Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mount St. Peter's Church

This beautiful church is just north of Pittsburgh and would be a great setting for the Latin Mass. It was constructed in the 1930's from the demolished remains of a mansion belonging to the Mellon family. The magnificent altar baldachino is made from remnants of the former banister. Parishioners with no money but a great deal of faith built a church which still gives glory to God. Why do we think we need a lot of money to accomplish great tasks? Here is an account from the parish website:

For this is the story of how faith built a church. Not an ordinary house of worship, but one unique in the annals of church building. Not one built to an architect´s plan, but one erected block by block, piece by piece, from the heterogeneity of a wrecked mansion. From narthex to altar; from doors to communion rail; from holy water fonts to sanctuary lamps, the old has been adapted to the new in imperishable marble and granite; in enduring bronze and priceless alabaster; in shining gold and antique silver; in sturdy hand-carved wood. Every piece found its niche (though none had a place in the beginning) as if some unseen finger had guided the placement.

This is, furthermore, the story of God´s utilization of man and material things in the unfolding of a divine plan.

A stranger within the gates of the New Saint Peter´s might infer that here was a congregation of wealth; that the building of this magnificent edifice entailed no hardship or sacrifice; that the laborers must undoubtedly have been the most highly-skilled of artisans. Had this been so, this story would not have been written, for the simple reason that there would have been no story. Saint Peter´s was not built by the visible power of wealth, but by the unseen power of prayer; not by the lavish utilization of highly-paid labor, but by congregational cooperation; not by the emergency aid of generous patrons, but by trust in God.

The story of Saint Peter´s begins back in 1937, when the old church became inadequate for a fast-growing congregation. There were two good reasons, however, for not building a new church: lack of a suitable site, and a depleted treasury. But sometimes acute need is the only spur necessary to stimulate faith, and on the assumption that God would help those who showed a willingness to help themselves, the members of Saint Peter´s instituted a search for a suitable location.

Was it God´s plan that there should be, just 100 yards from the old church, a wooded four acre knoll that was for sale?

Father Fusco, the pastor of Saint Peter´s must have thought so, for he called upon the owner. But any hopes that he may have had concerning an immediate sale were blasted when the owner said, "The price of this property is $35,000."

Father´s reaction was characteristic of one who puts his faith in the Almighty. He directed that two medals be buried on the coveted property.

Nothing happened for awhile. But faith at Saint Peter´s was growing so fast that a building campaign was inaugurated. Imagine it! A campaign for a building without a place to build on! But then, those who put their faith in God, do seemingly fantastic things, and God, it seems, rewards that faith. Before long, the pastor was informed that the desired property would be relinquished for $25,000.

To a congregation without faith (and an empty treasury) this amount would be as difficult to acquire as the original sum; but not to Saint Peter´s, who firmly believed by now that God was directing their affairs.

Saint Peter´s raised $500 hand money and took an option on the property for six months!

Continued faith, hard work and unremitting prayer worked wonders. At the end of six months they had $25,500 in cash and $75,000 in pledges! Now the "Knoll" belonged to Saint Peter´s and the next move was to start on the actual building project.

But it didn't seem to be as simple as that. Where before it had been a lack of funds, now it was lack of agreement on what kind of church to build. After eighteen month´s architectural research, discussion among building committee members, and parleys between committee and architect, there was no concrete plan as to how the church was to be built.

God had again intervened, this time to forestall any move that might be contrary to His plan. Saint Peter´s would have been satisfied with just a church - one large enough to serve its 1400 families; but God´s plan, as was soon apparent, was for something far above that which was merely useful.

At that time the Mellon mansion, in suburban Pittsburgh, fifteen miles distant, was being razed and its furnishings sold. Was there anything there, the pastor and building committee wondered, that a parish with little money could procure for a new church building?

Pastor and committee investigated. Indeed, there was much here that had ecclesiastical potential. Too bad they couldn't take it all, mourned Father Fusco, whose artistic soul revolted at the desecration of priceless stone by a careless wrecking crew.

"We can do just that!" jubilated a practical minded committee, upon learning that all they surveyed could be theirs merely for the cost of hauling it away!

When it was all delivered, Saint Peter´s had what amounted to a stone quarry in their back yard, together with thirty tons of steel beams, sixty-five oak doors, and all the other innumerable items concomitant with the wrecking of a sixty-five room house.

