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A nun at a chapel of relics in Pittsburgh says the extraordinary atmosphere associated with the artifacts has led to cures of everything from birth problems to cancer.

The shrine, St. Anthony Chapel, on Troy Hill in Pittsburgh, houses what they assert is the largest collection of authenticated Catholic relics -- about 5,000 -- outside of the Vatican.

Included in the collection are the complete skeletal remains of Saint Demetrius (housed underneath the altar), the skulls of Saint Macharius and Saint Stephana, skulls of the martyred companions of Saint Ursula, the skull of Saint Theodore, and even the tooth of the chapel's patron, Saint Anthony of Padua.

There are also historic monstrances, statues, and what are alleged to be a fragment from the Blessed Mother's veil, two pieces from the table used for the Last Supper, and 22 pieces from the "True Cross."

The nun, Sister Margaret Liam Glenane, who gives tours at the shrine, says the number may exceed 5,000, most collected by Father Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger, the original pastor of the parish Most Holy Name of Jesus Church, which is associated with the chapel. "Father Mollinger was born in the Kingdom of Belgium, Providence of Brabant, Common of Campenhout, Second Lieutenant in the cavalry; educated at Amsterdam, studied medicine in Naples, Rome and Genoa: attended seminary in Ghent. 

"During his term at Ghent, he formed the acquaintance of an American bishop in search of missionary volunteers to the Americas," according to a biography.

Father Mollinger, who died in 1892, collected the items with the help of relatives and friends during political upheaval in Germany and Italy in the 1880s, a time when persecution of the Church led to abandonment of many precious items from some of Europe's most treasured sanctuaries.

Father Mollinger was from a wealthy German family and after emigrating to the U.S. originally planned to be a doctor until he felt a calling to the priesthood. He financed collection of the relics and construction of the chapel, which is described as exquisite, with gorgeous life-sized Stations of the Cross imported from Munich. Most of the items have certificates of authenticity, the oldest dating to August 12, 1716.

"He built a school and convent and got the Sisters of Notre Dame to teach and they taught there for 115 years," Sister Margaret informs us. "He also built a beautiful rectory with his own family's money. Then he said he wanted to build a chapel in honor of St. Anthony and that he would match any money with his own.

"He was refused, so he built it out of his own money. The chapel was half of what is there now. While he was building the chapel, there was disturbance between Italy and Germany, and many churches had to close. He was aware of relics that might end up on the street, and went back and forth to Europe for them. He had friends and relatives looking for relics. He already had many himself."

The holiness has long attracted those in need of healing. "There are quite a few people who told me they were cured of cancer or different ailments," says the nun. "Some request me to bless them with a relic and then say, 'Sister, you cured me from cancer.' I say, 'If you felt blessed by a certain relic, it was your faith in that particular saint. You see them coming back every two or three weeks in thanksgiving.

"One day I was giving a tour in the chapel after church and waiting for the bus and this lady came into the chapel and I knew her well. She lived quite a distance but I wondered why she was there so early in the morning.

"When the tour was over I went to her and asked her what the matter was, and she said her daughter had gone into labor prematurely and they had taken her to the hospital that morning and that the were going to have to take the baby from her. 

"They wanted the baby no matter what. She was three or four months premature. I don't think they gave her much hope. Anyway, I asked if she had a holy card of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha [the saintly Mohawk-Algonquin maiden] and she said no, so I went into the rectory and asked if there was a holy card and they said no. I told the priest, Father W. David Shorr, the story, and he said he just got a relic from a tour guide of a Blessed Frederick Janssoone who was up for canonization and said to tell her she could have it for a week and put it under her pillow or whatever. She took it and every so often her daughter put it to her stomach and she could feel the presence of something there.

"They took her to the delivery room, and when she got there, there was this shadow of a tall 'priest' with gray hair and he said, 'Don't worry, everything will be okay.' The baby was born and weighed one pound and ten ounces -- a perfect baby, and the doctor felt it was a miracle. He is nine years old now and comes to the chapel. They felt the shadow was Blessed Frederic. We have a medal of him and some of his hair."

Several have told Sister Margaret of Blessed Xavier Seelos of New Orleans (who we featured yesterday, 5/27). "Many people are praying to him, and many miracles have worked through him," she says. "It's the faith of the people."

