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Epiphany Catholic Church

An article adapted by the author from: Gathered Fragments - published by The Catholic Historical Society of W. Pa., October 2002. I


Our Second Century of Service

by: Rev. James W. Garvey, former pastor

To understand the history of Epiphany Parish, it is necessary to briefly review the history of St. Paul Cathedral. St. Paul Church was built in 1834. It was originally located at the corner of Grant Street and Fifth Avenue (Woods Plan lots # 421, 422, 423, 424, Deed Book Volume 1143, P. 315). This was prime downtown property diagonally across the street from the Allegheny County Court House. Ownership of the property and building was transferred from the estate of James O’Hara (DBV #47, P. 148-149) to Bishop Francis P. Kenrick, April 25, 1834 when Pittsburgh was still part of the Diocese of Philadelphia. When the Diocese of Pittsburgh was established August 11, 1843, St. Paul Church, located on the most prominent hill in downtown Pittsburgh, became the Cathedral Church in the newly formed Diocese.

The prominent positioning of St. Paul Cathedral on Grant Street meant that it stood above much of the rest of the City. That situation, however, was not always an advantage. Newspaper reports from that time indicated that in 1836 Grant Street was lowered approximately ten feet. In 1848, Grant Street was lowered another seven feet. This unfortunate set of circumstances required that the pastor of St. Paul Cathedral erect a fifteen foot wooden stair tower (26 steps of seven inches each) so that the parishioners could gain admittance to the church from Grant Street. Unfortunately there was a devastating fire May 6, 1851 which destroyed the Cathedral building. Bishop Michael O’Connor, the first bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, ordered that the cathedral be rebuilt - at much expense - on the same Grant Street site. The newly constructed Cathedral was dedicated June 25, 1855.

The "new" Cathedral building served the needs of the Diocese of Pittsburgh for many years. Unfortunately over the years the Diocese was never able to pay off the oppressive debt associated with rebuilding the cathedral, and the church rectory (where the Bishop lived) on that same property. In the intervening years, the property on Grant Street increased in value significantly. Throughout the closing decade of the 19th century, Bishop Richard Phelan moved slowly and consulted widely before arriving at a decision to sell the Cathedral property. Moreover, Bishop Phelan was sensitive to the feelings of the Catholic community in the matter of the disposition of the most prominent church in the Diocese. Unfortunately, St. Paul Cathedral parish was never successful in paying down its substantial debt. Over a period of several years, Bishop Phelan consulted with the clergy of the Diocese, prominent Catholic citizens, and especially the priests and parishioners of St. Paul Cathedral before arriving at a decision concerning the sale of the Cathedral property. At a meeting held with the parishioners of St. Paul Cathedral April 9, 1901 a resolution was passed that the Bishop was to sell the property for a sum: " . . . not less than one million three hundred thousand dollars."

Bishop Phelan approached the Court of Common Pleas May 31, 1901 (No. 597, June Term, 1901) which issued an order that the property might be sold at private sale. Sept. 28, 1901, Bishop Phelan sold St. Paul Cathedral property at the corner of Grant Street and Fifth Avenue to Henry Clay Frick for $1,325,000.00. Straightway that decision was made, plans were put in place to: (1) Erect Epiphany Church, rectory and school a few blocks away on Washington Place to serve the Catholic families who lived in the Uptown area. (2) Planing was begun in earnest to construct a new St. Paul Cathedral to be built on Fifth Avenue in the Schenley Farms area of Oakland. Epiphany Church would serve as the pro-cathedral until the "new" St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland would be consecrated in 1906. The Grant Street site where St. Paul Cathedral stood for so many years became the site for one of the most architecturally interesting office buildings in Pittsburgh - The Union Arcade, later known as The Union Trust Building.

