III: The Days of Saint Agnes

Father Thomas Regis Murphy asked for it. Not happy to relax in retirement after 53 years of parish work, he found (or more accurately, invented) a new job which was right up his alley - coordinator of the newly revived Tridentine Mass.

On June 11, 1989, the very day the old rite of Mass returned to the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Father Murphy retired after 28 years as pastor of Resurrection Parish in West Mifflin. His retirement story in the Pittsburgh Catholic prophesied what was in store:

One wish Fr. Murphy holds on to is that the Latin Mass will be offered on occasion. "The Tridentine liturgy is considered the most noble act of art in human existence. The solemn high Mass is considered the acme of beauty," he said.

In the seven months of 1989 that the Latin Mass was offered twice-monthly at Duquesne's chapel, Fr. Murphy was the celebrant two times. He knew of the many problems there, including the fact that the priests were assigned on a week by week basis, with nobody in charge. Taking the initiative, he recalls, "I saw the bishop at some event, and I said 'Why don't you just let me take care of the whole thing? Interior of St. Agnes ChurchNot have this hit-or-miss thing in two parts of the diocese. We could have it over at St. Agnes.'" And what was the bishop's reaction? "He immediately said, 'Sure, go ahead, if you want it, take it.' He may have thought this was a good way to get it off his back. I don't think he anticipated it would be as successful as it is." Fr. Murphy suggested St. Agnes Church in Oakland as the new home because "It was in limbo." The old Irish neighborhood had changed, and few parishioners remained to attend the two weekend Masses. Another key virtue was St. Agnes's location: "It was close to the center of things, and people from different parts of the diocese can get there easily." And Fr. Murphy certainly didn't mind that "This was my home parish. I was baptized there, made my first Communion, was confirmed, said my first Mass there, and buried my mother and father from there."

On Sunday, January 7, 1990, the Tridentine Mass moved into St. Agnes Church, where it would be celebrated every Sunday, instead of twice monthly, at 11:45 am. There was to be no Latin Mass on Easter or when Christmas fell on a Sunday, restrictions which proved to be short-lived. Although St. Agnes would become a beloved home for the old Mass for the next four and a half years, it presented an immediate problem that first Sunday—the altar steps.

Altar problems

Although St. Agnes had suffered relatively little modernization, the main body of the altar had been moved out so that the modern Mass could be said versus populum (facing the people). This block of marble had been moved all the way forward on the predella (platform) so that it was flush with the front edge. That first Sunday, Fr. Murphy said Mass standing below the altar on the top marble step, which was only about 16 inches wide, and which left the altar at his shoulder level. "I was afraid I'd break my neck, and I was concentrating more on where my feet were than what I was saying," Fr. Murphy recalls. The second week, a folding table was set up at the base of the steps for the offering of At the altar stepsthe Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—hardly dignified, but as sacristan Dr. Joseph Beierle explains, "It was done of necessity, just like when Mass was offered on the hood of a Jeep in wartime." On the third Sunday the bingo table was abandoned and Mass was offered on the St. Joseph side altar. By week four, Dr. Beierle and his brother, Jerrold, had constructed three carpet-covered wooden platforms which were stacked to form a portable predella, and the Mass was returned to the main altar. The portable platforms had to be carried out and assembled before each Latin Mass, and removed again afterwards, for the next three and a half years—a strenuous exercise which certainly involved the "full and active participation of the people."