Does Father Mollinger himself intercede for those who come to his chapel?

It is a real mystery question because -- as it turns out -- Father Mollinger was known as a miraculous healer when he was a priest!

"Father Suitbert Mollinger was the greatest collector of holy relics in history, and his collection (the largest in the world outside the Vatican) still lives in the chapel he built on Troy Hill to accommodate it," notes a local blog. "But Father Mollinger was more than a priest and a collector: he was also a healer. He had a reputation for miraculous cures. He also had medical training, which gave him an edge on the competition in the miracle-cures department. And even six months after his death, as we see here, he was still in the patent-medicine business."

Noted the Pittsburgh Press on June 5, 1892, "The annual pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Anthony has again commenced, and the many boarding places clustering about the little chapel are rapidly being filled with visitors. The [fame] of Father Mollinger, the venerable priest-physician, has spread to all parts of the continent, and he now numbers among his patients invalids from nearly every state and territory in the union, as well as from Canada and British Columbia.

"Some of these visitors have traveled hundreds of miles to get here. So firm has [been] their assurance that Father Mollinger can help them that many of them have spent every cent of money they had for railway fare and have suffered the greatest discomforts by traveling day and night in crowded day coaches in their efforts to put themselves under the priest's influence and receive the blessing as soon as possible.

"Last year the total attendance on St. Anthony's day was nearly 20,000. Of course this number included many visitors from different portions of the city. This year it is thought the number will be above 12,000. The cottage keepers are preparing for a larger number, however, and some of them have erected sheds adjoining their residences to use as dining rooms when the guests begin to swell in numbers.

"Several invalids who claim to have been benefited by Father Mollinger during the past few weeks were seen by the Press representative yesterday. The case of Miss Annie Moore of Oil City created considerable comment. Last winter she was stricken with the grip and was very ill for several weeks. During her illness her eye sight failed, and when she recovered she was unable to distinguish a single object. She consulted several physicians at home and in this city, but they could give her no encouragement. She finally decided to go to Mount Troy and see Father Mollinger. She has been there but a few days and says she can now see as well as ever.'

"Michael O'Regon, of Youngstown, O., has been suffering from an injury to the spine contracted while lifting a heavy load. He says: "I came here a week ago. I was unable to walk and could scarcely move my body; now I can run and jump and kick as high as the next man," and suiting the action to the word, he vaulted over the porch railing to the street below, a distance of nearly eight feet.

"During his stay on the hill the reporter was given an opportunity of seeing the interior of the new stone chapel, which has just been completed. A fair representation of the exterior of the building is shown in an accompanying illustration. [Quality too poor to scan.] He was shown through shaded lawn to the side door of the chapel.

"As a place of worship the little chapel is well worth seeing. There is something very European in its internal as well as its external appearance. With its single aisle and model choir, it seems truly reminiscent of the old English cathedral. A splendid statue of St. Anthony of Padua, stands in the center of the building near the vestibule containing the relics. It stands on a pedestal of Italian, brilliant and Kentucky marbles, intermixed with cut onyx in variety. On either side are the altars of Joseph and the Virgin in delicate rosewood, finely polished," went on the old newspaper.

"These are about 12-feet high, and the statues, which are miniatures, are encased in glass. Around the aisle are the stations of the cross; magnificent works of art. The story of Calvary is told with life-size pictures of the Savior's sufferings, and reflect with brilliancy from the gorgeous nichings in which they are placed. Each station is a life representation of the way of the cross, carved from Linden wood.

"The figures were imported from Munich at a total cost of $28,000. There are 7,000 relics in the building. They are placed in cases which line the walls of the chancel. There are many relics of St. Anthony, such as finger-nails, pieces of wood from the shoes he wore, and there are mites of the dresses worn by St. Mary and St. Theresa. The ceiling of the building is beautifully frescoed. The nave is lighted from windows on the second tier, while the whole is devoid of galleries, except that set aside for the use of the choir. On this gallery stands a new organ, which has just been built."

After his death, many items, especially valuable chandeliers and stone, were removed by his relatives. He had left no will.

But he had left behind his famous saying: "The purpose of life is to find God."

[resources: Forty Dreams of John Bosco and The Holy Cloak]

[The chapel]

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