Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica: One Hundred Years

by Brian D. Boosel, O.S.B., appearing in Volume 11

Nestled among the emerald green foothills of the Laurel Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania, at a place called Saint Vincent, there is to be found a jewel of human achievement and architectural wonder, in praise of God: the Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica. The story of this grand church is situated within the stories of the many immigrant peoples who first came to Pennsylvania beginning in the mid-eighteenth century. It was the determination, zeal, and dedication of these peoples that formed the spiritual foundation of this sacred space. Thus, to understand the significance of this noble structure, it is necessary to understand the significance of the events around which this place called Saint Vincent came to be.

St. Vincent Archabbey Basilica, View of Facade. Photo courtesy St. Vincent Archabbey.

The tale of Saint Vincent begins in 1766—three years following the turbulent end of the French and Indian War. King George III of England granted a gentleman by the name of John Fraser some three hundred acres of land for development. Subsequently, Mr. Fraser sold the tract of land to a man named James Hunter, who, after having built a small log cabin on the land, named it Sportsman’s Hall. In January 1790, a Franciscan friar from Holland, Father Theodore Brouwers, O.F.M, sailed to America to become a missionary. At the behest of Bishop John Carroll, Father Brouwers came to Southwestern Pennsylvania and purchased the property from Hunter. It was here that he established—in the log cabin—a Roman Catholic parish. The parish was first called “Sportsman’s Hall Parish,” then later Saint Vincent. In 1835 the growing congregation built a brick church. It stood behind the present-day basilica. When it came time to bless the church, the people of this parish wrote to the Bishop of Philadelphia, Bishop Kendrick. The Bishop’s custom was to name the church for whatever saint’s day it happened to be when he arrived at a church. He arrived at this parish on the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul. Today, 215 years later, this vibrant parish seeks to serve God and neighbor as the oldest Catholic parish west of the Allegheny Mountains.

On October 21, 1846, a Benedictine monk named Boniface Wimmer arrived at Saint Vincent with eighteen young companions. They came from Bavaria to be missionaries, found churches, and establish schools. Wimmer was installed as pastor of Saint Vincent on October 24, 1846. Shortly thereafter, Wimmer simultaneously founded the first Benedictine monastery, college, and seminary in North America. His dream was to build a church that would show the world what God could do. He wanted to honor the determination and fortitude of the early immigrant people of this area who had survived many hardships yet remained together. The basilica church was Wimmer’s dream.

Wimmer and the New York architect William Schickel began work on designing the church in the mid-1880s. They decided upon the ancient basilica hall style of architecture. Architecturally, the new Saint Vincent Church fit the composite of the classical basilica hall style. The name basilica derives from an ancient Greek word, Basiloikos. This word is composed of two Greek words: Basil, which means “king”; and Oikos, which means “house.” Hence Basiloikos, or basilica, literally means “house of the king.”

Sadly, Wimmer never got to see the church; he died on December 8, 1887, before the building process could begin. Four years later, the project finally had enough resources to get off the ground. The then Archabbot Andrew Hintenach, O.S.B., Wimmer’s successor, appointed a monk named Brother Wolfgang Traxler to oversee the massive undertaking. Abbot Andrew also assigned seventy-five monks to assist the nearly seventy lay craftsmen in building the church.

Ground was broken on December 21, 1891. Instead of the usual groundbreaking ceremonies, the monks and parishioners decided to let the children of the parish do the job, as they viewed these children as the future of the church.

The basilica took fourteen years to construct. After the groundbreaking, large foundation stones were laid in early 1892. The stones selected were rose-colored Indiana limestone, which were over six feet wide and descended into the ground approximately ten feet. To build the wooden framing for the new church, the monks and lay craftsmen took timber from Chestnut Ridge, ten miles to the southeast of the abbey, where the monks had a large farm. At Chestnut Ridge, they harvested the trees, made hand-hewn beams, numbered each piece using Roman numerals, brought each piece down the mountain by horse and wagon, and assembled on site at Saint Vincent. Vibrant red-orange colored bricks completed the exterior walls of the church. Each brick used in the church was made at Saint Vincent campus by monks. At the height of the brick-making operation, the monks were making fifteen thousand bricks each day.

Those arriving at the basilica through the main portal discover the ornate carvings that welcome people as they enter. Since ancient times, Christian churches were seen as microcosms of the Kingdom of God. The doorway is gigantic, as it reminds the visitor that God calls all people to himself. Eight door jambs and eight jamb columns—four on each side—serve to gradually draw one’s view into the building. Above the columns are the “rainbow-like” arches called archivolts. The archivolts serve to represent the heavens. In the center above the door is the tympanum, which depicts the “Confession of Peter.” Saint Peter kneels before Jesus, who asks of him: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus says, “No mortal has told you this … you are Rock, and upon this Rock I will build my church … I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Detail of tympanum. Photo courtesy St. Vincent Archabbey.