The years at St. Agnes, while filled with ups and downs, were times of slow and steady growth for the Latin Mass. Although a regular church home was exactly what Chuck Pavlik had requested from Bishop Wuerl in November 1989 as a remedy to the problems at Duquesne, attendance continued to dwindle after the move. Pavlik recalls, "It dropped off to actually under 100 people. That's when I was really scared, and I thought it was going to be over." A large part of the congregation which remained through those leanest days were friends of the Pavliks, who knew each other through their shared Marian devotion.Early ad

The Mass at St. Agnes began as a Low Mass, but within months a small choir was formed and a High Mass was offered. Stations of the Cross were added after Masses during Lent that first year. Advertising, both in print and on radio, continued to bring in a few new faces most weeks. Since the diocese had turned responsibility for the Latin Mass over to Fr. Murphy, it was up to him to find other priests to help out. The first of these, Father Thomas Father CareyCarey, was another St. Agnes native who had gone to the seminary with Fr. Murphy. Also assisting was Father James Reiter, who, although lacking permission to say the Latin Mass (he is a Byzantine-rite priest), heard confessions and helped with Holy Communion, Benediction, and Stations of the Cross. Next to join was Father ReiterFather Marcel Pasiecznik, a Franciscan friar and native of Poland, who was to spend countless hours over the next eight years in the confessional, ministering to the long lines of pentinents before each Latin Mass. Also lending a hand in the early days at St. Agnes was Father Norbert Rupprecht, O.S.B., the retired pastor of St. Boniface Church, who assisted the Latin Mass group for about 18 months until declining health forced him to stop. Father Murphy also officially appointed Chuck Pavlik as lay coordinator for the Latin Mass group.

In 1990, a Pittsburgh Chapter of the Latin Liturgy Association (LLA) was formed. The national Association is devoted to the promotion of the use of Latin throughout the Catholic Church, whether in the 1962 or 1970 missal. The Pittsburgh LLA formed itself along the lines of a service organization to help promote the Tradtional Latin Mass and Father Devillerssacraments. Headed by Dr. Beierle and Rita Thomas, the LLA abetted the efforts of the fledgling Latin Mass group, buying ads in the National Catholic Register and local publications, distributing audio and videotapes promoting the Tridentine Mass, writing Letters to the Editor of many periodicals, and establishing contacts with many other traditionalist groups. The local LLA chapter hosted visits by Fathers Josef Bisig and Arnaud Devillers of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) to Pittsburgh in 1992, and Father Timothy Svea of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICR) in 1994.

In December of 1990, one of the enduring fundraising traditions began—the raffle of a 22 piece, hand-cast, hand-painted Nativity set, the work of Ann Hochreiter, Irene Novak, and Millie Jones. The first 200 copies of the red "booklet missals" were purchased that month, just in time for the first Latin Mass on Christmas.

1991: A split at the Chapel

As Charles Heidenreich now observes in retrospect, "If you want troubles on troubles, start an independent chapel." Although Our Lady of Fatima Chapel was not affiliated with the SSPX, the time of Archbishop Lefebvre's split with Rome coincided with the beginnings of division at the Southside church. In the interest of not reopening old wounds, and because the particulars and chronology of events are recalled differently by those on opposite sides, no attempt will be made to enumerate the details of the split. For the purposes of this history, suffice it to say that there was a lawsuit involving chapel founders and then-current board members. The discord resulted in roughly 70 people departing the Chapel and coming over to the Mass at St. Agnes in 1991. Soon after their departure, Msgr. Hodgson left Pittsburgh, and the Society of St. Pius X began to send priests to Our Lady of Fatima Chapel.

Besides the obvious boost in attendance, the influx from the Chapel brought other benefits to the indult Mass at St. Agnes. The arrival of altar servers expertly trained by Msgr. Hodgson, as well as talented and experienced choir members, immediately improved the visible quality of the celebration of the Mass at St. Agnes. Also among the new arrivals from the chapel was young Steven Pacacha, who was the first to receive his First Holy Communion at the Latin Mass at St. Agnes.

In the fall of 1991, Dottie Craig organized a group of parents into the beginnings of the Latin Mass catechism program. There was no grand plan or committee or announcement; the families simply brought their children to the basement of the church before Mass each week to study the Baltimore Catechism. The children were divided into three classes: pre-Communion, post-Communion, and Confirmation instruction.

First Friday Mass was added to the schedule in November 1991. That Christmas saw the celebration of the first Solemn High Mass.