Bishop Phelan himself blessed the newly laid cornerstone at Epiphany Church August 10, 1902. The cost for erecting Epiphany Church, rectory and school was $386,016.12. The Church is a red brick Romanesque structure with byzantine details. Edward Stotz served as architect. Taber Sears executed the paintings of Christ and the apostles which dominate the sanctuary. Magnificent stained glass windows were designed and installed between 1903 and 1910 by George Sotter. On the left side, these windows depict familiar stories from the New Testament; on the right side, stories from the Old Testament. The marble canopy over the main altar contains the extraordinary Venetian mosaic tympanum of the Visit of the Magi, and on the upper arch the enameled mosaic of the Lamb of God. Marble for the sanctuary was ordered and cut in Pietrasanta, Italy and reconstructed when it was delivered to Epiphany Church. Various marbles are used. These include, Carrara, the purplish yellow Pavonazzo, Dipolliono, red Verona and the deep Numidian. Bronze tabernacle doors, the crucifixes and candlesticks, and communion rail gates were designed by John T. Comes and cast in Europe.

The final mass at St. Paul Cathedral was celebrated in May 1903. Bishop Richard Phelan after a life time of service to God and the Church died at St. Paul Orphanage, Dec. 20, 1904. He was buried from Epiphany Church - the pro-cathedral.

Epiphany church was used for daily and Sunday celebrations of mass and the sacraments by the congregation, beginning in 1903, but its many appointments were not completed until 1910. The pews, statues, vestments, stations of the cross and various other furnishing from St. Paul Cathedral were transferred to Epiphany. Four larger-than-life statues from the Cathedral are still to be found at Epiphany. The figure of Christ is at the peak of the Church exterior in front, flanked by St. Peter and St. Paul. The statue of St. John which for many years occupied a favorite spot in small garden outside the priests sacristy was recently moved to the wall at the ramp where you enter the Parish Hall. The hall is named in remembrance of one of the former pastors, Bishop John B. McDowell. The children who had been attending St. Paul Cathedral Grade School, and the Sisters of Mercy who taught them, all transferred to Epiphany School in 1903 - as soon as the new school building was ready for occupancy.

The first pastor of Epiphany was Coadjutor Bishop J. F. Regis Canevin. Bishop Canevin appointed Rev. Lawrence O’Connell pastor of Epiphany Parish, Oct. 12, 1905. Fr. O’Connell shepherded his flock with care, and helped to meet the spiritual and temporal needs of his parishioners, and the multi-ethnic peoples of the neighborhood. Fr. O’Connell served as the pastor of Epiphany for 54 years. He experienced both the zenith and the decline of the parish in his own lifetime. In 1903, when Epiphany grade school first opened the Uptown neighborhood consisted mostly of immigrant Irish families. The Sisters of Mercy welcomed all to the school, and made sure the children learned their catechism as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. At its peak, student enrollment throughout eight grades was nearly 1,200 students. In subsequent years, as the neighborhood changed, newly immigrated families moved in. The Mercy Sisters also welcomed these children whose parents had come from Italy, Eastern Europe and Lebanon. At one point 30% of the student body was made up of Syrian Maronite children.

After Fr. O’Connell had accomplished all that was necessary so that the new parish was up and running, he began to construct the Pittsburgh Lyceum opposite the parish church at 110 Washington Place (the site of the Chatham Center today). In the closing decade of the 19th Century, a group of young men from the neighborhood met in the basement of St. Paul Cathedral and used that space as a lyceum. In the opening years of the 20th Century, Fr. O’Connell erected a new building devoted to organized sports, and supervised activities for young men. Two well-known boxers trained at the Lyceum: Harry Greb and Billy Conn. Conn challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship. The Lyceum sponsored an amateur theater group, and also offered a lending library, a lecture series, and adult education. The Pittsburgh Lyceum offered English as a second language class for newly immigrated families until the City of Pittsburgh took on this responsibility more than a decade later.

