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 April

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

It's a Sign: Could Pittsburgh Be the New Hollywood?

It's a Sign: Could Pittsburgh Be the New Hollywood?

Pittsburgh could be well on its way to replicating one of Hollywood’s most prominent landmarks.
Where in Pittsburgh to Dump Your Old TV or Computer

Where in Pittsburgh to Dump Your Old TV or Computer

You are going to want to print this list and keep it handy.
Watch: Jameson Taillon's Remarkable Recovery

Watch: Jameson Taillon's Remarkable Recovery

Sports media company Whistle Sports documented Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon's recovery workout regime.
Celebrating 75 Years: Connecting History with Community

Celebrating 75 Years: Connecting History with Community

The Heinz History Center’s World War II traveling exhibit focuses on western Pennsylvania’s ties to history.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Go subterranean at Laurel Caverns, the largest cave in Pennsylvania.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


It's a Sign: Could Pittsburgh Be the New Hollywood?

It's a Sign: Could Pittsburgh Be the New Hollywood?

Pittsburgh could be well on its way to replicating one of Hollywood’s most prominent landmarks.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Dish Osteria and Bar To Close

Dish Osteria and Bar To Close

The beloved Pittsburgh institution will serve its last meal in April.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


The (Very Good) Brewery You Should Be Patronizing in Homestead

The (Very Good) Brewery You Should Be Patronizing in Homestead

Voodoo Brewery is an enticing alternative to the many chains in and around the Waterfront.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Steelers’ Philosophy Back on Display After Hightower Flirtation

Steelers’ Philosophy Back on Display After Hightower Flirtation

Even as they entertained Dont’a Hightower for nearly seven hours during a free-agent recruiting trip to the South Side, the Steelers never lost sight of who they are or what they’re all about.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Turn Your Bath into a Spa with These Oils

Turn Your Bath into a Spa with These Oils

The miniature bath- and shower-oil collection from Aromatherapy Associates makes every shower a luxury experience.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The CMU Film Fest Opens with One of 2016's Best

The CMU Film Fest Opens with One of 2016's Best

Reviews of two films appearing at the 2017 Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival: "I, Daniel Blake," and "The Eagle Huntress." Plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Combating the Cold: How This Couple Pulled Off Their Winter Wedding

Combating the Cold: How This Couple Pulled Off Their Winter Wedding

Happy to see warmer weather? This gorgeous winter wedding may actually have you missing the snow.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Auction Alert: Own a Piece of Artistry

Auction Alert: Own a Piece of Artistry

Looking for a unique piece? Inventory from Artistry, which closed up shop in the Strip District after more than 25 years in business, will be sold at auction this weekend.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
New Club is a Hit at Thiel College

New Club is a Hit at Thiel College

The Outdoor Recreation Club becomes the newest student organization at the college.

Comments