Going Underground in the Strip

The Rev. James Cox had catacombs at St. Patrick's in the 1920s and '30s



Oh yes, there were ancient catacombs in Rome where early Christians hid and prayed when they were being persecuted for their beliefs. Sometimes bodies were buried in catacombs. But here, closer to home, in the Strip District, before we all became foodies and learned to love shopping along Penn and Smallman, there were once catacombs, subterranean passageways and rooms, under the big old St. Patrick’s Church.

St. Patrick’s was the oldest Catholic parish in our city, founded in 1808 by early Irish settlers here, and over the years (before it was consolidated into the parish now known as St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka), it had several churches, the largest of which was built in 1865. With a school attached to the church, the complex filled the entire block from 17th to 18th Street along Liberty Avenue, the block where the much smaller church called Old St. Patrick’s stands today. Father James R. Cox

Our modern Old St. Patrick’s Church has many distinctive features: There’s reportedly a chunk of Ireland’s beloved Blarney Stone in the slender stone tower, a beautiful walled courtyard, a mock grotto to remind you of the one at Lourdes in France, and inside the church, a set of Holy Stairs, which you’re supposed to climb only on your knees, saying prayers at each step. There’s a slot in the wall by the altar, too, because from 1925 to 1958, WJAS radio used to broadcast Mass from here every Sunday, and the radio guy behind the wall had to be able to see what the priest was doing.

The priest who put all these distinctive features into the church was Father James R. Cox, one of the most popular and unusual priests in American history. He claimed to be the first priest to celebrate Mass in an airplane. He regularly led special pilgrimages to Lourdes. Heshowed great sympathy to the poor and unemployed during the Great Depression and led a famous march of the unemployed on Washington, D.C., in 1932, the same year he ran for president of the United States on the Jobless Party ticket. He was quite a guy and apparently a very effective speaker and priest.

He also was the mastermind behind the catacombs. When he became the young pastor of St. Patrick’s in 1923, these underground spaces may have been just funky parts of the church basement, but Father Cox knew how to make them interesting, and for a while he charged admission. Clever.

There’s not a lot of officially written history of these subterranean spaces, but when I find an old photo online of Father Cox saying Mass in what looks like a basement, I think that must be the catacombs. Also, Derris Jeffcoat, who takes care of a lot of St. Patrick’s historic materials, agrees with me. He even thinks there might be some of that old vaulted brick ceiling still down in the boiler room of the current church. The big old church burned in 1935, and the catacombs were destroyed, but some of the old foundation may still be down there.

In some pictures of the big old church, you can see an archway over the sidewalk on Liberty that says ”Catacombs.” I like to think of them as a sort of holy roadside attraction, a way to get people into the church, make a small donation, maybe pay more attention.

Maybe because we’re all still cavemen at heart, we love to know about all underground passageways. Maybe because these catacombs are such wacky little historic quirks, we want to know more. Maybe because there was some P.T. Barnum-style ingenuity and blarney involved, we’ll never forget Father Cox and his many ways of grabbing our attention and making us think.

Special thanks to Derris Jeffcoat and Dan Yates from St. Patrick’s, and to Miriam Meislik at Pitt. Photos courtesy of St. Patrick’s Church Archives and James R. Cox Papers, 1923-1950, AIS.1969.05, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Rick Sebak is a TV producer at WQED Pittsburgh. His mother was baptized by Father Cox, and she says there are photos, but Rick can’t find them.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

This month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

Love it or hate it, winter is upon us. Because some of us may think there's a lot not to like, we bring you 50+ things to eat, drink and do –– and some helpful tips –– that'll keep the blues at bay.
Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Pittsburgh Magazine presents the honorees from its inaugural Excellence in Nursing awards. Meet our judges' choices and learn what makes them remarkable in their field.
Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

A regal ruggedness characterizes the season's menswear looks.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