Eighteen Columns made of rose-colored Peterhead granite support the enormous roofing structure and arched ceiling. The columns were quarried in 1893 in Aberdeen, Scotland—then known as the “Granite City.” The columns were finished and sent by steam ship to New York City and then by railroad to Latrobe. They are unique in that they are solid from base to capital. The length of the basilica is 230 feet from the front doors in the east to the apse wall in the west. At the crossing, or transept, the church is 122 feet long. The nave and the choir are 75 feet wide and 62 feet tall. The sanctuary and transept ceilings are 68 feet high. The back towers are 150 feet high and the front towers are 195 feet high. The flooring is composed of white Carrara marble pieces. Each piece is three quarters of an inch by three quarters of an inch. Each piece was sized, cut, and hand placed by Italian craftsmen in 1901. The furniture in the basilica, namely, the pews, choir stalls, main ambo (lectern), and benches were carved on site by monks out of native oak and pre-blight American chestnut.

View of the nave toward altar. Photo courtesy St. Vincent Archabbey.

After the plasterwork and interior were finished, the stained-glass windows were installed in 1900. They are the work of the Stoltzenberg Company of Munich, Bavaria. There are twenty-seven stained glass windows in the basilica. The Nativity, the Epiphany, the Child Jesus Teaching in the Temple, the Holy Family, the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, Christ Blessing the Children, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Saint Boniface, the Pharisee and the Publican, the Sacred Heart, the Good Samaritan, Saint John the Baptist, the Good Shepherd, the Prodigal Son, and Saint Martin of Tours. There are also twenty-two tinted glass windows in the clerestory near the ceiling.

Four large gray columns and a canopy demarcate the sanctuary. The columns symbolize the earth and the canopy symbolizes heaven. There are angels present here also—guiding and protecting the holy place. Within the canopy are the Four Evangelists. They are depicted with their classical symbols. These oils on canvas, by the artist Joseph Reiter, depict Saint Matthew with an angel, Saint Mark with a lion, Saint Luke with an ox, and Saint John with an eagle. They are pictured in Heaven looking down on the Crucifix and the present sacrifice of the Mass.

The altar is the second altar that has been in this basilica. The first altar was made of white Carrara marble. It was replaced in 1954 with the present day grand high altar, constructed of two types of marble and resting in the heart of the sanctuary. The pedestals are two slabs of white Carrara marble, each weighing about two tons. The top, or mensa, is a dark green variegated marble, weighing about ten tons. The bottom pedestals are decorated with four carvings of the four great sacrifices of the Old Testament: the Akedah—the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac; the Passover sacrifice of Moses; the sacrifice of Cain and Abel; and the Bread and Wine offered by Melchisedech the Priest. The pedestals therefore represent the Old Testament and the mensa represents the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The carved wooden Crucifix above the altar was carved at Saint Vincent in the 1860s by a monk named Brother Cosmas Wolf, O.S.B., who was a leader in liturgical sculpture in the American Mid-west throughout the 1860s and 1870s.

The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is a place for silent prayer and meditation before our Eucharistic Lord. The sacrament tower, located in the south arm of the transept, is hand-carved oak and is based on a medieval concept that was employed in the great cathedrals of Europe. The idea of a sacrament tower was utilized to draw attention to the place of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in these vast ancient churches. The tabernacle is also composed of hand-carved wood. It has been gilded and inlaid with semi-precious stones. The sides of the tabernacle depict four Eucharistic scenes from Holy Scripture. The frontispiece of the tabernacle depicts the Emmaus account in the Gospel of Luke (24:13–25): “We recognized him in the breaking of bread.”

The Sacrament Tower over the Blessed Sacrament. Photo courtesy St. Vincent Archabbey.

The choir of the basilica is where the monks of Saint Vincent gather four times a day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. They recite or chant the psalms antiphonally, which means that one side recites or chants a stanza while the other side listens. The choir is composed of seventy-six individual stalls. Four statues are visible behind the choir stalls representing four important figures in the history of monasticism. The statues, carved by Dutch sculptor Ferdinand Seeboeck, depict Saint Benedict, father of Western monasticism and patron of Western Civilization; Saint Placid, an early disciple of Saint Benedict; Saint Maurus, another early disciple of Saint Benedict; and Saint Scholastica, Saint Benedict’s twin sister. The stained-glass windows behind the monastic choir stalls (both on the north and south walls) have two large triptych windows created by the Stoltzenberg Company of Munich, Bavaria. They depict the following: 1) The Last Meeting of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. They met once per year at a small house between their two monasteries. On this occasion, the two have spent the entire day praying, studying Sacred Scripture, and sharing a meal together. Benedict stands and is preparing to leave. Scholastica asks him to stay a little longer. Benedict refuses, arguing that it is not good for monks and nuns to be outside of their monasteries at night. Scholastica pleads for him to stay. He adamantly refuses. Scholastica begins to pray. Suddenly, the winds pick up. Heavy rains begin to fall. The weather has turned foul and unwelcoming. Benedict exclaims, “Woman! What have you done?” Scholastica states that since her brother would not listen, she asked someone who would listen to her, namely, God. The weather was so inclement that Benedict had to stay the night. He and his sister prayed, studied more scripture and had a meal in the morning. Benedict left later that morning. As he was nearly back to his monastery, he received news that his sister had died. 2) The Holy Guardian Angels. Blessed Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Holy Guardian Angels as the patrons of the American-Cassinese Congregation in August of 1855. This side window panel portrays scenes from the Book of Tobit, in which the Archangel Raphael is sent by God to protect Tobiah on a journey. The central panel depicts a scene from the ninety-first psalm. 3) The Transitus of Saint Benedict. Saint Benedict is pictured in the presence of, and being supported by, his monks as he takes his last breath and commends his soul to God. Saint Benedict died on March 21, 547. His transitus, or passing into heaven, is still celebrated on this day, some fifteen centuries later. 4) Saint Vincent de Paul. Pictured here is Saint Vincent de Paul. Vincent was a priest in seventeenth-century Paris who gave up a life of ease in order to care for widows and orphans. When Boniface Wimmer arrived at Saint Vincent, he kept the patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul, instead of re-dedicating the church after a Benedictine saint, as he saw his mission as being similar to that of Vincent’s. The side windows depict two Sisters of Charity—the order of women founded by Saint Vincent de Paul.

