Boomtimes, conflict impacted Pittsburgh church after Civil War

Friday, May 17, 2019 - Updated: 3:14 pm

By Paul Dvorchak

The third of these brief essays begins with the designation of the second bishop of Pittsburgh, Michael Domenec. This period was also one of the saddest as it deals with the brief split of the diocese into two: the Diocese of Allegheny and the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The historian Msgr. Francis Glenn called the separation a “grave blunder,” and the administration of Pittsburgh’s next bishop, John Tuigg, the “most onerous” in the history of the diocese.

The seeds of these difficulties may have been planted by Pittsburgh’s first bishop. Bishop Michael O’Connor seemed to be the right person to establish the institutional Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. But the appointment of his brother, James, as administrator upon Bishop O’Connor’s resignation may also have contributed to the troubled times of subsequent bishops.

Michael Domenec, the second bishop of the diocese, was born Dec. 27, 1816, in Reus, Spain. He joined the Congregation of the Missions in Paris, commonly called the Vincentians. He came to America as a missionary and was ordained in Missouri, June 30, 1839. He then taught at Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. Upon Bishop O’Connor’s resignation, he was appointed bishop of Pittsburgh on Sept. 23, 1860, and was consecrated Dec. 9, 1860.

According to Msgr. Glenn, Bishop Domenec was a pastoral bishop who visited every town in the diocese, administered the sacrament of confirmation and met all the Catholics he could. He left the administration to others, notably Father James O’Connor, the brother of the former bishop.

When Bishop Domenec discovered the woeful financial state of the diocese, he began to make changes in diocesan administration. In 1864, Father Edward McMahon, rector of the cathedral, Father James O’Connor, president of the seminary, and Father James Keogh, secretary to the bishop and editor of the Pittsburgh Catholic, all left the diocese because of disagreements with Bishop Domenec.

These administrative changes had no beneficial effects on the financial situation. The Civil War was financially advantageous for Pittsburgh. The city was home to the burgeoning iron and steel industries as well as 63 oil companies. The expanding economy also attracted an influx of immigrants, followed by a large increase of men and women from European religious orders. All this led to a building boom in the diocese. Because the economy was so good, many Catholic parishes started building programs that were financed with borrowed money.

But the economic expansion ended suddenly with the Panic of 1873, brought on by postwar inflation and speculative investments in railroads, among other causes. The financial crisis lasted until 1879, a depression that had serious negative effects on the churches in the diocese, which were plunged into heavy debt.

Another of Bishop Domenec’s administrative mistakes was the 1863 appointment of Father John Hickey as rector of St. Paul Cathedral. Msgr. Andrew Lambing, the premier historian of the diocese, said that Father Hickey “took well to people, and he had the dangerous gift of being able to borrow money.” Father Hickey’s financial escapades only exacerbated an already precarious financial situation.

On Nov. 5, 1875, Bishop Domenec quietly left Pittsburgh for Rome. He assigned Father Hickey as administrator of the diocese. Bishop Domenec convinced the authorities in Rome that the diocese should be split into two, Pittsburgh and Allegheny (now Pittsburgh’s North Side).

On Jan. 16, 1876, Bishop Domenec was appointed as the bishop of the Diocese of Allegheny. Father John Tuigg was then ordained as the third bishop of Pittsburgh. The division of the diocese was not without precedent. Bishop O’Connor advocated that the Diocese of Erie be split from Pittsburgh, and Bishop Domenec convinced Rome that Pittsburgh should be split again.

Msgr. Glenn wrote that Bishop Domenec’s “secretive methods caused confusion and conflict.” Also, the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the new configuration had more indebted parishes in Pittsburgh than Allegheny. Because Bishop Domenec placed financial control of the diocese in the care of Father Hickey, a discrepancy of about $100,000 appeared between receipts and disbursements in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. This caused a conflict between Bishop Domenec and Bishop Tuigg, and had to be resolved by Rome. This led to the forced resignation of Bishop Domenec and the reunification of the two dioceses, with Bishop Tuigg as the ordinary.

Western Pennsylvania experienced an economic boom after the Civil War and then an economic depression. But this period was also the beginning of Pittsburgh’s industrial and commercial expansion. This era saw the beginning of the careers of Pittsburgh industrialists Carnegie, Heinz, Mellon and Westinghouse.

Along with the economic expansion and increased immigration, workers’ rights became an important social justice issue. The spark that ignited the Railroad Riot of 1877 was a decrease in wages of railroad workers from $55 a month in 1873 to $30 in 1877. Railroad strikes spread from city to city in the United States. A strike and riot occurred in Pittsburgh on July 21 and 22, 1877.

In the Pittsburgh Catholic of July 28, 1877, an eyewitness described the action of the riot. The article did not blame the strikers, but did blame the “brutal and bloodthirsty mob.” Militia were brought to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia, but the author noted that the soldiers were only doing their job, and yet they should not have fired upon the strikers. “One little girl of only three years dropped by the side of the writer, the fleshy part of her limbs a lacerated mass. She died soon after.”

Bishop Tuigg’s character and dedication to his ministry were exemplary during the troubles. A committee was formed consisting of Bishop Tuigg and Protestant ministers. They appealed to the railroad company men who would not meet with them. The rioters in turn hooted, cursed and laughed at the committee. Stefan Lorant’s “Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City” printed a drawing of Bishop Tuigg praying over the bodies of dead soldiers.

By the end of the 1870s, Pittsburgh was producing iron and steel valued at more than $35 million in 39 different establishments. The coal, coke and glass industries were likewise expanding during that time. The economic expansion in turn attracted larger numbers of immigrant workers from Western Europe. An article by Dr. Joseph Makarewicz in the Pittsburgh Catholic of Dec. 11, 1992, stated that by 1880 the diocese had 35 churches, 12 chapels, one college for men, five “young ladies’ academies,” 43 parochial schools and 200,000 Catholics. The diocese at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th began its great expansion that continued into the middle of the 20th century.


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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