Fr. O’Connell had a compassionate love for children. He worked with particular enthusiasm to establish programs that would aid underprivileged children from the city neighborhood which surrounded Epiphany Church. He was instrumental in working with communities of religious women and lay people in opening St. Rita’s Home for Babies, St. Anne’s Day Nursery, and the Raphael Temporary Home for Older Children. He also established Camp O’Connell in Bradford Woods to provide a ‘fresh-air camp’ experience for needy boys and girls. He played a major role in organizing the Downtown Boys Club (1916), launching the St. Vincent de Paul Society Store (1919), and served as Secretary of the Diocesan Charities Commission from 1914 to 1947. In 1912 Fr. O’Connell was the director of a campaign to raise $200,000.00 to build the St. Regis Residence for Women on Congress street, behind Epiphany School. St. Regis Residence offered a protective place to live (rooms & board) for women who came from the countryside in search of employment in the City of Pittsburgh. This service continued until 2000, when the program was ended. Plans by another agency for a program to help meet the needs of low-income women in that building never came to fruition. Many vocations to the priesthood and religious life came from among the families who attended Epiphany Parish. Fr. O’Connell, during the later years of his life, established a scholarship program for the education of seminarians at St. Mary Seminary, Baltimore.

In the early 1900's seven newspapers were printed each day in Pittsburgh. The Catholic printers asked Fr. O’Connell if a mass could be offered when they finished their shift at 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Permission was sought from and granted by Church authorities in Rome, and the 2:30 a.m. mass was offered each Sunday at Epiphany from 1905 to 1991. In addition to the printers, many couples who were ‘out on the town’, uniformed police and firemen, college students and others frequented this early-morning mass. The priests from Epiphany Parish also began offering mass each Sunday at the Allegheny County Jail, a few blocks away.

Beginning in the 19th century and continuing into the 20th Century, Pittsburgh was hailed as one of the primary industrial centers in the nation. The railroad and coal industries fed the steel industry which had grown up along the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela River valleys. Urban planning was a little known science in the early part of the 20th Century. The Pittsburgh region was too busy expanding into an industrial giant to plan for parks, open spaces, or greenery in the downtown area. However, when Pittsburgh was reinventing itself in the 1950s following World War II one of the major efforts was the demolition of the mills, factories and warehouses which had grown up and surrounded Fort Pitt in what is now known as The Golden Triangle. In those years, it was difficult to find a grassy spot or a tree downtown. When they cleared away the rubble from the demolished factories, it was a very pleasing site to see the stainless steel Gateway Center office buildings, the State Office Building, and the Hilton Hotel towering over a tree lined grassy park in the Golden Triangle where the begrimed factories had been. Point State Park with a beautiful fountain was situated at the beginning of the Ohio River. It was a first-rate accomplishment among industrial cities in the north east, and an achievement in which the City Fathers and industrial leaders of Pittsburgh could take much pride.

Redevelopment in the area around The Point was an award winning accomplishment. However, the rules for Urban Renewal so well practiced in Gateway Center would not transfer as readily to the area known as the Lower Hill. In the late 1950's the city fathers and industrial and business leaders once again set to work to enlarge and "improve" the Uptown Pittsburgh neighborhoods, so that the City might expand into this area which had been a residential neighborhood for more than a century.

Although it took a number of years to plan, the effect of Urban Renewal in the Uptown - Lower Hill District neighborhoods had a ravaging impact almost overnight. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the neighborhood surrounding Epiphany Parish was bulldozed off the map. In less than six months, eight thousand people were relocated. Homes and businesses were torn down, and the rubble was hauled away. No one in living memory remembered seeing so much flat land in the Uptown neighborhood waiting to be developed. The effect was devastating. It was one thing to tear down aging factory or machine-shop buildings as had been done in the Gateway Center. It was much more painful and damaging to the human spirit to displace such a significant number of families in a city neighborhood.

