The early life of Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger was set the Kingdom of the Netherlands. His father, Francois Frederik Mollinger, was born in Kampen on October 7, 1795. His mother, Baroness Dorothea Maria Hellenberg, was born at Tiel, Netherlands, on the 23rd of November, 1795. Suitbert’s parents were married at Hampden, small town north of Maastricht on February 19, 1819.
The Mollingers had eight children, of which Suitbert was the eighth. The first two children were born in Maastricht where their father was a second lieutenant in the cavalry. The third child was born at Maurik, a stone’s throw from Tiel where his mother was born. The fourth and fifth children were born at Mechelin where their father was a soldier.
The sixth child was Suitbert. His birth certificate reads:
“KINGDOM OF BELGIUM
PROVINCE OF BRABANT
COMMON OF CAMPENHOUT
From the Register of Births of the year 1800 and twenty-eight it appears that on the nineteenth day of April, One thousand eight hundred and twenty-eight is born at Campenhout: “Suilbert Godefridus Mollinger, Son of Francis Frederik Mollinger, First Lieutenant, thirty-two years of age, a native of Kampen, Province of Overyssel, living at Malines and of Dorothea Paulina Maria Van Hellenberg his consort, thirty-two years of age, a native of Thiel, Province of Gueldres, living at Campenhout.”
Suitbert’s brother Godfrey was born in 1833 and his youngest sister. Frederique Jeanette, in 1835. All the children were raised in the Catholic faith by their devout mother. Their father, a Protestant, did not interfere in religious matters. In 1838, the senior Mollinger died.
The loss of his father had a profound effect on the ten-year-old Suitbert. His uncle took the boy on a trip across Europe. Soon after, Suitbert was enrolled in medical school at Naples. He continued his medical education at Rome and Genoa. Suitbert then decided to prepare for the priesthood and began his studies at a seminary in Ghent. His mother was happy for this change of heart but did not live to see his ordination. She died on September 8, 1854 at Zalt Bommel.
Suitbert came to the United States to continue his studies for the priesthood; however, it is not known where his ordination took place. Bishop Young of Erie incardinated him into his diocese on April 30, 1859, and assigned him to Brookville in Jefferson County as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish. The workload was extensive because of the many surrounding mission churches. Father did not see eye-to-eye with Bishop Young on all issues, and consequently decided to join the Pittsburgh Diocese.
The first written information about Father Mollinger in the Diocese of Pittsburgh is in the baptismal record of St. Mary’s church in McKees Rocks, dated April 30, 1865. Soon after, he was made the first pastor of St. Alphonsus Church in Wexford, which had been founded by the Redemptorists almost a quarter of a century earlier. The parish was composed of Irish and German farmers. In addition to his parochial duties at St. Alphonsus, Father also served a mission church a short distance away in Perrysville. Construction was begun on a church building there, and the cornerstone for the new “St. Teresa’s” was laid by Bishop Domenec. Father worked at St. Alphonsus and Perrysville for over two years before his assignment as pastor of Most Holy Name Parish on Troy Hill.
He assumed his duties on Trinity Sunday 1868. At that time Most Holy Name of Jesus, along with St. Joseph’s Church in Manchester, was a mission of St. Mary’s, the Benedictine Parish on the North Side. The three churches were named for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the Holy Family. (Most Holy Name is the only one of the “Holy Family” still a Catholic parish church).
There are over 5,000 relics in Saint Anthony Chapel. These relics are contained in 800 cases with 525 accompanying documents. Immediately some questions must be addressed about these relics such as: how did they get to Troy Hill between 1868 and 1892? Weren’t there only 50 farm families living in the area with a small mission Church in 1868? Over a century ago, wasn't Pittsburgh small and the population sparse? How did this acquisition of relics occur?
When Father Mollinger arrived here in 1868 he brought with him his own collection of relics and more than average facility in procuring relics because he was a traveled priest and possessed adequate personal money.
A bird’s eye view of what happened in European history sheds more light on the reliquary chapel and how the relics were acquired. During the 19th century, European politics was characterized by nationalism and the rise of modern nation-states, especially in Italy and Germany where unification took place.
The Italian Risorgimento (resurgence) was an attempt to unify Italy between 1796 and 1870 when the Papal States were annexed. The unification was accomplished through the work of Giuseppi Mazzini, Count Cavour, and Giuseppi Garibaldi. Territories that were incorporated into Italy included the Papal States, which the Church had partially acquired centuries earlier in 755 through the Donation of Pepin, the father of Charlemagne. Over a period of 10 years between 1860 and 1870, the pontifical soldiers were defeated and the Church lost the Papal States (the Marches of Ancona, Romagna, Viterbo and Bologna). The monasteries were destroyed and relics were lost, later appearing in pawn shops and other unlikely places. Father Mollinger was able to procure them on his own, as well as through contacts such as Father Hyacinth Epp, a Franciscan provincial who traveled to Europe.
German nationalism manifested itself in an attempt to unify Germany via the Zollverein, an economic union of German principalities. Bismark was the architect of German unification, leading Germany with his “blood and iron” policy and effecting unification through the Danish War, the Austrian War and the
Bismark began the Kulturkampf or “culture struggle.” Distrust of Roman Catholics was a common doctrine among the liberals in the 19th century. The Kulturkampf was an abortive political struggle between the Catholic Church and the Imperial German government. The central issue was state control of educational and ecclesiastical appointments. Bishops and priests were imprisoned and sees were left vacant. The Jesuits were forced to leave Germany. Many felt that precious reliquaries were in jeopardy and thus were sent from Germany for safekeeping, at which time Father Mollinger was able to procure some of them.
