parish to collect monies for the Christmas crib of the parish. This cost $200. Also the Library Society began in 1872. By 1886, 1000 volumes were in circulation and more were being added each year. The library was under the direction of 40 young men from the Holy Family Conference. Fr. George Basel, C.P. was the spiritual director. The reading room measured 40 by 20 feet. There were regular monthly meetings.
  • Conference of St. Vincent de Paul in 1886 was one of three that existed in the diocese. Begun January 16, 1876, it consisted of 19 men. The first officers of this, the Holy Family Conference, were Adam Franz, president; Michael Becker, vice-president; John Popp, secretary; Karl M. Zeller, treasurer. In 1886 there were 22 members. They assisted 505 poor families which totaled 2020 persons. During that time these families were visited 5387 times. During its ten years the total income was $5920.30 and total expenditure was $5873.30. Passionist priests served as spiritual directors. In 1885 Mr. Franz resigned as president and Mr. Pfeuffer was elected.
  • St. Michael’s Orphan Society. Founded January 1873 to assist poor orphan children of St. Michael’s Parish, by 1885 it had about 700 members. Members divided the parish into 14 districts. Each had a collector, elected yearly, whose duty was to visit the members living in his district and collect their donations to assist the orphans. The Orphan Committee had 13 members who held monthly meetings with the pastor presiding. The orphanage was connected with the Convent of the Franciscan Sisters. In 1885 there were 19 children in the institution. Up until 1873 parish orphans were taken care of at the Troy Hill orphanage, Allegheny. Prior to the Orphan Society parishioners had frequently done fund-raising when necessary.
  • The Society of the Holy Childhood united Christian children with the child Jesus and care for the most abandoned children in the world in particular for “the salvation and preservation of poor heathen children in China, this Work exerts itself.” The society was established in the parish on November 16, 1874. By November 1885 it numbered 2403 members: 1203 boys and 1200 girls. Society feast days were celebrated in the parish. Approximately $400 was sent each year to the Central Office of the Holy Childhood.
  • Archconfraternity of the Holy Family promoted devotion and example to the Holy Family by urging piety of all and practice of virtue through prayer, announcing the Word of God, and reception of the Holy Sacraments. Each Sunday there was a 2 P.M. meeting at which the priest gave a talk to the members present. Men went on the first Sunday of the month; women on the second Sunday; young men on the third Sunday; young women on the fourth Sunday. Young men and women were able to join the confraternity once they were sixteen. The Confraternity of the Holy Family was canonically erected in 1853 and approved by Bishop O’Connor of Pittsburgh on February 4, 1854. Two High Masses were held each year; one for living members and another for deceased. In January 1886 there were 1888 members: 279 men, 932 women, 357 young women, 320 young men.
  • The Society In Honor of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar was founded in 1853. Every Thursday there was a High Mass for the members whose mission it was to decorate the church altars. Monthly dues were 10 cents which paid for the High Mass. Any left over money was used for altar decorations.
  • Archconfraternity in honor of the Assumption of Mary was established in 1860 for the consolation of the poor souls in purgatory. In 1861 it was approved by Bishop Domenek. Yearly membership was 50 cents for celebration of a weekly Wednesday High Mass. When a member died, the next High Mass after his death was for him. Left over dues for the year reverted to the church. In 1886 there were 618 members.
  • Society of the Living Rosary was founded in 1870. Mysteries of the Rosary are changed each month as mentioned in the statutes. Yearly dues were 60 cents. When a member died a Requiem Mass was celebrated for him. In 1886 there were 271 members.
  • The Apostolate of Prayer began on November 20, 1876 in gratitude for special graces from the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The First public devotion was held December 8, 1876. Since then devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus were held every first Friday of the month with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction. The group was also connected with the Communion of Reparation. In 1885, 2471 people were enrolled in the organization.
  • The Associate-Confraternity of Our Lady of Victory was incorporated on October 25, 1877 under the Archconfraternity of the Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary for the conversion of sinners. The first meeting took place December 8, 1877. As of 1886, 2348 members had been enrolled. On the first Sunday of each month at 3 o’clock in the afternoon a vespers service was held in honor of the Heart of Mary for the conversion of sinners. Father Birk wrote: “Astonishing graces, extraordinary conversions have been obtained through the intercession of the merciful ‘Refuge of Sinners.’
  • Confraternity of the Black Scapular of the Bitter Passion of Jesus Christ was founded in St. Michael’s in September 1882. There was a special service on the fourth Sunday of each month. The number of members in 1886 was unknown.
  • Archconfraternity of the Holy Name of Jesus established on February 1, 1883 to “honor the Holy Name of Jesus and make reparation for the insults offered to our divine Redeemer by the bad habit of swearing and do all it can to stop this habit of cursing, so shameful for a Christian.” There was a special service on the second Sunday of each month. On January 1, 1886 members numbered 1627 people.
  • The Sodality for boys and girls was begun for those who had already received first communion but were too young to belong to the Archconfraternity. In 1876 it was incorporated into the Sodality of Mary in order to 1) increase of devotion to the Immaculate Virgin Mary; 2) provide catechetical instruction to older children; 3) increase exhortation to a virtuous life. These ends were to be attained 1) by exercises of devotion—the short hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Litany of Loretto, the songs of the Blessed Virgin Mary; 2) by catechetical sermons, to be held by one of the priests at each meeting of the children by distribution of good pamphlets, especially the pamphlet Friend of Youth. This sodality had its own chapel in the basement of the church where boys gathered on the first and third Sundays and girls gathered on the second and third. Principle patroness of the Children of Mary was the Immaculate Conception. A second patron was St. Stanislaus Kostkas for the boys and St. Agnes for the girls. A Passionist was the spiritual director of the Sodality. In November 1885 there were 510 members: 250 boys 260 girls.
  • Among the parish’s strongest confraternities in 1886 were the Holy FamilyApostolate of Prayer, and Children of Mary. These all recommended that members receive the holy sacraments at least once a month. Then wrote Father Birk “it may be assumed that the priests of St. Michael’s Parish have no reason to complain about the lack of work in the confessional.”
  • The Cholera-Holyday was unique to South Side Pittsburgh. Father Birk wrote that the holy day was “celebrated nowhere perhaps in the United States except in St. Michael’s Parish. It is called feast of St. Roche on August 16.” The author then went on to write how the holy day “was instituted by the church council with the approval of the entire parish in memory of the cholera disease which raged here in 1849 and claimed so many victims. It is to be celebrated each year during the Octave of the Feast of the Assumption of the Bl. Virgin Mary. On this feast day the following must be done: 1. One holy Mass is to be celebrated for the members of the parish who died of the cholera; 2. One holy Mass is to be celebrated in honor of St. Roche; 3. One Solemn High Mass is to be celebrated in honor of the Mother of God, with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and at the end, the Te Deum is to be sung; 4. A sermon suitable to the occasion is to be preached; 5. Solemn Vespers and Benediction is to be held.” When the parish decided to celebrate this day the epidemic ceased in the parish although it continued in the city and surroundings. In 1853 when it broke out again St. Michael’s Parish “was entirely immune from the disease.” The Cholera-Holyday was approved by Bishop O’Connor on April 3, 1854.

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