HISTORY OF ST. AUGUSTINE PARISH
1863 -- 1988
(Extracted from St. Augustine Parish 125th Anniversary Book, 1863-1988)
Lawrenceville could boast of only one landmark in 1860. That was
the arsenal built as a result of the war of 1812. Other than that, nothing
stood out in Lawrenceville. Seventy new houses went up in the district in
1860, and Butler Street was paved, but the biggest thing that happened in
Lawrenceville that year was a meeting.
The Catholic leaders of the area had been meeting off and on for
several years trying to establish a school for their children. Every time
a teacher had to resign or a bigger classroom was needed, the people got
together to work out their problem. But in 1860 the meeting was more
important than usual.
What the people wanted was a bigger school. And this time their
plans included a church. They drew up the Society of German Catholics of
Lawrenceville. With the spirit of Captain Lawrence who died ordering
his men: "Don't give up the ship," the people living in the Borough named
after him were going to move ahead against all odds.
Along with loans, the committee sponsored one picnic after another
to raise funds for building. As plans congealed they obtained a German-
speaking priest to say Mass for them regularly. Father George Kircher now
became the organizer of the parish. First the school went up. While the
church was under construction services were held in the school. The first
Mass in the school took place on February 2, 1862, with Vespers in the
Father Kircher had Charles Bartberger sketch the plans for the
church September 29, 1861. The committee approved the plans the next month.
At that same meeting Mr. Landelin Vogel suggested that the parish should
select St. Augustine as its patron. The reason for the choice was not any
special devotion to the saint, but rather a way of expressing recognition
to Mr. Augustine Hoeveler, the leading organizer of Catholic activities in
Lawrenceville. Right from the start, the parish was blessed with strong
In other ways the parish was still very small. At the same meeting
in which the patron was chosen, the members of the building association made
a pledge of paying ten cents monthly to the church fund. By piling up their
dimes, the parishioners eventually raised the twelve thousand dollars needed
to build the first St. Augustine Church. The cornerstone was laid
June 22, 1862.
Even before the church was under roof, in December of 1862, Bishop
Domenec appointed Father Franz Schmidt as the first resident pastor of the
parish. In less than a year he had to resign because of bad health. Father
John Nepomucene Tamchina, a missionary Capuchin, assumed the responsibilities
of pastor just two months before the dedication of the new church.
Bishop Domenec blessed the church Thanksgiving Day, November 26,
1863. Religious organizations from Pittsburgh and Allegheny marched in
procession. The new church could seat 650. Its 150 foot tower faced Butler
Street. It was of red brick Romanesque in style, a hundred feet long.
Lawrenceville had a new landmark.
During the next ten years the parish was busy paying off its debts.
The biggest achievement of those ten years was the establishment of the
means to keep the parish thriving for the future. Father Tamchina secured
Sisters for the school. From the founding of the school in 1854 lay teachers
conducted the classes. For one reason or another a new teacher had to be found
each September. The perennial problem sometimes led to hasty decisions and
poorly qualified teachers. But Father Tamchina resolved the difficulty in
1871. The Sisters of St. Francis were just eight blocks away. After they
opened St. Francis Hospital in 1566 they began to accept teaching assignments
in the German parishes.
November 8, 1871 the Sisters took over the responsibilities of St.
Augustine School. This was the kind of addition which was more important
than a new building. The Catholic of that age were convinced that Sisters
were the best teachers in the world. According to the chronicler, even the
children rejoiced. The parish took on its first Franciscanism.
Just two years later, 1873, the Franciscan influence became an
intimate feature of the parish. The Capuchin Fathers were invited to the
parish November 7, 1873. They came from Germany. Bismarck was suppressing
Religious Orders as part of his program to nationalize the state. The
Capuchins were told to prepare to leave.
While the Capuchins were being expelled from Bavaria, Bishop
Domenec was searching for German-speaking priests for his parishes. The
persecution in Germany became a blessing for Pittsburgh.
Father Hyacinth Epp, O.F.M. Cap., assumed the pastorate of St.
Augustine's April 19,1874. From then on the parish reflected the atmosphere
of a monastery parish. Devotions and societies were those of the Capuchins.
St. Augustine's was no longer an ordinary parish. Connected to it was the
headquarters of a new province of Capuchins. This would set the decisions for
parishes in a dozen states where the members of the province would minister.
Less than a month after he became pastor, Fr. Hyacinth established
the Third Order of St. Francis in the parish. The parish intensified its
Franciscan flavor. Up till then Third Order members who migrated from
Germany retained their devotion to St. Francis, but now it was organized
into a thriving fraternity. From the opening date the monthly meetings went
on to the present. The only change made was that of language, for,
originally, the sermons at the monthly meetings were in German.
Along with the spiritual growth of the parish, Father Hyacinth
had to keep pace with the increase in members. Hundreds of families had to
relocate when the Union Depot was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Many
of the families moved to Lawrenceville, with the result that St. Augustine
Church had to be expanded. A hundred-foot transept was added in 1874,
according to plans drawn by Brother Eleutherius, one of the Capuchins who
arrived with Father Hyacinth. At the time of enlarging the church, Brother
also carved the main altar, the pulpit and the communion rail. After the
remodeling, "St. Augustine's was considered one of the finest churches in
Pittsburgh." It seated a thousand.
Brother Eleutherius planned to carve five altars in all, but he
died before completing the task. He was a victim of smallpox June 18, 1877.
Brother was the first of the Capuchins to be buried from St. Augustine's.
He was thirty-eight years old.
Another interesting friar of those early days was Father Maurice
Greck, 0. F.M. Cap. Father Maurice had been an officer in the German army.
