Filed Under Worship

St. Benedict the Moor Church

Historic home of Pittsburgh's Black Catholic community

For over a century, Pittsburgh’s Black Catholics have found a literal sanctuary at St. Benedict the Moor, the patron saint of African Americans born in 1526. He was born as Benedetto Manasseri near Messina, Italy. His parent were Africans who had been enslaved in the early 16th Century and taken to San Fratello, a part of the region of Sicily, Italy.

Although persecuted because of his race, he became known for generosity, feeding the hungry, and conducting miracles.

The late 19th century saw the emergence of the “Colored Conventions” movement - a series of national conventions organized by Black leaders and focused on a variety of social and political issues. 

As many of the Hill District’s older white residents left the neighborhood, St. Benedict the Moor’s clergy and the Diocese listened and learned how to adapt the liturgies for Black traditions, including a gospel choir which performs weekly.

Among these was the Colored Catholic Congress, first held January 1889 in Washington, DC to address racial discrimination within the American Catholic church.  Moved by these efforts, Fr. Patrick McDermott, CSSp, created a mission as part of the Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost (now Duquesne University) in July 1889. The Black parish met in several church buildings through the years, until in 1962 the Diocese of Pittsburgh reopened the former Holy Trinity Church building as a new permanent home for St. Benedict the Moor parish.

At the time of the move, the Hill District was still trying to rebuild its community and find a way forward from the destruction wrought by the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority when it cleared much of the Lower Hill during the late 1950s for the construction of the city’s Civic Arena. The corner of Centre Avenue and Crawford Street became the “line drawn in the sand” for Hill residents, who organized to prevent further clearance and redevelopment of the Hill. St. Benedict the Moor Church became a symbolic landmark as Black Pittsburghers of all faiths and their allies rallied and marched for equality and civil rights protections from the church's front steps.

In late 1968, the Diocese of Pittsburgh installed the eighteen-foot-tall statue of St. Benedict the Moor atop the church’s bell tower. The statue was commissioned by Bishop John Wright and funded through a donation from an “anonymous Protestant donor of one of Pittsburgh’s oldest families.” Sculpted by Frederick Charles Shandy, the statue depicts St. Benedict facing the Golden Triangle with arms spread wide.  The symbolism of the statue has been interpreted in various ways - some intepret it as a rebuke of downtown and its neglect of the Hill, while others argue the statue is in a posture of welcoming and embrace. "At the precise boundary between these two worlds," said Rev. John Wright, bishop of Pittsburgh, in 1968, "the hands of a black Christian saint, St. Benedict the Moor, will be lifted in gestures of forgiveness, prayer, and peace over the Pittsburgh community." Technically, however, the Lower Hill District stretches to the bottom of the Lower Hill towards Sixth Avenue.

As many of the Hill District’s older white residents left the neighborhood, St. Benedict the Moor’s clergy and the Diocese listened and learned how to adapt the liturgies for Black traditions, including a gospel choir which performs weekly. St. Benedict the Moor was also the first parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh to be assigned a Black priest, Fr. Augustus Taylor, Jr.

In addition to serving the Hill, the parish draws worshippers from throughout Greater Pittsburgh. This geographic reach is generally unheard of in the Catholic faith, where parishes are typically based upon physical residence. The Diocese had merged St. Benedict the Moor with two other parishes at the beginning of 2020, but this move was met with resistance from St. Benedict the Moor’s parishioners.  Both clergy and the congregation saw an opportunity to preserve their traditions and petitioned the diocese to recognize St. Benedict the Moor as a “personal parish”, which distinguishes a parish with traditions additional to the usual mass structures, e.g. Tridentine (Latin) Mass. Bishop David Zubik approved the petition and recognized the personal parish of St. Benedict the Moor on July 13, 2020.

Images

Statue of St. Benedict the Moor Sculpted by prominent religious artist Frederick Charles Shandy, the statue was added to the church in 1968. Source: via Flickr Creator: David Kent Date: 2015
St. Benedict the Moor church The statue of St. Benedict the Moor stands prominently atop the church at the edge of the Hill, arms raised in "forgiveness and welcome" toward downtown Pittsburgh Creator: Trevin Shirey Date: 2009
March on MLK Jr. National Day of Mourning Police officers stand at the corner of Crawford Street and Centre Avenue near St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church. Source: Charles H. Martin Photographs, University of Pittsburgh Archives Creator: Charles H. Martin Date: April 7, 1968
March on MLK Jr. National Day of Mourning A crowd begins to gather near St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in preparation for the march from the Hill District to Downtown. Source: Charles H. Martin Photographs, University of Pittsburgh Archives Creator: Charles H. Martin Date: April 7, 1968

Location

91 Crawford Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

Amy Brunner, “St. Benedict the Moor Church,” Hill District Digital History, accessed July 20, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/44.