I learned about Saint Anthony’s Chapel back when I was taking all these awesome religion classes at Pitt (I wanted to minor in religious studies, if you can believe that). It’s a private chapel on Troy Hill in Pittsburgh and it houses 5,000 relics. That’s the largest collection in the world, outside of the Vatican.
I never made it there but when Andrea said she was coming back to Pittsburgh, I asked her if she would be interested in checking it out, since she’s all into bones.
She said fuck yes, so we planned to go last Tuesday, when the gift shop would be open as well.
An elderly lady saw us standing in front of the closed gift shop and told us, “If yinz want to see the relics, you can just go inside the chapel and ask for Carol.” It was Andrea’s first time hearing someone say “yinz” in real life, since Henry and I don’t subscribe to any of that weird Pittsburgh lexicon; she practically squealed.
As soon as we walked in, we were instantly quieted by the churchly chanting subtly wafting through hidden speakers. There were several old people kneeling at the pews, some were lighting candles. I immediately felt like the biggest undulating heathen of all time. We read some signs asking us to not take pictures (like I can be stopped) and suggesting that we make a donation.
The chapel is lined on both sides by life-sized Stations of the Cross. We shuffled slowly past the ones on the left and I got all internally weepy (found out later that Andrea was, too).
When we got near the front, where all the relics are, a tiny old woman in a Christmas sweater emerged from a back room and welcomed us jovially to Saint Anthony’s. She said we were free to look around on our own, but also offered to give us a tour. We chose to take the tour, and she had us sit down in the front pew while she stood before us. Andrea said she felt like she was boring into our souls, and I tried to sit as Christian schoolgirl-like as humanly possible for a whore like myself. My hands were all clammy and I kept catching myself holding my breath, like she would be able to see my tangible evil if I exhaled too heavily.
But after a few minutes, I realized that Carol wasn’t judging us at all, and she never questioned why we were there (we were all ready to unnaturally blurt out that it was for a spiritual awakening, because that’s what I saw on the website). The first thing Carol did was give us a history of the chapel and the priest who brought all the relics there in the 1800s, Father Mollinger. He was from Holland and completely fucking awesome. Totally my new hero. He was a doctor too, so he became known around town as a healing priest.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, there were a lot of religious and political rifts going on and people began to fear that their houses would be raided and their relics would be confiscated. So many of his friends and family began sending them to America for Father Mollinger to keep safe. Since he was born into nobility, he had very rich tastes, and had this beautiful chapel built to house all of the relics. The reliquaries alone were enough to bring tears to my eyes.
When Carol got to the part of the story where thousands of people had gathered for the unveiling of the chapel, at which point Father Mollinger collapsed, I was screaming to myself, “NO, DON’T SAY IT. DON’T SAY IT!” But it was the inevitable part of the story where he died. Carol took that opportunity to interject her own personal opinion by saying that she feels we should all live the way Father Mollinger did and try until our death to accomplish that one thing that’s important to us and it was this totally epiphanic moment.
Carol taught us that there are three classes of relics:
- Class 1 is an actual piece of the saint’s body: a bone, a tooth, a fingernail clipping, etc.
- Class 2 is usually an article of clothing, like part of a cloak that was worn by the saint, or other personal effects.
- Class 3 is an object that touched a class 1 or class 2, like cloth or a medal.
Most of the relics were so small, you couldn’t really see them but the label that was identifying them. However, there were large, crossed bones and entire skulls of other saints. They also had a piece of the manger and True Cross, and that was where Miss Athiest got all choked up.
The tour took about an hour, at which point Carol asked us if we had any questions. I had been waiting for this moment during the whole tour and blurted out, “Is there anything of Saint Rita’s here?”
So Carol went back and checked the huge inventory book, and then directed me to a large glass case above a row of candles. Saint Rita’s relic was in the bottom row. I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was there, and that was all I cared about.
Afterward, we went back across the street to the gift shop, where I bought a shit ton of Saint Rita stuff (Andrea kept finding more and more stuff for me, so Henry can totally blame this holy charge on his credit card on her). I even got a medal of her that has a Class 3 relic on the back! I have been wearing it everyday since.
And Andrea found us rosary rings, which are so uncomfortable to wear, but look totally awesome.
Upstairs from the gift shop was a small museum for Father Molinger.
So fucking creepy.
Father Mollinger, you guys!
This was a life-changing experience. Andrea and I couldn’t stop talking about it for hours afterward, and Henry even kind of started to seem vaguely interested. I’m totally going to start going to church now. But only fancy ones.
I’m not a real religious person, but I can appreciate the culture and the ambiance surrounding chapels such as this. You captured some hauntingly beautiful images.
I felt for sure we were both going to burst into flames after walking through that door!