I have not been able to discover research describing how widely the City Fathers consulted with Bishop Hugh C. Boyle, or Bishop John Dearden concerning the proposed urban planning which would have such a devastating effect on the Uptown neighborhoods. In hindsight, though, I suspect no one in the Church, City or the industry-business community could have envisioned the frightful effects this particular Urban Renewal effort would visit upon the low income families who peopled the neighborhood. Epiphany Parish, in less than six months, was reduced from 2,200 families to 350 families. St. Peter’s Church Fernando Street, and other community institutions were closed and demolished. Old streets were relocated, and new streets appeared where none had been before. The infrastructure of the whole neighborhood collapsed almost overnight. Gone were the gas stations, neighborhood grocery stores, drug stores, florist shops, bars and restaurants. Before the demolition was complete, and the new buildings began to rise from the rubble, Epiphany Church, School, Rectory and the St. Regis Building were the only structures immediately familiar in what was once a vital pulsating multiethnic neighborhood.

For more than fifty years Fr. O’Connell had ministered to thousands and thousands of families in Epiphany Parish. Now he was shocked to witness the dislocation of these same parishioners to other parts of the City and County. It was too much. At age 84 he submitted his resignation to Bishop John Dearden, retired in residence, and died in 1959.

Subsequent pastors who served Epiphany Parish with distinction and constancy are:

Rev. Daniel A. Gearing, Rev. Daniel H. Brennan, Auxiliary Bishop, John B. McDowell (served as pastor for 28 years), Rev. Thomas F. Manion, Rev. Robert E. Spangenberg C.S.S.P., Rev. E. Daniel Sweeney, and Rev. James W. Garvey. When Fr. Garvey was transferred in February 2004, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl asked Rev. Carmen D’Amico, the pastor of the neighboring parish, St. Benedict the Moor, to also serve as the pastor of Epiphany Parish. In the spring 2008, Bishop David Zubik, asked Rev. Carmen D’Amico, and Rev. Thomas Sparacino to form a Team Ministry and serve three parishes: St. Benedict the Moor (lower Hill District), Epiphany Parish (Uptown), and St. Mary of Mercy Parish (downtown). In June 2010, Fr. Thomas Sparacino was transferred to St. Richard Parish, Richland. Each of these pastors - and the Parochial Vicars and resident priests who worked with them - has done his best to serve the families who people a much smaller Epiphany parish in what is now defined in the neighborhood as a ‘downtown parish.’

The Crosstown Boulevard slices through what was once a vital part of Epiphany Parish. Chatham Center and the Marriott Hotel have grown up across the street from the Church. The Civic Arena built in 1961 and later (in 1999) was known as the Mellon Arena, became home to the Pittsburgh Hornets Hockey Team, and later to the Pittsburgh Penguins Hockey (NHL) Team. The Mellon Arena and adjacent parking lots occupy the whole city block across Centre Avenue from the Epiphany Church. The Washington Plaza Apartment building was constructed one block away from Epiphany at the corner of Centre and Crawford St. Although there had been much discussion over the years about further development in that Uptown section of Pittsburgh in accord with a master plan, development of the vacant land and construction of additional buildings did not take place.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup several times in the closing decade of the 20th century – 1991 and 1992, and again in the first decade of the 21st century – 2009. However, during those years, they never failed to point out that theirs was one of the oldest and smallest venues in the National Hockey League. Beginning in July 1970, Three Rivers Stadium, on the North Side, hosted both the Pittsburgh Steelers Football games, and the Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball games. However, in February 2001, the Three Rivers Stadium was imploded, and two new stadiums were constructed on the North Shore. The Pittsburgh Steelers Football Team now plays in their new stadium, Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Pirates now play in their new ballpark - PNC Park. The owners and management of the Pittsburgh Penguins proclaimed in no uncertain terms that, the Igloo, as the Mellon Arena had become known because of its dome-like circular shape, had come to the end of its useful life. The Igloo was old, and the number of seats could not be expanded. The time had come for the Pittsburgh Penguins to have a new venue for ice hockey like the other professional sports teams in Pittsburgh.

