“I’ve lived here 40 years and I’ve never been down these streets.” My guide, a lifelong Yinzer, wound down the crooked streets of the Troy Hill neighborhood with the care and caution of a tourist. It was the first time during my Pittsburgh visit that I hadn’t had to hang onto the handle bar in the SUV while she drove. We were headed to St. Anthony’s chapel, a tiny building tucked away on Pittsburgh’s North Shore and the home of the largest public collection of religious relics in the world.
When the GPS signaled our arrival at our destination, we found a stone church on a dead-end street. Inside were three short rows of pews and, as promised, a massive array of… what, exactly?
A relic is an item that is in someway associated with a saint or holy person. The Catholic Church has multiple classifications of relics, depending on how closely related the item was to the person. The bulk of St Anthony’s collection was made up of 1st class — made of a saint’s bone or hair — and 2nd class relics — made from a saint’s article of clothing or item used in daily life.
Upon walking into the church, we were immediately underwhelmed by the collection. The building itself was beautiful and the Stations of the Cross circling the sanctuary were some of the largest and most elaborate I’d ever seen. But the relics themselves looked more like old lockets than sacred items and you had to rely on a volunteer flipping through a catalogue to tell you which bone fragment belonged to which saint.
“This one here is interesting,” the gray-haired woman with the catalogue pointed her laser beam at a case with an elaborate gold frame. “This,” she narrowed her beam on a speck of wood protected by glass and gold, “is a piece of the cross. And this kind of beige speck beneath it is a piece of Mary’s veil.”
We were no longer overwhelmed. Both my frenetic driver friend and myself were surprised by the tears that welled instantly in our eyes at the tiny recreation of a mother at the foot of her son’s crucifixion. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me,” my friend apologized and stepped away.
The volunteer turned and aimed her laser pointer across the room. Instinctively, I crossed towards the red dot. “That’s another piece of the cross, and these around it,” she circled the gilded splinter, “that’s one relic from each of the original apostles.” Unexpected chills again as I thought of friendships and bonds that outlast even death.
Yes, I was moved by these walls covered with bone fragments and hair samples. It may have been the hush of a church that always makes me feel sentimental or the stories that inevitably connected the relics with my own humanity. Perhaps the place is holy. Whatever the reason, I’m certain that a unique attraction is hidden among the cobbled roads and sharp left turns of Troy Hill.
Photos Britt Reints