In the three years following the 1991 influx from the Chapel, a series of meetings took place at the chancery between Father Lawrence DiNardo and various representatives from the Tridentine Community. The group which came to St. Agnes from the Chapel was represented at these meetings by Ray Aul, Eric Frankovitch, Gerald Paris, Ralph Ruggiero, and Mary Sheran; the first meeting was also attended by Bishop Donald Wuerl. One of Father DiNardo's duties was to resolve problems surrounding the sacramental validity of marriages performed at Our Lady of Fatima. (Catholic doctrine holds that the validity of the Sacraments depends on proper matter and form as defined by the Church. A marriage ceremony in which the priest lacks proper jurisdiction is said to be lacking in form, and hence validity.) Father DiNardo says that although "There was no doubt about Baptism and the other Sacraments" at Our Lady of Fatima, there was a problem with marriages. By meeting with Monsignor Hodgson, reviewing the records, and issuing documents which retroactively supplied the lacking form, Fr. DiNardo assured that the sacramental validity of weddings performed at the Chapel was fulfilled.

A year of great progress

The year 1992 would see great strides forward for the Latin Mass group. Three more priests joined the ranks assisting Father Murphy. On August 2, Father Angelus Shaughnessy first offered the Latin Mass; on September 4, Father Kenneth Myers celebrated his first Tridentine rite Mass. On October 18, Father Reginald DeFour, a Holy Ghost father from Trinidad, was the celebrant for the first time. The addition of Fr. DeFour brought the total number of priests volunteering at the Latin Mass to eight.

Three priests

The Blessed Mother was honored in the first May Crowning in 1992. That same month marked the inaugural issue of the biweekly Latin Mass bulletin, the work of Chuck Pavlik. In June, Taylor Frankovitch and Joshua Skiffen, instructed by Sister M. Estelle Svezeny, O.S.B., were the first children from the Catechism Program to make their First Holy Communion. June 28 saw the first Latin Mass social event, a brunch at Duranti's Restaurant.

Funerals and weddings were now permitted. Three Latin Requiem Masses were offered that year, and the first Tridentine Nuptial Mass was celebrated on October 3. Two weeks later, Bishop William Winter came to St. Agnes to administer the sacrament of Confirmation to fourteen young Catholics. Also noteworthy in a small way was the letter which announced Bishop Winter's visit; in it was the first reference to the "Tridentine Community, St. Agnes Church."

On October 25, the Feast of Christ the King, Father Shaughnessy, well known for his preaching of retreats, conducted the first Day of Recollection for the Latin Mass group. The Mass on Thanksgiving Day was added in 1992; in December, Father Marcel began a series of five First Saturday Masses. The year drew to a close with a Solemn High Midnight Mass for the Feast of the Nativity.

Christmas Mass

1993: Change on the horizon

Nineteen Ninety-Three marked the 125th and last year of St. Agnes Parish. Bishop Donald Wuerl came to St. Agnes to celebrate the 125th Anniversary Mass on Saturday evening, May 22. A surprisingly sparse congregation was scattered through the old church, a harbinger of the parish's impending death. In the back pews of the church, a contingent from the Latin Mass group was present, waiting to meet the bishop after Mass to individually greet him and thank him for his generosity to the Tridentine Community.

There was good reason for their gratitude and optimism. On the eve of the fourth anniversary in June of 1993, the Latin Mass group now had two Masses every Sunday morning, a Low Mass at 8:30 and High Mass at 11:45. (The Low Mass had just been added on May 2, in response to demand expressed in a survey of the Latin Mass group in Februrary.) There was a Latin Mass on every Holyday of Obligation, and on each First Friday and Saturday. For the first time that year, there had been Mass on Holy Thursday and services on Good Friday. The Latin Mass group was served by eight priests and 15 altar servers. Ed Stewart directed a fine choir, with Dick Valletta and Pat McShane as organists. There had been five baptisms, two weddings, and four funerals. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was offered twice a month, and Stations of the Cross every week during Lent. A traditional Catechism program was well underway, enrolling 31 children that fall. With each of these additions, the Latin Mass group looked more like a parish, and attendance grew. Things were good.