The apse is the last architectural piece of the basilica. It is a half-moon shape with a half-dome. In ancient Roman times, the apse would have been where the emperor was seated. It serves as a natural “public address” system—vaulting sound up and out across the expansive church. This assists in the transfer of sound in a clear manner. The basilica itself was designed to be acoustically perfect. The building has a natural six-second delay from the time sound leaves the apse until it reaches the front doors and comes back.

View of the altar. Photo courtesy St. Vincent Archabbey.

The paintings that flank the sidewalls at the entrance to the apse depict the four Latin Doctors of the Church. The paintings are also the work of Joseph Reiter. They detail: 1) Saint Augustine of Hippo (Northern Africa), the most notable theologian of the early Church. 2) Saint Gregory the Great, the first of fifty Benedictines to be elected pope, who wrote the biography of Saint Benedict and is credited with writing down the musical notations that bear his name, Gregorian chant. 3) Saint Jerome, the early theologian and scripture scholar who is credited with translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Latin was the “Vulgare,” or language of the people, at the time. Thus the translation has become known as the Vulgate Bible. Finally, 4) Saint Ambrose of Milan, who was only a catechumen when he was elected bishop of Milan by popular acclaim, and was responsible for the conversion and baptism of Saint Augustine and for composing the Easter Vigil Liturgy. The apse arch contains paintings depicting—in ascending order—the nine Choirs of Angels. These too are the work of Joseph Reiter. The round paintings alternate back and forth up the interior arc of the arch: Angels, Principalities, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. The five apse windows depict the founders of religious orders in the Church. They are as follows: 1) Saint Romuald, founder of the Order of Camaldolese Hermits, who in around 1200 founded his order at a place called Campus Madoli (hence Camaldolese) as a reform of the Benedictine way of life. The Camaldolese live as hermits in their own separate huts and meet daily for prayer. 2) Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Benedictine monk, abbot, teacher, and Doctor of the Church, who helped to found the Cistercian Reform in the Middle Ages. 3) Saint Benedict, father of Western monasticism and patron saint of Western culture, who founded his first monastery at Monte Casino in the year 500. Benedict’s Rule survives to the present day and is used not only by Benedictines but also by many other religious societies and institutes. Saint Benedict’s monks are credited with preserving the ancient cultures of Europe. 4) Saint Dominic, born Dominic Guzman in Moorish Spain in the 1200s, founded a group of preachers, known as the Order of Preachers (or, more popularly, as the Dominicans), who helped to reconvert Europe to the Faith. Dominic is pictured with a small dog at his feet. When Dominic’s mother was pregnant with him, she had a dream of a dog with a torch in its mouth. The dog was running all over the earth lighting it on fire. Dominic’s preaching was to light Europe on fire for the Faith. Finally, 5) Saint Francis of Assisi, who was born into a wealthy family and led a life of ease and excess. He had a dramatic conversion and founded a group called the Order of Friars Minor, more popularly known as the Franciscans, who lived out the poverty of Christ.

Stained glass window depicting St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. Photo courtesy St. Vincent Archabbey.

In the dome of the apse is to be found a starburst depiction of a mystical scene from the Book of Revelation. We see a lamb who represents Jesus Christ. The lamb is holding the Banner of the Resurrection. At the lamb’s feet is a chalice representing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The lamb stands upon a book with seven seals. This represents Christ’s dominion over all things. The vision takes place within a trefoil and a triangle, both symbolic of the Blessed Trinity. Reiter painted the image in a way that suggests that the vision has “burst” through the church roof.

Bishop John Francis Regis Canevin of the Diocese of Pittsburgh solemnly consecrated the archabbey church on August 24, 1905. On August 24, 1955, His Holiness, Pope Pius XII elevated the Archabbey Church to the ecclesiastical rank of minor basilica. For one hundred years, this crown jewel has dominated the landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania and captivated the eyes, minds, and hearts of thousands of people who have come and still come to pray.