He became the second Capuchin pastor of St. Augustine's.
In July, 1877, striking railroad employees led a riot in
Lawrenceville. The militia tried to restore order but the mob forced the
soldiers to retreat. In the attempt one of the soldiers was wounded in front
of St. Augustine's Church. The Fathers immediately slipped him through the
church into the monastery, where they gave him first aid and sent him to
St. Francis Hospital. In the meantime the rioters tried to force their way
into the monastery to capture the soldier. It was at that point that
Father Maurice relied on his training as an officer. He just stood in the
doorway with an air of authority and ordered the rioters away. They left
without further protest.
By 1888 the growing population of Lawrenceville made a new school
necessary for the parish. Father Maurice was again pastor at the time.
Each wage earner pledged fifteen dollars. March 3,1889, Bishop Phelan of
Pittsburgh blessed the new school. The twelve-room building cost forty-five
Typical of the spirit of St. Augustine's, the school was one of
the best equipped in the city. Newspaper clippings of the day referred to it
as one of the most modern schools in western Pennsylvania. In addition to
all the subjects taught in the public school, the parish school conducted
extra classes in the German language, and, of course, courses in religion.
During that same year a new monastery and rectory was completed,
the present quarters of the Capuchins. The third floor of the present
building was added in 1905. Ten years after the monastery was built
the existing convent was completed. The parish constantly demonstrated a
The present church came not so much from the need of expansion,
but because the old church needed extensive repairs. Father Charles Speckert,
O.F.M. Cap., the pastor, called on Mrs. Mary Regina Frauenheim and her
daughter Miss Rose, to ask for a substantial contribution for the renovation
of the church. The Frauenheim family had been bountiful toward the parish in
the past. The pastor was hoping that they would now pay for windows for the
remodeling of the church.
The ladies quietly objected that such an old building was not
really worth expensive windows. Father Charles teasingly remarked that if
the good ladies were willing to donate the small sum of fifty thousand
dollars then he would do more than renovate; he could build a new, more
It seemed almost a joke at the time. The debt in the parish was
already thirty thousand dollars. But the Frauenheims did not take it as a
joke. They asked for time to think about it. Mr. Aloysius Frauenheim called
on Father Charles a few days later to pledge the fifty thousand dollars.
With such generosity among the parishioners, the pastor could
hardly refuse. Sixteen houses were cleared from the site where the church now
stands. The property alone absorbed the generous donation, costing more than
forty-eight thousand dollars.
Since the project came so spontaneously, no one really had an
idea of what kind of church to build. So they looked around, trying to find
something they would like. One of the friars in the monastery came across
a picture of St. Benno's Church in Munich. It immediately caught the pastor's
fancy. That was it, Mr. John T. Comes used the picture for a model in
sketching the new church.
The plans looked good, but the lowest bid looked forbidding. With
a dept of thirty thousand dollars hanging over the parish, contractors were
asking another one hundred thousand for the new church. The Frauenheim
family relieved the situation by donating another fifty thousand
Five thousand people attended the cornerstone laying ceremony.
The parishioners' interest ran high all through the construction of the
church. They seemed to count the layers of vitrified brick as the masons
laid the walls. Layer after layer carried the walls to the climax of a
dome ninety-two feet from the floor of the church. The towers went on for
fifty feet more, twin arms raised in prayer, reaching a hundred and
forty-eight feet over Lawrenceville.
When the towers extended their full salute to God, the last stone
in place, the people and clergy dedicated their church May 12, 1901. A
procession from the old church carried the Blessed Sacrament over a flower
strewn path to the new tabernacle. As the procession moved out from the
church the bells clanged their farewell. Just as the last clang of the
smaller bells faded the deep, musical bells of the new church welcomed
the procession to the bigger, more beautiful house of God.
Just eleven years later Father Ignatius Weisbruch, 0. F.M. Cap.,
paid off the last portion of the building debt. The date can hardly seem
very remote to older parishioners who can still remember Fr. Ignatius.
Throughout the history of St. Augustine's the main theme which
arises most often is change and the ability and adaptability of the physical
structures as well as the parishioners to accept these changes. With the
promulgation of the Apostolic Instruction, Custas Fidei, in April 1969, and
Immensae Cartitatis on January 23, 1973, lay persons were given permission to
distribute communion both during Mass and outside Mass. On December 1, 1974,
the first Parish Council was installed with the concept of finding an
effective way of participation by the entire Christian community in the
mission of the Church. Today the Parish Council is now called the Council of
Ministries and is comprised of many dedicated people who help keep the St.
Augustine Community unified and filled with spiritual values.
The roots of St. Augustine's had been firmly planted a long time
ago by many dedicated people who believed the Catholic faith was the center
of their lives. These values have remained constant. Once again the
parishioners have been asked to contribute to the renovation of St. Augustine
Church. In this the 125th anniversary of St. Augustine Parish, we have again
seen the generosity and unselfishness of the parishioners who made many
sacrifices to fortify, maintain and preserve our structure for another 100
years as well as the faith values which the Church symbolizes.
On October 23, 1958, the official celebration of the 125th
anniversary occurred rededicating our church, our Parish, and ourselves to
God for now and for the future. There was a Liturgy of Thanksgiving at 11 am,
celebrated by Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, followed by an informal reception in
the Parish Hall for the entire parish family.
The unity and Christian love for one another are typical
qualities of the Augustine community and can be summed up by a quote of
St. Augustine himself: "The Kingdom of Heaven requires no other price than
yourself, the value of it is yourself; give YOURSELF to it and you shall
(This history was taken in part from the St. Augustine Tour Book
and from previous anniversary Souvenir Books.)
Back to Home Page