You drive up the hill, through the narrow streets and short blocks of a typical working-class neighbourhood in an old eastern city. At the top, backed up against the ridge, sits a grey stone church that boasts more relics than any church outside the Vatican: some 5,000 of them, all told.
A wealthy Belgian doctor, Suitbert Mollinger, came to Pittsburgh in the mid-nineteenth century to be ordained, and brought with him his enormous collection of relics, which he’d bought up when they started appearing on the market. Mollinger had a gift of healing, and also sold a patent medicine, and with the profits built St. Anthony Chapel to house the collection.
In a working-class neighbourhood, nearer the river, the first Croatian church in America is almost completely covered inside with murals, many of them telling the Christian story through political statements against fascism and capitalism and in support of workers and the poor. The Croatian artist Maxo Vanka painted them in 1937 and 1941, at the invitation of the pastor. One of the more pointed murals in St. Nicholas church shows a rich man eating breakfast and reading the stock report, while an angel turns his back and the hand of death reaches for him.
Both symbolise Pittsburgh’s history, as an old eastern industrial city, settled by waves of immigration from central and eastern Europe, to work in the steel mills that dominated the city for decades. The great majority Catholic, they eventually eclipsed the Irish, in a way impossible in New York or Boston or other cities.
That world, except for artefacts like these two churches, is mostly gone – and how much of it will remain when the current crisis passes, is a question.
The story of how that world disappeared is familiar. Most of the children of the last generation of workers made good and moved to the suburbs. Many stopped going to Mass, except for the big holidays. In our mostly working-class town, almost everyone calls themselves Catholic. They’ll will be offended if you doubt it. Very few ever go to Mass. They can seem shocked that you think they do.
We have many good priests (my wife and I loved our last pastor), and gifted laymen, and significant ministries, but the diocese continues to decline.
For years Pittsburgh lost population as the economy crashed in the 70s and then stagnated, and younger people moved away to find jobs. The diocese declined in numbers more slowly, partly because so many Catholics were older and not moving away to find jobs.
The losses began accelerating about 2000, with the diocese losing 11 per cent of its attendance and income from 2018 to 2019. About 300,000 went to Mass on Sundays in 1990. Now, the number is reportedly much less than half that. The diocese baptised 25,000 infants in 1960 and about 4,000 in 2016, and that’s a ceremony that many lapsed Catholics request.
Insiders I know say the diocese didn’t do as much as it could have done to help.
Financially precarious parishes could survive, if their pastors were instructed in getting people to give. More young men could have been encouraged for the priesthood. Once on the edge of a conversation, I heard two priests, both moderates, say that if a young man felt a call to the priesthood, they urged to go to another diocese or a religious order.
The decline wasn’t helped by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Diocese Victims Report. Released in 2018, it revealed enough about previous bishop, Donald Wuerl, and the current bishop, David Zubik, to upset people who’d weathered the scandals so far.
The diocese launched a program they called “On Mission for the Church Alive!”. It mainly involved finding a way to consolidate churches, closing some, with the idea that money would be saved that could be spent on things like youth ministers (the churchman’s universal panacea). The few schools left, losing a lot of money, would be consolidated as well, with many closed. The process favours — for practical reasons — the bigger, wealthier suburban parishes.
It’s managed decline rather than renewal.
Diocesan insiders estimate 10 per cent to 30 per cent losses due to the closures, mostly among older people. I suspect they misunderstand how younger people might stop going — or become Protestants. The Protestants have better programs for the children.
The diocese just closed its newspaper, The Pittsburgh Catholic, after 175 years of publication. (I’ve written a biweekly column called “Catholic Sense” for the last eleven years.) As advertising income dropped, it had been funded by forcing the parishes to buy bundles to supply 40 per cent of their membership, which didn’t make the clergy happy. And now with the churches closed they can’t afford it.
Commitment depends not just on faith, but on a web of relations, friendships, habits, trust. Many laymen seem to have lost the last. No one knows what the diocese will look like when the coronavirus crisis is finally over.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.