History of St. Alphonsus Church and School

IMG_3490-2For 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.

Ambrose SchafferAnother 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.

Fr John NeumannSt. 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

1889The 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.

Shrine of Saints Claire, Our Lady, MatildaThe 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.

Church Interior 1At 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

IMG_3563As 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. It now is used for preschoolers. Bishop (now Cardinal) Donald Wuerl dedicated the latest school addition in 2004.

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.

Below is a St. Alphonsus Church and School timeline.
(The school’s milestones are italicized.)

1832—First Mass offered in log cabin of Martin Byrne by Father Carrels Bonaventure Maguire, a horseback-traveling Franciscan missionary born in Ireland and educated in Germany. Byrne is Wexford’s first postmaster.

April 14, 1839—Redemptorist Fathers of St. Alphonsus Liguori arrive in Pittsburgh.

July 19, 1840—First St. Alphonsus Church dedicated as a simple brick structure. The land is donated by one of the leading citizens of the day, Ambrose Schaffer. Records show this structure was later blown down and a second church is built sometime between 1843 and 1860.

1840-41—Redemptorist Father John Neumann, one of the first missionary priests to serve St. Alphonsus, travels from Pittsburgh to attend the parish in Wexford. Neumann is canonized in 1977.

1845—Father Francis Xavier Seelos joins Father Neumann at St. Philomena in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Seelos is beatified in 2000.

1847-1850—Father Seelos serves the St. Alphonsus parish; his signature is recorded in the parish’s sacramental records.

Pre-1860—Second St. Alphonsus Church is built as a simple brick structure.

1864—Father Suitbert Mollinger is appointed as the first resident pastor of St. Alphonsus and its added mission, St. Teresa in Perrysville.

1889—Current brick church built on same site. (This is the third.)

Summer 1889—First Harvest Home Picnic, later called the Harvest Home Dinner, is held after the harvest of crops. This tradition continues today.

1889—The parish school is constructed as a one-room frame building located where the statue of the Blessed Mother now faces the driveway. The school is later moved behind the church and another room is added.

1897—The Sisters of Divine Providence are the first religious order to staff the two-room schoolhouse. They remain until the summer of 1934 when the Sisters of Saint Francis staff the school.

1912—Church is renovated. Seating area is extended and two sacristies, a new sanctuary and altars, confessionals and a baptismal font are added.

1927—St. Alphonsus parish divides to create St. Killian in Mars to serve Catholics in southern Butler County.

1934—The Sisters of St. Francis staff St. Alphonsus School.

Aug. 3, 1935—Pittsburgh Press publishes front-page story about St. Alphonsus celebrating anniversary of the first Mass offered in Wexford.

1937—Under the direction of Father Ferdinand H. Angel, renovation of the church’s land facing Church Road begins. Father Angel lays much of the stone forming the front wall. Pine trees are planted and special care is given to the cemetery grounds. He also supervises the construction of six outdoor shrines.

The church’s interior is also improved—the deteriorating tile floor is replaced, new marbleized wainscoting is added to the sidewalls and the elaborate gold leaf altars are painted white. The overall interior appearance is brightened.

Oct. 10, 1937—Father Angel officiates at the formal dedication of three shrines built in the Old World style of native stone. They shelter the terra cotta statues imported from Italy that honor Our Lady of Olives, protectress against lightning; St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks; and Saint Expedite, patron of emergencies and expeditious solutions.

May 30, 1940—Centennial celebration of the dedication of the first St. Alphonsus Church.

Nov. 17, 1940—Dedication of the three remaining shrines—St. Christopher, St. Claire of Assisi and St. Matilda, queen of Germany and wife of King Henry I.

1941-43—St. Alphonsus School closes for renovations.

1943—St. Alphonsus School reopens under administration of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit.

June 1953—St. Alphonsus divides and St. Catherine’s in Wildwood is established.

September 1955—The new St. Alphonsus School is dedicated. The larger school is needed to meet growing enrollment needs. In keeping with the parish’s custom, parishioners do most of the work on the building project.

1961— St. Alphonsus divides to establish St. Ferdinand in Cranberry and St. Alexis in McCandless.

1962—Neighboring farm is purchased to allow for future expansion of the church or school. The farmhouse is razed and a new exit driveway added.

1967—St. Alphonsus School adds two classrooms.

1968—“New side” of church is built, highlighted with natural wood beams and stained glass windows designed by artist Eugene N. Rutkowski. The windows have 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 a meeting room.

1971—Father William H. Schroeder initiates lay participation in the church with the appointment of the first lectors as part of the physical and spiritual changes brought about by Pope John XXIII and the Vatican II Council.

1973—First Parish Council elected.

1974—Pipe organ removed from choir loft because costly repairs are needed.

1976—Extensive project undertaken to redecorate and repair original church building. Walls and ceilings are repainted, wiring replaced, new carpeting laid, and many of the old statues are removed or replaced. John Sciullo designs side altar and baptismal font.

Artist Nicholas Parrendo of Hunt Stained Glass Studios in Pittsburgh designs the stone reliefs of the Baptism of Christ and the Holy Family to be placed over the baptistry and side altar. The relief of The Resurrection is in the rear alcove of the new side.

A brass crown composed of wings and tongues of fire, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is also designed by Parrendo. It floats above the altar, creating a canopy to unite the new and the old churches as one.

The deteriorated Stations of the Cross are replaced with simple hand-carved wooden designs.

June 19, 1977—Father John Neumann canonized— St. John Neumann.

1979—St. Alphonsus divides to create St. John Neumann parish in Franklin Park.

1981—A rose granite “Mausoleum of the Apostles,” embellished with the figures of the four evangelists, is dedicated. (St. Alphonsus cemetery had reached capacity.)

1981—Illuminated statue of St. Alphonsus is installed on church grounds near the new side entrance. It is later moved to a more appropriate position in the shrine alcove at the front driveway entrance.

May 1988—A new kindergarten is dedicated for St. Alphonsus School.

Aug. 5, 1990—150th anniversary honored with Concelebrated Mass with Bishop Donald W. Wuerl (now a cardinal) as principal celebrant and homilist.

1994—St. Alphonsus divides; Saints John and Paul parish is established in Franklin Park.

April 9, 2000—Father Francis Seelos is beatified—Blessed Francis Seelos.

2002—Groundbreaking for the school’s new wing is held on the last day of school, June 9.  Construction continues throughout the summer and fall.

March 3, 2003—The new school space is ready for occupancy. The addition provides an official entrance for the school along with offices, a faculty room and a workroom.  For the first time in its educational history, the school has a kindergarten under the same roof as the rest of the school, as well as a dedicated space for art and music and a computer lab.

March 3, 2004—The Ryan Center—a state-of-the-art gymnasium / auditorium—is dedicated.

2007—The church’s foundation structure is addressed with column support repair and four new support columns in the church.

2008—The school adds a preschool for ages 3 and 4 and after-school care.

2011—The school adds full-day kindergarten.