When viewed from the foot of the South Side Slopes of Pittsburgh, the stairs ascending Josephine Street form a massive image that consists of more than 7,500 individual mosaic tiles.
Joe Manganiello Plays the Good Guy for Children’s Hospital

Joe Manganiello Plays the Good Guy for Children’s Hospital

The actor, director and Mt. Lebanon native is joining the board of trustees of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation.
Pittsburgh Man Sets World Record By Lifting 1 Million Pounds

Pittsburgh Man Sets World Record By Lifting 1 Million Pounds

Matt Scoletti accomplishes the feat in just under nine hours.
Why Thanksgiving Comes Every Day for 3 Pittsburgh-Area Men

Why Thanksgiving Comes Every Day for 3 Pittsburgh-Area Men

They owe their lives to one man who lives on in each of them.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

This month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

Love it or hate it, winter is upon us. Because some of us may think there's a lot not to like, we bring you 50+ things to eat, drink and do –– and some helpful tips –– that'll keep the blues at bay.
Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Pittsburgh Magazine presents the honorees from its inaugural Excellence in Nursing awards. Meet our judges' choices and learn what makes them remarkable in their field.
Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

A regal ruggedness characterizes the season's menswear looks.
Restaurant Review: B52 in Lawrenceville is a Levantine Lifter

Restaurant Review: B52 in Lawrenceville is a Levantine Lifter

Omar Abuhejleh taps deep into his roots at his vegan cafe that's focused on Levantine cuisine.
Why You Can't Beat The Weather in Pittsburgh in The Winter

Why You Can't Beat The Weather in Pittsburgh in The Winter

I’ve traveled a lot of miles, and I still stare in bewilderment at people who tell me they’ve moved to a place because “You can’t beat the weather.”
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

When viewed from the foot of the South Side Slopes of Pittsburgh, the stairs ascending Josephine Street form a massive image that consists of more than 7,500 individual mosaic tiles.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
The Café Carnegie Now Open in Oakland

The Café Carnegie Now Open in Oakland

Chefs Sonja Finn and Becca Hegarty helm the refurbished restaurant at the Carnegie Museums.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best of the Burgh: Pumpkin Patches in the Pittsburgh Area

Best of the Burgh: Pumpkin Patches in the Pittsburgh Area

We’ve compiled the best pumpkin patches for fall family fun.

Comments


Why Wait For Summer? Head to Kennywood's Holiday Lights

Why Wait For Summer? Head to Kennywood's Holiday Lights

The park's winter celebration is great for families and a fine choice for anyone who loves Christmas (and/or funnel cake).

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Big Ten-Champion Nittany Lions More Worthy Than Buckeyes

Big Ten-Champion Nittany Lions More Worthy Than Buckeyes

For some reason Ohio State is ranked No. 2 in the latest playoff rankings and Penn State is No. 7. That has to change if Penn State beats Wisconsin on Saturday night.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Locket Full of Joy

Locket Full of Joy

The handcrafted piece opens to hidden treasures.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Ten Upcoming Flicks Every Oscar-Watcher Should See

Ten Upcoming Flicks Every Oscar-Watcher Should See

PM film critic Sean Collier picks ten forthcoming flicks likely to rake in nominations for the 89th Academy Awards.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Before the Proposal: How to Ask her Parents' Permission

Before the Proposal: How to Ask her Parents' Permission

It can be more intimidating than the actual proposal, asking a father for his daughter's hand in marriage. Three grooms share their stories of how they popped that first big question.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Seasonal Shopping: CMOA Store Holiday House, J.Crew Mercantile Opens Doors

Seasonal Shopping: CMOA Store Holiday House, J.Crew Mercantile Opens Doors

The Carnegie Museum of Art is full of Christmas cheer — and great deals. Plus, get the scoop on The Block Northway’s latest retail offering.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Tuba and Euphonium Players Invited to Join in Christmas Concert

Tuba and Euphonium Players Invited to Join in Christmas Concert

Waynesburg University will present a TUBACHRISTMAS concert on Dec. 9.

Comments