Diocese of Pittsburgh saw massive growth in early 20th century

Saturday, June 22, 2019 - Updated: 11:59 pm

By Paul Dvorchak

This fourth article on the history of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and its newspaper shows how the diocese expanded throughout the first half of the 20th century.

The growth of the diocese is related to the growth of Pittsburgh as an industrial giant during this time. Pittsburgh produced one-third of the national output of steel by the 1920s. The steel mills, coal mines, and coke and iron producers needed workers, skilled and unskilled. Immigrants came to the area from eastern and southern Europe, and African-Americans came from the southern United States. They came to find employment, raise their families and worship God in the religion they had known from their places of origin.

From 1900 to 1920, the population of Allegheny County increased by 66 percent. As the economy and population expanded, so did the Catholic Church of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The bishops of Pittsburgh during the first half of the 20th century — Richard Phelan (1889-1904), John Francis Regis Canevin (1904-1920) and Hugh Boyle (1921-1950) — all ably responded to the influx of the immigrants and shaped the Diocese of Pittsburgh as one of the most dynamic in the country.

According to historian Msgr. Francis Glenn, the greatest expansion occurred during Bishop Canevin’s reign. The Catholic population during his time grew from 225,000 to 700,000.

There were 134 new parishes founded during the 16 years of Bishop Canevin’s leadership. The number of priests doubled from 300 to 600; the number of religious women tripled from 1,000 to 3,000.

In a Pittsburgh Catholic article of Dec. 18, 1992, Dr. Joseph Makarewicz maintained that between 1904 and 1920 a new church was founded every 30 days! Most of these were ethnic churches. Along with Irish and German parishes, Pittsburgh hosted African-American, Bohemian, Croatian, Hungarian, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Slovak and Slovenian parishes. The borough of Braddock alone had eight ethnic Catholic churches. Byzantine Catholic (called Greek Catholic at the time) and Maronite Catholic churches also began in and around Pittsburgh in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bringing different ethnic groups together was difficult because each brought its own distinct practices, prejudices and attitudes. The greater the differences, the more likely they were to be misunderstood. Misunderstanding sometimes led to open conflict. Disagreements over authority, church property and clerical celibacy came to a tragic end when 40,000 Eastern Europeans chose to join the Eastern Orthodox churches rather than remain as Eastern-rite Catholics under the jurisdiction of Rome.

Bishop Boyle’s solution to problems related to diversity was to appoint ethnically diverse priests to his board of consultors. These men were seen as advocates and leaders of their respective constituencies.

Many Catholic institutions began or expanded during this time: hospitals, orphanages and other organizations established to serve the sick, impoverished or vulnerable. Each could merit a newspaper series of its own.

Bishop Canevin was responsible for many initiatives, but two stand out: his emphasis on education and his promotion of the active involvement of the laity. He believed that each parish should have its own school. He supported and encouraged Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) programs. He appointed Father Hugh Boyle to be the superintendent of schools. Father Boyle would succeed him as bishop and continue to emphasize Catholic education.

Bishop Canevin also promoted the social and spiritual lives of laypeople. With the help of the Holy Name Society, he launched the lay retreat movement. He started a diocesan-wide fundraising campaign that enabled St. Paul of the Cross Monastery to expand its facility on Pittsburgh’s South Side to hold retreats. The Diocesan Council of Catholic Women and the Ladies of Charity were supported and expanded during the early years of the 20th century.

Church growth meant more work for women religious, who played a major role in religious education, health care and social work. Roselia Foundling and Maternity Hospital in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, run by the Sisters of Charity, is just one example of dedicated women solving a social problem with Gospel values. Catholic education here would not have been possible without the service and dedication of the religious orders that staffed and administered schools throughout the diocese.

The expansion of the church was especially remarkable as it occurred during World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. Wars can be economically beneficial for steel-producing areas, as seen during Pittsburgh’s experience during and after the Civil War. But economic expansion and contraction also led to serious challenges to society as a whole.

As slavery was the major social issue prior to the Civil War, the rights of workers and the plight of the poor became important in the United States throughout the first half of the 20th century. The rise and strength of communism among workers was a major concern to Catholics and non-Catholics. Many Pittsburgh priests stood in solidarity with those clamoring for rights when it came to living wages and working conditions.

Father Adalbert Kacinski, the pastor of St. Thomas Parish in Braddock, actively supported the steel strike of 1919. Father James Cox led a poor people’s march of 25,000 on Washington in 1932. Msgr. George Barry O’Toole and Msgr. Karl Hensler joined Msgr. Charles Owen Rice in founding the Catholic Radical Alliance and St. Joseph House of Hospitality in the 1930s. Msgr. Rice and other priests also started and taught “labor schools” at Duquesne University.

The vitality and strength of Pittsburgh Catholicism was evident in the devotion of ordinary people. The most striking display perhaps was the Eucharistic Convention held at Forbes Field in September 1950. An estimated 100,000 men attended, including 600 priests and 3,000 altar boys. Similar conventions had been held in 1930, 1936 and 1941.

The church’s strength through those years now appears in stark contrast with the later years of the century. The second half of the 20th century saw radical changes in all aspects of church life — demographically, institutionally and spiritually.


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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