That day marked the beginning of the second chapter in the building of Saint Peter´s. It marked, also, a three-year period of trial and discouragement. To build in normal times when labor and materials are plentiful, is one thing; to build in time of war and to contend with priorities and labor shortages, is another. To construct with a full treasury is simple; to do so on a shoe string is something else.

But Saint Peter´s believed that God was their partner in this venture; so out of trial came a greater faith, and out of discouragement new incentives to greater endeavor. Perhaps this was because God´s hand was seen in everything that was done. Until the last nail was driven, huge sums of money were always needed, but somehow they were always found. If priorities held up work today, the needed items appeared, as if by magic, tomorrow. If paid labor was scarce, there were twice as many workers willing to contribute their time. "It is God´s hand!" exclaimed someone, when the building of the main roof stopped at a certain height for lack of funds. And so it seemed to be; for at that exact height was to be found the place of perfect acoustics!

Instances are on record of God´s protection. In the many journeys from the Mellon estate to the new site, not one piece of precious marble or delicate alabaster was cracked. When winter caught up with the builders the first year, snow was withheld until walls could be covered. Workmen narrowly escaped injury and death from falls and heavy objects.

But perhaps the greatest miracle was the adaptation of the innumerable pieces of stone and wood that went into the building. It is a simple matter to erect a structure with plans and specifications; to select each piece out of hundreds in a yard full of pieces and fit it in somewhere, is a different and infinitely more difficult task. Looking upon the completed church, the stranger is apt to exclaim, "How closely to plan must this building have been erected; how carefully thought out must have been every detail."

But not so. Of course, the builders knew that the huge red sandstone blocks which formed the exterior of the mansion would serve admirably for the exterior of Saint Peter´s. Heavy plateglass and bronze entrance doors and marble archways would fit into the architecture of a church as a mansion. But where, O where, could one place a granite porch rail, or fit in an elaborately carved marble slab which had rested above a ballroom door? Commodious kitchen cupboard units would encourage neatness and order in the sacristy, but of what use in a church were two hugh alabaster bowls which had been light reflectors in the vestibule chandeliers?

The fact that these items and dozens more fell into orderly place, proves that a Hand mightier than man´s supervised the placing. The granite porch rail, cleaned and polished, became the

communion rail; the carved marble slab is now an integral part of the main altar; the alabaster bowls, inverted and mounted on marble pedestals, became holy water and baptismal fonts.

It is doubtful if the eye of man will ever see a lovelier altar than that of the new Saint Peter´s. The four immense Riviera marble pillars which support the baldachin were taken from the mansion vestibule; the panels of the baldachin, as well as the chancel gates, were formerly stairway girdles; the tiny bit of rose-colored marble upon which the tabernacle rests, was once a piece of wainscoting.

Second to the main altar in beauty and adaptability of material, is the Chapel of the Seven Sacraments. Its carved wooden confessionals once served as bookcases; its gold sanctuary lamp gave light in a music room.

The incident which points to divine planning more than any other, was the placing of the carved marble mantle which was to be used as chapel altar. During installation, a large front panel dropped out, and it was discovered that this fine stone had originally been an altar. Investigation revealed that the Mellons had purchased it from a Catholic church in Pisa, Italy. God had finally brought it back to an Italian Catholic church where it is destined to serve the purpose for which it was intended - as a repository for the Host.

Could it have been in the divine plan that so much of the material from the mansion should have carried religious motifs? There are angel heads in the keystone of arches, in ceiling panels, in electric light brackets, in carved organ grilles. (Little angel statues holding tiny bowls in their cupped hands were converted into holy water fonts.) The bronze stairway panels were made into a lily design, and the lion, symbol of Saint Mark and the Lion of Judah, was carved into the massive bookcases. On noticing these things during inspection of the Mellon material, a committee member was impelled to remark, "God meant that someday the Mellon mansion should be made into a sanctuary."

The worshiper at Saint Peter´s can truly say with the Psalmist, "How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts!"


Ann Murray said...

What a story! And one with a happy ending too.

Anonymous said...

That is a lovely altar!
I'm reminded of the collegiate church (a small one) at my Catholic undergrad alma mater. The atlar design is similar, only there's no large canopy and the roof is lower. The church was built in the 1950s, a few year after the college was founded.