St. Stanislaus Kostka Binds Past to Present

The door of an old Polish Roman Catholic Church at 21st and Smallman streets is propped open every Tuesday morning. Mass is beginning at the historic St. Stanislaus Kostka. It is still dark outside and the Strip District is just beginning to stir; vehicles and machinery from the morning commute can be heard from distant streets and intersections.

“Let us pray.” The words of a morning sermon resonate softly, echoing inside a chamber 150 feet high, and 105 feet deep. Father Albert’s words soar, reaching the magnificent murals that cover the vast ceiling.

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Photo by Aaron Warnick

History runs deep in the church, extending far beyond the founding of the Strip. A mural depicts Polish King Jan Sobieski and his winged cavalry driving a frightened Turkish army out of Vienna in 1683. The authors of the gospels – Mathew, Mark, Luke and John – symbolized respectively by a man with wings, a winged lion, an ox and a rising eagle cover a section of the ceiling vaults. Outside, as the sun is rising, brilliant stained glass windows, created in Munich, Germany, begin to filter in natural light, animating vibrant scenes imbued with bold colors.

There is enough room for hundreds of people. But this morning, the familiar responses of a Roman Catholic mass are quite thin, only about a dozen voices replying, “Amen.”

Everyone knows each other’s names and schedules.

“Let me take you to Mary, she’ll be great to talk to,” says Francis Caiazza, a retired judge and Duquesne University class of 1958 graduate.

“Psst, Mary,” Caiazza whispers. “This gentleman would like to talk to you about the parish here.” “Flo knows more than I do,” she says. “She’s been here since she was this high.” Mary Szulborski, in her 80s, whispers back, motioning her hands palm down and parallel to the floor about two feet from the kneeling platform next to her.

“My relatives and I have been coming here all

Cardinal Karol Wotija – later to become Pope John Paul II – visited and attended mass here on Sept. 29, 1969.

my life,” says Florence Viola, a cheerful woman. “There are two of us left now.” She was one of 14 children.

“Florence is Polish, but she married an Italian,” Francis laughs.

There is a great sense of history and community here. Most of the 12 members attending this morning mass are descendants of the 200 Polish families that joined together in 1873 to form the Saint Stanislaus Beneficial Society.

Cardinal Karol Wotijla – later to become Pope John Paul II – visited and attended mass here on Sept. 29, 1969. When he entered the church, he said it reminded him of Poland. In 1972, the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Some of the members recall the disastrous Saint Patrick’s Day flood in 1936, when the church’s pews floated about. That same year the Pittsburgh Banana Company explosion shook up the church and neighborhood; soon after, a protective layer of cement was placed over all the stained glass windows on the upper level. This hid some outstanding artwork up until 10 years ago when it was finally uncovered.

There were over 7,000 families living in the Strip by the 20th century: The Poles went to St. Stanislaus, the Slavs to St. Elizabeth – now the Altar Bar – and the Irish went to St. Patrick’s, located between Penn Avenue and Liberty avenue.

Since then, the descendants of these families have moved elsewhere. Most of them resettled in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.

“We have about 1,200 members, but most of them live in North Hills, South Hills, Lawrenceville, East End…” says, Rev. Harry E. Nichols, the current pastor at both St. Stanislaus and St. Patrick’s. “Only about 25 to 30 of these members actually live here in the Strip,” he says.

In 1993, as part of the diocese’s revitalization and reorganization plan, all the three churches merged together, making St. Stanislaus – the largest of these – the main church. Mass is held every day at St. Stanislaus. It serves as the main center for the combined populations of these parishes.

Now, St. Stanislaus Kostka is the center of an active community. The parish organizes CCD classes, marriages, burials and also preserves certain ethnic customs. Every June, there are Italian masses, while Sundays retain Polish traditions.

“We still have Polish hymns on Sundays,” says Mary Szulborksi.

More than $800,000 in renovations have taken place over the last five years, according to Nichols. The walls have been newly plastered and painted, and a new floor was just installed. The lighting and all of the wiring has been replaced. A new sound system and a beautiful Phoenix Organ were recently installed, while the pews were refinished.

The 8,337 square foot brick edifice stands beautifully among the bustle of the Strip District. Its twin towers house seven powerful bells, each weighing more than a ton.

The church shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. “We have around 30 to 35 weddings a year.”