Arts & Entertainment

Unique Pittsburgh Churches You've Gotta See Inside

What do masterpieces by a political radical and a thorn said to be from Christ's crucifixion crown have in common? You can see them at two Pittsburgh churches that are our city's best kept secrets.


What do masterpieces by a political radical and a thorn said to be from Christ's crucifixion crown have in common? You can see them at two Pittsburgh churches that are among our city's best kept secrets. Both are open for tours that would make a great field trip during the holiday week, or any time.

The Maxo Vanka Murals, St. Nicholas Church, Millvale

St. Nicholas Church in Millvale ( 24 Maryland Ave, Pittsburgh 15209) hosts the most important collection of works by little-known Croatian-born artist Maxo Vanka . Vanka emigrated to America in 1935, and was asked to paint murals inside St. Nicholas, the first Croatian Catholic parish in the United States.

Painted mostly in 1937, the 25 murals are considered controversial, at least for their time. They show Christ and the Virgin Mary in images of war -- in two of the murals they're being bayoneted by Christians soldiers (images courtesy: vankamurals.org ).

They also provide a social commentary on issues like fascism, war, poverty and the ills of capitalism. One of Vanka's best-known murals shows women mourning a dead man laid across a Croatian newspaper, while in the background, immigrant workers rush in to rescue others from a burning factory.

You can see these amazing murals for yourself at special docent-led " Holiday Mural Lights Tours " December 26-29. You must pre-register, and slots are going fast. The $10 entry fee benefits The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, founded in 1991 with the mission to preserve and maintain the murals. Don't worry, if you can't get there over the holidays, docent-led tours are available every Saturday at 11:00am and 12:30pm.

The Relics at St. Anthony Chapel, Troy Hill

Saint Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh's Troy Hill (1704 Harpster St, Pittsburgh 15212) is home to as many as 5,000 religious relics, making it the largest collection in the world, outside of the Vatican. The relics were obtained and the chapel was built by Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger (1828-1892), a Belgian-born nobleman and doctor-turned-priest who settled in Pittsburgh.

During the upheaval in Europe in the mid-to-late 1800's many priceless Christian relics came on the open market, and Mollinger was in the social and financial position to "ransom" them. He built the chapel on Troy Hill (where he served as priest) to house and display them.

One of the most interesting relics in the chapel's collection is a thorn from The Crown of Thorns of Christ, which has only recently been displayed publicly (the photo above was taken by local photographer Sam Mike).

The chapel is open for tours all days except Fridays from 1-4pm ( check schedule for holiday hours). There is an audio tour available and if you're lucky, a volunteer docent will be on duty to lead your tour. Docent-led weekday tours of ten or more may be pre-arranged by calling 412-999-4401 at least a week in advance.

Improvements and maintenance to the chapel are funded by donations. Right now they're in the middle of the "Let There Be Light" campaign to repair, re-wire and re-fit the chapels pendant chandeliers if you're so inclined to donate.

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