Eight months of autonomy

The portable wooden predella was finally able to remain in place in front of the altar when St. Agnes Parish was suppressed in October 1993, leaving the Latin Mass group as the sole occupants of the church. The demise of the 10:00 Novus Ordo Mass also meant that High Mass could move up 45 minutes to 11:00. Low Mass remained at 8:30. For a brief span of eight months, the Tridentine Community was effectively a parish of its own.

Altar at St. AgnesWithin a month of the legal suppression of the parish, however, word came that the diocese had decided that St. Agnes would not be the home of the old Mass for much longer. At a meeting on November 16, 1993, diocesan chancellor Father Lawrence DiNardo told the representatives of the Latin Mass group that, effective May 1994, the Latin Mass would be moving to St. Boniface Church on the Northside, its fourth home in five years.

One of the low points of 1993 was the disappearance of property from the church on Christmas Eve. Sacristan Dr. Joseph Beierle recalls, "We came in on Christmas Eve and everything was gone. The vestments, the linens, the vessels, it was all gone. Fortunately, we had a lot of our own equipment by then, so we could carry on." Among the items which vanished were two ornate Art Deco-style benediction candelabra. Dr. Beierle had literally pulled them, crumpled, out of a trash can at St. Agnes, and painstakingly rebuilt and regilded them. Also missing were several sacred vessels which had been donated to the Tridentine Community by the Latin Liturgy Association just a year earlier.

During the winter of 1993–94, the boiler at St. Agnes gave up the ghost, resulting in some memorably cold Masses. At one particularly brisk Low Mass in February, Father Murphy advised the congregation before the sermon that "It seems to be a bit warmer up here, so you might want to move up to the front pews. Of course, if you think you need the extra mortification, just stay where you are." Through the efforts of Bob Stroyne and Father Leo Vanyo at St. Paul's Cathedral, the heat was finally restored after several weeks (or perhaps it was just that spring finally arrived). During that Lent, bake sales and Easter candy sales were held for the financial support of the Catechism program.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of those eight months when the Latin Mass was "on its own" at St. Agnes was Holy Saturday, when for the first (and thus far only) time, the community was able to celebrate the Easter Vigil in the traditional Latin rite. At the Vigil, the lengthy Latin chant was sung by Father Jim Reiter, the Ukrainian Byzantine rite priest who had been the acolyte for the first Latin Mass at Duquesne University.

As the date for the move to the Northside grew closer, Father Thomas Murphy sent this last letter out to the Latin Mass Group in his capacity as Coordinator:

Hi Folks!

As we move to St. Boniface, it is good to recall why we became a special community in the first place—it was to keep a tradition of 1,500 years. For a diocese to be without a Tridentine Mass would be like a country without a symphony or an opera or a library.

Thanks be to God through your courage and love for the Church, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has a vibrant community keeping an ages-old tradition of a beautiful liturgy alive and thriving.

Resolve now to be more vigilant in keeping those "extras" that protect our basic traditions. Be reverent at Mass and devotions, genuflect piously, and make a good thanksgiving after Holy Communion. Always carry a rosary, and let all know of your devotion to the Mother of God. Say "My Lord and My God" at the elevation. Love Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, dress modestly in His Divine Presence. Preserve the custom of women covering the head while being in the presence of Jesus.

Let us go forward in peace.

Father Thomas R. MurphyFr. Dougherty

The St. Agnes years came to an end on June 4, 1994, at an emotion-laden First Saturday Mass offered by Father Reginald DeFour. After Mass, as volunteers packed up the vestments, vessels, and other material possessions of the Latin Mass group for the move across town to St. Boniface, a birettaed stranger appeared in the vestibule at St. Agnes, watching the activity—Father Eugene Dougherty, the newly assigned chaplain of the Latin Mass group.


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