The times were a-changin' in the 1950s and '60s in the Diocese of Pittsburgh

Wednesday, July 24, 2019 - Updated: 8:38 am

By Paul Dvorchak

The population of the Diocese of Pittsburgh continued to grow in the first half of the 20th century. The Catholic population of the diocese in 1923 was 550,050, and it grew to 757,776 in 1956 — even after the Diocese of Greensburg was carved out of Pittsburgh in 1951.

During Bishop Hugh Boyle’s tenure (1921-50), the Pittsburgh Diocese became the second-largest in the United States. Under the leadership of Bishop John Dearden (1950-59), new churches continued to be built. During his nine years, 28 churches and 23 schools were constructed. A “Dearden special” was the nickname given to some new parishes. This meant the pastor would first build a school and a church hall that would serve as the school’s gym. Mass would be celebrated in the gym until the parish could retire some of its debt — and then it could build a proper worship site.

The previous essay in this series (June 21 issue) noted the vitality of the diocese, exemplified by the large Eucharistic rallies held in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. But significant changes were underway well before the changes of the Second Vatican Council.

Although the numbers of Catholics here increased, devotion began to wane in the 1950s, even though attendance at Mass remained steady. One indicator of this decrease was attendance at the Eucharistic rallies, sponsored by the Holy Name Society. Attendance in the 1930s and ‘40s hovered around 75,000-100,000. The highest, in 1950, was well over 100,000. Attendance in 1955 dropped to 35,000 — still impressive, but the drop is noteworthy.

There were other signs. Bishop Dearden initiated a perpetual Eucharistic adoration program that began on Ash Wednesday of 1955. The program was to continue beyond Lent of that year and into the future. At first the initiative met with success, but by Jan. 12, 1956, a Pittsburgh Catholic article encouraged parishes of the diocese to revitalize the program.

Another sign of devotional decline was the drop in participation in the lay retreat movement. The practice of Catholic men attending weekend retreats continued to have high numbers throughout the 1950s. But that movement peaked by 1960 and began to fall before the mid-1960s.

Two other programs began to wane in influence during the ‘50s. One was the Legion of Decency, which encouraged Catholics to avoid immoral and lascivious movies and literature. The other was the church’s effort to combat the commercialization of Christmas. By the 1960s the struggle against the commercialization of Christmas had clearly become a lost cause, as did the protests of immorality in the entertainment industry.

Many reasons have been proposed for these developments. One is the ascendancy of materialism and the increased economic success of Catholics, which allowed them to move from the urban, ethnic neighborhoods to the newly formed suburbs. This began the breakdown of neighborhoods that supported uniform Catholic religious and social lives. (These developments are documented more fully in Timothy Kelly’s “The Transformation of American Catholicism: The Pittsburgh Laity and the Second Vatican Council, 1950-1972.”)

Another major development was the movement for liturgical reform. For most Catholics alive in the mid-1960s, Mass radically changed after the Second Vatican Council. It was celebrated in English rather than Latin, and the orientation of the celebrant changed from facing the altar to facing the congregation.

The movement to reform the liturgy had begun much earlier than the ‘60s. An article in the Pittsburgh Catholic of April 13, 1939, mentioned that a colloquium of Catholic Workers visiting St. Joseph House of Hospitality in Pittsburgh’s Hill District were conducting “Dialog Masses” — those in which the congregation made the Latin responses to the prayers recited by the priest. (Responses were traditionally given only by the altar boys.) At the time, this was something extraordinary. For Catholics today, this is the common experience at Mass. But in 1939, the practice was noteworthy. One of the earliest reports of a Dialog Mass being celebrated in Pittsburgh was at St. Agnes Parish in the city’s Oakland neighborhood on May 3, 1933. These developments — the decline in devotionalism, breakdown of neighborhoods and the liturgical reform movement — all began well before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.

The Pittsburgh Catholic itself experienced a major development in fall 1954. Bishop Dearden purchased the newspaper, which had been privately owned by laymen, and replaced Editor John Collins with John Ward, who came from the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. Under Bishop Dearden, the Pittsburgh Catholic expanded from 12 to 16 pages, contained more photographs and used more syndicated columnists, all in an attempt to increase circulation. The new editor shared the bishop’s conservative social views and dropped the pro-labor Msgr. Charles Owen Rice from the pages of the newspaper. When Bishop John Wright became head of the diocese in 1959, he invited Msgr. Rice to return.

After the great expansion of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the first half of the century, there were signs and portents of the changes that were to come in the second half.


Dvorchak, retired former director of St. Joseph House of Hospitality, is a local historian, and member of the Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and Word of God Parish in Swissvale.

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