The South Hills “Cathedral”
When Father Thomas Bryson met with Bishop Regis Canevin on August 11, 1919, he was surprised to learn that he was being assigned to a newly approved parish serving Dormont, Mt. Lebanon and other rapidly growing communities in the South Hills, effective the very next day.
The fledgling parish did not yet have a name, so after some discussion, Bryson and Canevin decided to name it after St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a French theologian and abbot. They had various reasons for choosing St. Bernard but agreed it was fortuitous that the offertory verse for the mass on St. Bernard’s feast day references a Cedar of Lebanon, as Mt. Lebanon was named after two Cedar trees that The Rev. Joseph Clokey brought back from the Holy Land in the mid-1800s. Clokey planted the trees on his property on Bower Hill Road, not far from where his church, Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian, and St. Bernard sit side-by-side today.
“St. Bernard Church will someday be The Cathedral of the South Hills,” Canevin reportedly said.
Ninety-nine years later, as St. Bernard Church begins celebrating its centenary, it is obvious to anyone approaching the massive 12th century-inspired landmark that Bishop Canevin’s prediction came true. Set on one of the highest spots in Allegheny County, with a belfry visible from many places in the South Hills, St. Bernard Church is now considered one of the most architecturally significant buildings in Western Pennsylvania, and is so designated by Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.
“It’s always humbling to see people walking along Washington Road and coming into the church to take photos. We know we are a tourist attraction,” says The Rev. David Bonnar, pastor at St. Bernard. Under his direction, the jubilee planning committee has created a year of events to welcome the community into the church, including a public guided tour on Sunday, March 18, at 2 p.m. with the Rev. Thomas Wilson. Wilson authored St. Bernard Church, a history in commemoration of St. Bernard’s 75 anniversary that includes stunning photographs of the church’s interior and exterior architecture, stained glass windows and murals.
“Celebrating 100 years is really historic,” says Bonnar. “We exist here today in large part from the sacrifices of the generations before us. Their fingerprints, their handprints, their footprints. They all matter. Even though we can’t see them, they are part of our faith and legacy like we are.”
In contrast to the grandeur of today’s cathedral, the St. Bernard legacy began on the second floor of the Haller family’s carriage house, which was located where Rollier’s now stands. Father Bryson spoke of the spot as if it were a humble stable (“We began our life in a stable, just as our Lord did”), but the carriage house reportedly was quite luxurious for a carriage house, as Mary and Joseph Haller had designed the second floor to be a large gymnasium for their five sons. Bryson said the first Mass there at 8 a.m. on Sunday, August 31, 1919. A second mass followed to help accommodate the 180-family parish.
The church committee acquired the property at Washington and Bower Hill roads on New Year’s Eve, 1919, with Mary Haller serving as the “straw buyer” to curtail any potential objections from the community, which was predominantly Protestant at the time.
The parish used the property’s existing structure, an old red brick house, as a temporary church. The parishioners worked together to turn the space into a sanctuary, but ultimately it was too small for the growing parish, so they acquired their third temporary structure, a “portable church,” from Chicago, in 1920. At 200 feet long, 20 feet wide and 7 ½ feet tall, it was one of the first prefab churches in the region. The parish used it until 1926, when it was donated to St. Anne Parish to be used as a mission church.
By 1925, the parish had grown to 450 families, and there was a demand for Catholic education in the area. St. Bernard School opened on September 8, 1925, with the Sisters of St. Joseph as teachers. The school included a worship space, which was used until the permanent lower church, now known as Clairvaux Hall, was dedicated in 1934.
Bishop Hugh Boyle approved completion of the upper church in 1938, at a cost of $350,000. William Perry, a nationally prominent architect from Dormont who specialized in Catholic churches, was chosen to design the superstructure. He created a 12th century Romanesque design, true to the style and times of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. His vision included a colorful exterior of tan and gray square-cut granite with white limestone trim and copper accents against a bright tile roof in greens, reds and blues. For the interior, he chose a mix of green slate and marble flooring with a heavy use of deep red and gilt details throughout the sanctuary.
Construction did not begin until 1942, however, for the world was preparing for war. And even after construction started, wartime restrictions on manpower and materials slowed the church’s progress, to Perry’s dismay.
Jan Henryk de Rosen, an internationally famous Polish artist who had worked previously with Perry on a cathedral in Toledo, Ohio, was chosen for the interior decorating and to paint the murals in the church. In perhaps his most striking mural, located in the dome, de Rosen depicts “The Life of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux” in 26 separate scenes. Also of note is the “Apocalypse” mural in the half-dome behind the altar; it is one of the only groups of paintings in Christian art depicting the complete Book of Revelation in one place. De Rosen went on to paint murals in Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral and dozens of other churches throughout the United States.
