History of St. Alphonsus Church and School
For more than a century, St. Alphonsus Church has served the Catholic population of the Wexford area.
The first Mass was celebrated here in 1832 by a horseback-traveling Franciscan missionary, Father Carrels Bonaventure Maguire. Born in Ireland and educated in Germany, Father Maguire had much in common with this farming community made up largely of immigrants with German and Irish roots.
The Mass was held in the log cabin home of Martin Byrne, the area’s first postmaster. Byrne also was born in Ireland; the Wexford postal area is named after his birthplace.
Another prominent citizen, Ambrose Schaffer (sometimes spelled Schaeffer) of Baden-Baden, Germany, worked with Byrne to bring priests to the community. Schaffer and his wife Barbara donated the land for the St. Alphonsus parish grounds in the area called Schaffer’s Corner.
St. Alphonsus Parish celebrated the dedication of its first church on July 19, 1840.
Schaffer’s sandstone grave marker still stands in the parish cemetery, along with others of Irish and German immigrants that date back to the 1800s.
Arrival of Redemptorist Priests
St. Alphonsus parish began as a parish under the spiritual care of Redemptorist priests from St. Philomena in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The Redemptorist order, founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori, came to Pittsburgh as missionaries to the German-speaking people in 1839 under the direction of Father Joseph Prost
Three priests who served St. Alphonsus parish are recognized across the world. Father John Neumann is canonized; Father Francis Xavier Seelos is beatified; and Father Suitbert Mollinger is remembered for the healing power of his ministry that continues today at St. Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh’s Troy Hill where thousands of relics he collected are displayed.
St. John Neumann. From 1840 to 1841, Father John Neumann traveled frequently from Pittsburgh to our parish. He would later become pastor of St. Philomena in Pittsburgh’s Strip District and then bishop of Philadelphia. He was canonized as St. John Neumann in 1977.
Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos. An assistant priest to Father Neumann in Pittsburgh— Father Francis Xavier Seelos—served St. Alphonsus parish from 1847 to 1850. His signature is recorded in the parish’s sacramental records. Pope John Paul II declared him Blessed Francis Seelos in 2000.
Father Suitbert Mollinger. Appointed in 1864, Father Mollinger was the first resident pastor of St. Alphonsus and its added mission, St. Teresa in Perrysville. Four years later, he went on to become the founding pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Troy Hill.
Father Mollinger used his own funds to build St. Anthony Chapel there to house relics he collected from Europe. A doctor and priest, Father Mollinger also attracted thousands of people from around the world to his healing services at the chapel.
The chapel houses the largest public collection of relics in the world; only the Vatican has more. The present-day chapel even has relics from St. John Neumann and Blessed Francis Seelos.
Building St. Alphonsus Church
The 1889 date inscribed in the keystone above St. Alphonsus Church’s front doors is when this church building—the third—was erected on the Wexford site. It’s also the date that the parish school was founded.
The original building with stained glass windows is half the size of the current St. Alphonsus Church, which was renovated and enlarged in 1912 and 1968. The 1912 changes included extending the seating area and adding two sacristies, a new sanctuary and altars, confessionals and a baptismal font. The 1968 addition of the “new side” doubled the seating capacity.
In 1962, the parish purchased a neighboring farm to allow for future expansion of the church or school. The farmhouse was razed and a new exit driveway added.
The church’s cemetery—with tombstones dating back more than a century—was full by the early 1980s. A rose granite “Mausoleum of the Apostles”, embellished with the figures of the four evangelists, was dedicated in 1981.
Renovations, Shrines, Stone Wall
Under the direction of Father Ferdinand H. Angel, renovation of the church’s land facing Church Road began in 1937. Father Angel laid much of the stone forming the front wall. Pine trees were planted and special care was given to the cemetery grounds. He also supervised the construction of six outdoor shrines.
The church’s interior also was improved—the deteriorating tile floor was replaced, new marbleized wainscoting was added to the sidewalls and the elaborate gold leaf altars were painted white. The overall interior appearance was brightened.
In October of that year, Father Angel officiated at the formal dedication of three shrines built in the Old World style of native stone. They shelter terra cotta statues imported from Italy honoring Our Lady of Olives, protectress against lightning; St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks; and Saint Expedite, patron of emergencies and expeditious solutions.
The three remaining shrines—St. Christopher, St. Claire of Assisi and St. Matilda, queen of Germany and wife of King Henry I—were dedicated in 1940. The St. Christopher statue was later moved to the Knights of Columbus property on Swinderman Drive in Wexford.
Over the years, the shrines were moved and now are located together at the church’s entrance from Church Road.
A statue of St. Alphonsus fills the center shrine facing the driveway.
Church Size Doubles
The size of the historic church building increased dramatically in 1968 when a “new side” with natural wooden beams was added onto the west end of the church to double the church’s seating capacity.
The beauty and history of the “old side’s” stained glass windows were mirrored on the “new side” with stained glass windows designed by artist Eugene N. Rutkowski with liturgical symbolism to honor St. Alphonsus, St. Peter, St. Patrick, St. Joseph, Christ the King and Our Lady of Olives. The lower level beneath the addition serves as a gymnasium and meeting room.
At the center of the expanded church is the altar with a brass crown suspended above it, artistically pulling the new and old sides together with the spiritual imagery of doves and tongues of fire. Artist Nicholas Parrendo of Hunt Stained Glass Studios in Pittsburgh designed the crown.
That was in 1976 when an extensive project was undertaken to redecorate and repair the original church building. Walls and ceilings were repainted, wiring replaced, new carpeting laid, and many of the old statues were removed or replaced.
Parrendo also designed stone reliefs of the Baptism of Christ and the Holy Family that were placed over the baptistry and side altar. A relief of the Resurrection is in the rear alcove of the new side.
The deteriorated Stations of the Cross were replaced with simple hand-carved wooden designs.
Throughout the church building and grounds are shrines, statues, stained glass windows and artwork that illustrate the rich history of the Catholic Church and St. Alphonsus parish.
St. Alphonsus School Grows
As the parish grew, so did St. Alphonsus School. Catholic educational schooling existed almost from the beginning of the parish with the Sisters of Divine Providence being the first religious order to staff a two-room schoolhouse in 1897. They remained until 1934 when the Sisters of St. Francis staffed the school.
From 1941 to 1943, the school was closed for renovations. It re-opened under the direction of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit.
But the parish and school populations kept growing, creating the need for a bigger school. A new St. Alphonsus School was dedicated in 1955. Two additional classrooms were added in 1967. A kindergarten building—the Father W. H. (William) Schroeder Schoolhouse—was dedicated in 1988. The latest school addition was dedicated in 2004.
The school’s name was changed to Blessed Francis Seelos Academy when the school merged with St. Alexis School in 2017 as part of a regionalization initiative for Catholic elementary schools in the North Hills. The school is run under the auspices of North Hills Regional Catholic Elementary Schools.
New Parishes Formed
As the North Hills population grew, St. Alphonsus parish was divided to create new parishes— St. Teresa in Perrysville (1854), St. Killian in Mars (1927), St. Catherine of Sweden in Wildwood (1953), St. Ferdinand in Cranberry (1961), St. Alexis in McCandless (1961), St. John Neumann in Franklin Park (1979) and Saints John and Paul in Franklin Park (1994).
When nearby St. Richard Church in Richland Township was established in 1992, it drew parishioners from two of those parishes—St. Catherine of Sweden and St. Killian in Mars— as well as Holy Sepulcher in Middlesex.