Beginning in the spring 2007, there were negotiations between the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, and the Diocese of Pittsburgh who held the property at Epiphany in trust for the congregation. The Authority wanted to purchase property and buildings that were part of Epiphany Parish. Epiphany Church itself was not for sale. In their quest to put together a land acquisition package that would provide a sufficiently large footprint to build a new ice arena, the Authority expressed definite interest in purchasing Epiphany Rectory (which faced Centre Avenue), and the St. Regis Residence for Women, located immediately behind Epiphany Rectory.

The Sports & Exhibition Authority was also interested in purchasing the former Central Medical Hospital Property (immediately adjacent to Epiphany on Centre Avenue), and other plots and parcels of land, between Centre Avenue and Fifth Avenue including the site of the oldest Orthodox Jewish Congregation in Pittsburgh and their Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob Synagogue on Colwell Street. After wide consultation and many meetings with the clergy and people of Epiphany Parish, the Diocese of Pittsburgh sold Epiphany Rectory and the St. Regis Residence to the Sports & Exhibition Authority for several million dollars. The final result of these land acquisitions provided the Authority enough land to construct a new ice arena, which was named, The Consol Energy Center. The new ice arena and performance venue, with a principal entrance at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place opened in August 2010.

The money from the sale of Epiphany property was used to demolish the former Epiphany School, and to construct a new four story rectory.  The rectory serves as a residence for the priests who live at Epiphany, and as the Administrative Office for the Center-City Catholic Parishes.  (i.e. St. Mary of Mercy, Epiphany, and St. Benedict the Moor.)  Epiphany Rectory is directly opposite Chatham Center - the rectory address is: 164 Washington Place, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15219-4438. The Architect for the new rectory was John Conzulo Associates. The general contractor was P. J. Dick Co. Construction of the new rectory also provided an opportunity for additional parking, and landscaping on Epiphany Parish property. To facilitate the easy movement of priests, staff and parishioners between the rectory and the church a pedestrian bridge was constructed between the two buildings. Bishop David Zubik blessed and dedicated the new Epiphany rectory in the Spring, 2010.

Each pastor over the years, working with the parishioners, struggled to define and then redefine the role Epiphany parish would play in serving the Catholic community in the Uptown neighborhood. When the parish celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2002-2003, that role had become much more clearly defined. Epiphany parish continues to serve the Catholic faithful who live in the neighborhood, the faculty and students at Duquesne University, and the medical staff and personnel at UPMC-Mercy Hospital. At the same time, we also serve the Catholic faithful who live in the suburbs, and travel to the city for employment , shopping or entertainment in downtown Pittsburgh.

Each of the pastors since Fr. O’Connell, in his own way, has undertaken some remodeling and renovation projects to update the parish. Over the last decade, these efforts include painting and spot pointing the exterior of the church, painting the interior of the church, repairing many of the stained glass windows in the church, and remodeling the parish hall and kitchen. The church and parish hall were air-conditioned in 2007. The beautiful but aging Austin pipe organ (originally installed in 1903) was completely renovated by Luley & Associates of Pittsburgh, and a new console was installed in 2007. At the same time, a smaller newly renovated Moeller pipe organ and console was situated on the first floor in the transept. The smaller Moeller organ is connected to the Great Organ in the Gallery.

The shape of the future for Epiphany Parish is at once clear, yet at the same time cloaked in mystery. It is clear that Epiphany Parish continues a long tradition of serving parishioners and others in the wider community by celebrating the sacraments and preaching the good news of the Gospel. How that tradition of service will be exercised in the future is a mystery, given the ever increasing shortage of clergy, and the continuing evolution of the neighborhood surrounding Epiphany Church. With the understanding that much has changed, and that much more will change in Epiphany Parish, we look to the past with thanksgiving for all that has been, even as we look to the future with confidence and trust in Jesus Christ for all that is yet to come.

Text revised, Spring 2010 by: Rev. James W. Garvey, former pastor, Epiphany Parish




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