Sunday, December 5, 2010

Saint Vincent Basilica

Located on the campus of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe (about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh), Saint Vincent Basilica was the dream of founding Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., but one not realized until four years after his death on December 21, 1891. The monastery he founded here was the first Benedictine monastery founded in the United States.

The Basilica’s history begins with the arrival of Father Boniface Wimmer in 1846. Catholic worshippers, mostly a small group of farmers from around the district, gathered in a brick building dedicated to Saint Vincent de Paul. The archabbey later took shape around this building and the monastery grew from it. But, immediate plans for a new church were passed over at the behest of establishing outlying missions and branches of the Benedictine Order.

In the 1880s, it became evident the congregation was outgrowing the size of the old brick church, although a lack of funds set back the beginnings of construction. It was under the Rt. Rev. Archabbot Andrew Hintenach that preparations began in August 1891, with the first stones hauled to the site of the future church. Foundation work commenced on December 21, 1891, when a Solemn High Mass was announced for 9:00 a.m. and parish children were invited to be the first to remove the soil. The first stone was laid in April 1892, with plans calling for the exterior of the library and chapel to be completed before winter.

The basement was completed in June 1893. However, work halted for the following two years due to a lack of funds. The original plan, which called for a stone church, was then altered to a more cost-effective brick structure. Summer 1896 saw the walls climb higher and higher still, but from fall 1897 until summer 1899, the Saint Vincent’s Journal, which had been keeping readers up to date of the building progress, was silent, symbolic of the progress made.

All interior construction was completed by July 1901. By mid-1903, all of the windows were installed, thus completing the exterior. However, the interior lacked nearly all the necessary furnishings, with the altar installed within the next few months, and a mosaic floor laid in late 1904. Finally, the church was consecrated on August 24, 1905—fifty years after the establishment of the monastery. Since its consecration, additions to the Archabbey include: a heroic-size statue of Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, new reliquaries, the Grotto Basement Chapel, and various interior renovations.

Nestled in the small college campus of Saint Vincent, the basilica stands out among the foliage in the spring, summer, and fall, and the snow flurries of the cold Western Pennsylvania winters. Although the surrounding area has become more developed since the humbler farming era of the 1800s, there is still a sacred feeling that is recognizable in and around the church. There is much to do in and around the basilica grounds.

Catholic and non-Catholic visitors can tour the chapel during regular hours that do not interfere with the mass and monastic schedules. The gristmill, where the monks make bread and other fine things, is just a short drive from the basilica, and the college campus is also open to visitors.

The first piece of interest to visitors as they approach the church is the larger-than-life statue of Archabbot Boniface Wimmer. Erected in 1931, the statue is dedicated to the man who envisioned a grand church, but had not seen it completed. The front fa├žade is the other point of interest on the exterior of the building. The tympanum depicts Jesus handing over the keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter and just above it, the Rose window, demonstrates the use of bar tracery. In historic fashion, the exterior of the Romanesque-style basilica is otherwise austere.

Once inside, the nave opens in a grand style. Even though the church holds only 800 people, it has the expansive feel of larger European basilicas. The main points of interest around the interior are the stained glass windows, 27 in all plus three Rose windows (one above the main portal and one on each transept). Above the altar in the crossing vaults are paintings of the four Evangelists and their symbols according to the Book of Revelations.

There is also a Parish Center that includes a large conference center and nice little gift shop full of religious items for purchase.

Name: Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica
Location: 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Latrobe, PA 15650
Religious Affiliation: Roman Catholic (Benedictine)
Date of Construction: 1891-1905
Architect: William Schickel (New York)
Building Style: Rheinish Romanesque
Plan Type: Basilica
Primary Materials: Brick, granite
Status: Active

The Saint Vincent Basilica, Latrobe, Pennsylvania One Hundred Years (Archabbey Publications, 2005).
website of Saint Vincent Basilica Parish (includes a virtual tour)
website of Saint Vincent Archabbey (for more complete history)

researched by Eric James

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