Strip District parish marks 200 years of spreading hope

Monday, May 12, 2008 - Updated: 12:01 am
John Franko, Staff Writer
When Father William F.X. O?Brien established St. Patrick Parish in 1808 there were only 20 Catholic families in the city of Pittsburgh.

But the parish would become an integral part of life in the city?s Strip District. It grew along with the city and has become a beacon of hope for many.

Bishop David Zubik was the main celebrant at a Mass celebrating the bicentennial of the founding of the diocese?s first parish April 27 at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church of St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in the Strip District.

St. Patrick and St. Stanislaus Kostka merged in 1993. The liturgy was held at St. Stanislaus Kostka to accommodate the large gathering.

?Through wars, depression and fires people continued to hope,? said Bishop Zubik of the parish?s long history.

The original St. Patrick Church, dedicated in 1811, was located on 11th Street. The church was destroyed by fire in 1854 and the parish bought land on 14th Street.

There, a new church was dedicated in 1858.

Within a few years, however, the growth of the railroad and the population explosion of the city necessitated the construction of yet another church.

It was built at 17th Street and Liberty Avenue, and dedicated by Bishop Michael Domenec in December 1865.

The Strip District had begun to decline by the 1920s, but St. Patrick drew national attention during the Great Depression, which began in 1929.

Under the direction of Father James Cox, the pastor, it became a center of relief for the poor. The parish contributed more than 2 million free meals and more than 500,000 baskets of food, clothing and fuel.

Father Cox became an activist and advocate for the underprivileged and led the famous 1932 March on Washington.

The parish suffered another blow when the church was destroyed by fire in 1935. A smaller church ? which stands today ? was built on the same site. It was dedicated March 17, 1936, the day of the devastating St. Patrick?s Day flood.

The church features a stone tower that contains a piece of the Blarney Stone from Blarney Castle in Ireland.

The monastery garden in front of the church includes a large grotto in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes. It also includes statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Bernadette, St. Anne, St. Joseph, St. Patrick and Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.

At all times of the day, people can be found in devotion in the garden ? reading the Bible or just sitting quietly in the courtyard.

?Who would ever expect this oasis of solitude in a busy urban setting,? said Derris Jeffcoat, St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka?s parish archivist and historian.

But St. Patrick?s best-known feature is its historic holy stairs. Replicated from the original stairs in Rome, they represent the 28 steps between Pontius Pilate and Jesus at the tribunal before his crucifixion.

Worshippers ascend the steps on their knees while praying.

?There?s an incredible intimacy and opportunity for prayer,? Jeffcoat said. ?It?s so moving to walk into the vestibule and see the holy stairs.?

Margaret O?Malley of St. Raphael in Pittsburgh?s Morningside neighborhood received first Communion from Father Cox in the church.

?I?ll never forget it,? she said following the bicentennial Mass. ?Just going up those marble steps with Father Cox waiting at the top for me. It was beautiful.?

Masses are celebrated at St. Patrick on Mondays and Thursdays at 12:10 p.m.

In his homily during the Mass, Bishop Zubik pointed out that the 200-year history of St. Patrick has reflected people who have had hope.

It was appropriate that the celebration was held during the Easter season, he said, because it shows people who could have given up hope ? Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb; Peter, Thomas or the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

The bishop said the faithful must always be ready to give an explanation of why there is hope.

But with rising gasoline prices, a slow real estate market and the mudslinging of the presidential campaign, he noted that it can be difficult.

?Is that a reason for hope?? he asked of each.

Bishop Zubik reminded the congregation that hope is found in Jesus, and St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus will go into the future because of that hope.

While it is important to remember history, he said, the parish must go forward strengthened by the Eucharist and the word of God.

?We simply must be people of hope,? he said. ?Living signs of Jesus? presence in our lives.?

The liturgy included a special selection of Irish music and a reception in the St. Stanislaus Kostka courtyard.

Many members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians were in attendance. The order was responsible for painting the interior of St. Patrick in 2005 and the installation of stained-glass windows depicting St. Brigid of Kildare and St. Patrick of Ireland, which were blessed by Aux. Bishop Paul Bradley in 2006.

The donations were in the AOH tradition of gifting windows to Catholic churches.

A number of public officials were in attendance, including Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

The parish was recognized in a number of civic citations.

?We have decrees from everyone except George Washington,? said Father Harry Nichols, pastor of St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus, to laughter from the congregation.

Jeffcoat said the merged parish has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in recent years.

Traffic from the nearby markets, residents of new housing, visitors to the city and crowds from sporting events are putting the parish in contact with people.

?Both churches are open and accepting, which is the call of the church,? he said.

St. Stanislaus Kostka Church has its own rich history, and recent renovations have restored its beautiful interior.

Displays at the rear of the church contain historical items found during the renovations. They include buttons, prayer cards and hymnals.

Also on display are personal items of Father Cox. They include a toy truck depicting the March on Washington and the ?National Chief? shirt he wore during that time.

Weekend Masses are held at St. Stanislaus Kostka on Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 9 and 11 a.m.

Weekday Masses are held Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings at 7:15, and Wednesday at 7 p.m.

More information on St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka is available at: saintsinthestrip.org.

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