“St. Bernard’s is without a doubt one of the most beautiful churches in America,” de Rosen said before his portion of the construction was finished in 1949.
Three artists created the stained-glass windows at St. Bernard’s. A. Leo Pitassi designed all of the windows in Clairvaux Hall between 1933 and 1947. When he died in 1947, Perry turned to Alfred R. Fisher of Whitefriars Stained Glass Studios in Middlesex, England, who designed the windows in the upper church. In a departure from Pitassi’s expressive and whimsical style, Fisher interpreted Perry’s sketches in a more modern idiom, applying 20th century style to 13th century glass concepts. His windows were installed between 1966 and 1969. James Hunt was the final stained-glass artist to work on the church. He designed the stairwell windows connecting the main church and Clairvaux Hall, using more abstract designs and geometric patterns.
The first mass in the upper church was celebrated on Palm Sunday in 1947, but it was not until June 23, 1969, that pastor Monsignor James Davin declared it complete.
A massive Casavant pipe organ was installed in the upper church in 1959 and received a $600,000 refurbishment in 2003—it is now largest pipe organ with digital additions in Pittsburgh. In 1952, the Sisters of St. Joseph convent was completed, which has since been converted into a center for religious education and outreach ministries. The school also has received significant additions. But upkeep and modernization of the church has proven challenging over time.
Nine years ago, when Bonnar first came to St. Bernard, the grand church had fallen into such a state of disrepair that the front doors could not be used. Since then, Bonnar has overseen numerous projects including refacing the transepts, bell tower and façade, rebuilding interior walls, repainting parts of the ceiling, electrical work, updating the bathrooms and more.
“It’s a beautiful edifice, but beauty is expensive,” says Bonnar. Funding for the projects came from a combination of insurance, savings and funds from a capital campaign.
“It’s God’s house, and we really just had to take care of it. It’s still a work in progress” he says.
St. Bernard Church’s “Jubilee Year of Gratitude” kicked off on December 1, 2017, with an intimate service for people involved in church ministries, led by Paulist priest Rev. Frank Desiano. It was held in a local home as a nod to the church’s origins in the Haller Family’s carriage house.
The jubilee committee, led by Megan Grefenstette, Tom Holmes and Pastoral Associate Tisha Bridges, is releasing vintage bulletins every Sunday throughout the jubilee and has created a public historical display featuring items from church and diocesan archives in Clairvaux Hall. Also in the plans is a mission weekend, March 4 to 7, including talks on spirituality outside of liturgy the will be open to the community. The committee hopes to add more events, including a public workshop on the spirituality of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
Celebrations will end just before the parish’s actual 100th anniversary on Sunday, August 19, with a mass led by Bishop David Zubik and a parish picnic.
Church leaders decided to celebrate the centenary early due to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s On Mission initiative, which will lead to the consolidation and restructuring of parishes across the Pittsburgh diocese. Bishop Zubik will announce the new parish groupings in April, and they will go into effect in the fall.
“Come October 15, everything is going to change, and we don’t want to be a distraction to the new era,” says Bonnar. “For now, we will really celebrate the uniqueness and beauty of this community and look forward with excitement to the broadening of it.”
“This year is affording us the opportunity to look through the rear-view mirror on where we have been,” Bonnar adds. “But the front windshield is always bigger, and there is so much that lies ahead for us … yes, the stones of this church are beautiful. But as beautiful as they are, our living stones are so much more precious and priceless. It’s amazing how God brings us together and great things happen.”
Interesting Facts and Architectural Notes
- Ten thousand people, including more than 3,500 families, currently belong to St. Bernard Church.
- The tower and belfry of St. Bernard Church stands at 1,428 feet above sea level and is one of the highest points in Allegheny County.
- Parishioners created homemade benches the night before the first Mass in the Haller family carriage house. One of the benches collapsed during the Mass, and in the pandemonium, people thought the carriage house was collapsing.
- Robert J. Will, age 24, was the first St. Bernard school graduate to lose his life in World War II. Twenty-two others died over the course of the war, and 876 served.
- Bernard’s three bells—named Thomas, Regis and Bernard—range in weight from 1,680 to 8,400 pounds. They rang out for the first time on August 2, 1947.
- Bernard’s first stained glass designer, A. Leo Pitassi, was known for his whimsical style. If you look around Clairvaux Hall, you can see a butterfly, sunflower and various woodland creatures incorporated in his windows.
- De Rosen claimed he could paint horses from memory, but he needed models for saints. His murals are so realistic because he used whoever was around—parishioners, school children, priests and even architect Perry (as St. Gregory)—as models.
- De Rosen returned to St. Bernard in the 1950s to paint murals in the convent’s chapel, now known as Fontenay Chapel. His chapel mural—a panorama of salvation history from creation to Pope Pius XII—is every bit as significant as the murals in the main church.photography by George Mendel