Friday, November 09, 2018 - Updated: 4:36 pm
Nearly 100 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918, World War I ended. Father Thomas Coakley almost didn’t live to see the day.
While serving as an Army chaplain with the 47th Infantry in the Argonne region of France, the Pittsburgh priest was struck by a German shell. His Catholic chaplain’s kit absorbed the impact of the 9-inch mortar, which destroyed the chalice and ciborium.
Father Coakley came home in 1920. He was named rector at Old St. Patrick’s Parish in Pittsburgh’s Strip District before becoming pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in the city’s Shadyside neighborhood, where he served until his death in 1951.
His mangled chaplain’s kit, along with hundreds of thousands of other historical items and records, is housed at the diocese’s Archives and Records Center. The archive continues to preserve the past and is playing an important role in the On Mission for The Church Alive! initiative.
Until last year, diocesan policy required records of closed or merged parishes and schools to be kept in the successor parish. With more consolidation ahead as part of On Mission, those files are being moved to the archives, now housed in a former church. Since June 2017, the collection has grown by 19 percent to 5,550 boxes.
When parishes now organized in groupings come together in two to five years to become 57 new, multi-site parishes, their records will be stored at the center. The parishes will then start new sacramental registers.
“These files contain the history of the people of the diocese, the stories of our lives as Catholics,” said Dennis Wodzinski, director of the Archives and Records Center. “Genealogical and sacramental research is performed by our staff, but the public is invited to visit and conduct historic research.”
Wodzinski credited the efforts of former director Ken White, secretary Danette Alderson and 10 volunteers as key to the success of the new center.
Nearby in a former school, Father Michael Ruffalo has begun his new, part-time assignment as curator of the “patrimony,” which means property belonging to the church. It includes old religious items such as chalices, statues, candles, stained-glass windows, altars and Stations of the Cross, as well as non-sacred objects.
Father Ruffalo, who studied archeology and the classics in college, is working to inventory, catalog, photograph, refurbish and preserve the sacred items. They cannot be sold, but are reused in churches where the U.S. population is growing, such as in the southern states. Dioceses are allowed to make donations in return for the pieces.
“We are an incarnational people who believe that Jesus Christ took on flesh and dwelled among us,” said Father Ruffalo, who also is a part-time chaplain. “These objects are signs and symbols of our faith, born out of our love of God and church.”
“The archives and patrimony capture the lives of our faith in action,” said Father Tom Kunz, diocesan associate general secretary and vicar for canonical services. “It’s important that this history lives on as our ancestors’ faith is handed down to future generations.”
The first Mass in the territory of what would become the Diocese of Pittsburgh was celebrated in 1754 by Father Denys Baron, a chaplain to the French garrison at Fort Duquesne. The Diocese of Pittsburgh was established on Aug. 8, 1843, in the western region of Pennsylvania that was in the Diocese of Philadelphia.
In the mid- to late-1800s, Catholic immigrants from central and eastern Europe poured into southwestern Pennsylvania, seeking work in steel mills, mines and factories. Along the way, they helped build many churches. There were a total of 333 parishes and missions before mergers took place in the early 1990s.
Today, more changes are ahead for parishes and schools, with plans designed to lead to new growth.
“Embracing change doesn’t mean forgetting the past,” Father Ruffalo said. “We bring our faith into these new spaces, playing a part in shaping the future of the diocese.”
For additional information about the Archives and Records Center, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-456-3158.