Father Mollinger had traveled to Europe in 1880, most probably to bring back more relics. Immediately after his return from Europe in 1880, Fr. Mollinger approached the Church committee with a proposal to build a larger church, in which his relics would be housed. Realizing that the parish could not afford the expense of a new building, the committee voted against this proposal. Father Mollinger decided that he would finance a Chapel with his private funds. The cornerstone was laid on the feast of St. Anthony, June 13, 1882, and exactly one year later the chapel was dedicated.
More and. more visitors came to Troy Hill and Most Holy Name Parish during the late 1870s because of Father Mollinger’s work. The size of his collection of relics increased. Father never charged the sick for his medical ministrations; however, many of those whom he helped were very generous in their donations. Father prescribed remedies for them which were filled in a back room of the church. A local pharmacist, Mr. Mangold, continued preparing drugs for Father Mollinger until they became procurable at Mollinger’s Drug Co., located near the old Boggs & Buhl’s Store on the North Side. If Troy Hill flourished during the 1870s because of Father Mollinger’s reliquaries and the help he provided medically, it became a veritable mecca for the sick after his reliquary chapel was completed. Crowds of people constantly came to Troy Hill for spiritual and medical reasons, and especially for the Corpus Christi processions and the feast of St. Anthony. The Pittsburgh Catholic reported that on June 13, 1888, a crowd estimated at 6,000 gathered around the chapel in the morning for the 10:30 a.m. Solemn High Mass. From 1888 until 1892 crowds of people continued to inundate Troy Hill. The August 31, 1889, edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic states there was an astoundingly large crowd. In 1891, people came weeks ahead of the feast to pray and receive medical attention. In June of 1892, the work of the enlargement of the chapel was completed. It now measured 125 feet long and 50 feet wide. The beautiful wood-carved life-size stations were imported from Germany; new stained-glass windows were put in; the marble for the altar was imported from Rome; a new organ and new bells were installed, and additional fresco work was done by Adolph Steubner.
Father Mollinger suffered continually from rheumatism during the 1880s. As years went on he suffered from dropsy and had to contend with an old rupture, which gave him considerable trouble at times. Two prominent physicians, Dr. King and Dr. Peach, attended him constantly. During the last two years of his life, he had great difficulty sleeping. Those close to him knew that he did not have long to live. (The following material coms from the journal kept by the School Sisters of Notre Dame at Most Holy Name Convent. We are not sure which sister wrote this account.)
On June 13, 1890, on the feast of Saint Anthony, there was an extraordinary number of people here. Six thousand, as some newspapers reported, attended on that day. Already several days before, all places of lodging were overcrowded. On the eve of the feast, no more rooms, public or private, were available even for great sums of money. People who came from far away had to spend the night in our schoolyard and on the church steps. Rev. Suitbert G. Mollinger, for longer periods of time, had half the church filled with the sick, whom he blessed daily, and spoke to each one individually and recommended medicine for them. On the day before the feast, and already some days before, the rooms downstairs, where he usually received the sick, were too small, so that he took them to the classrooms where he tended to them not only during the day but into the night until eleven and twelve o’clock. In consequence of this exertion, Rev. S.G. Mollinger became very ill. He had an attack of the dropsy. The doctors feared for his life. On July 14, he traveled to Atlantic City in hopes of being cured by the ocean air. But he improved only very slowly. When, however, he felt a little better, he pursued even there, in Atlantic City, his favorite occupation, blessing the sick in the same church where he celebrated holy Mass. On August 18, 1890, Rev. S.G. Mollinger returned home, but his health had not improved. He was so weak, that he could not even walk by himself from the carriage into the house. On August 31, we celebrated First Holy Communion for 41 girls and 39 boys, a greater number than ever before in our parish, Rev. S.G. Mollinger did not attend the celebration, he was too ill. In the afternoon, after the services the Communicants went to the rectory where they received their Communion pictures. On Sept. 2, our school started again. On the first day, nearly 60 children entered. The magnificent Saint Anthony Chapel had just been completed, but not yet consecrated. On June 11, 1892, our Rev. S.G. Mollinger had been with the Most Rev. Bishop to ask permission for celebrating Holy Mass on the Feast. Since the existing altar of the chapel had been consecrated many years ago permission was granted. Rev. S.G. Mollinger was overjoyed. On June 12, he asked for two Sisters to help him with the decoration of the chapel and the altars. All afternoon, he and the Sisters and several men were busy decorating. He sent for the most beautiful natural flowers and green plants. Rev. S.G. Mollinger did most himself. In the evening, the chapel was most beautiful. Rev. Mollinger couldn't sleep all night. Finally, at 4 o’clock, he arose and at 5 o’clock he celebrated Holy Mass and gave Holy Communion to several of the sick. At 8 o’clock, he was still sitting in OU1" yard when he called me to himself and said to me, how beautiful his chapel was, and that during Holy Mass he had seen St. Anthony who told him to take good care of himself. Several times he called me over and had something to tell me. It seemed as if he had a premonition that he should see me for the last time. At 9 o’clock, he felt already very ill. As every year, very many sick people were here from all over. Hundreds stood in front of the church and in the street, as the crowd was too large to fit into the church. As every year, Rev. Mollinger wanted to bless the sick after the High Mass. But because he felt already very ill, he took along Rev. C. Laengst, his best and faithful friend. While he was blessing the sick, he felt worse. After he had finished, he had to be assisted into the house. They had to let him lie on the floor, so intense were his pains. On June 14, they called Dr. King who diagnosed his condition as very dangerous, and consulted with three other doctors. On June 15, the doctors decided on one last means to save his life, an operation. But it was too late. Rev. S.G. Mollinger died at 2:00p.m. on June 15,1892. His burial took place on June 18 at Most Holy Name Cemetery.
Father Mollinger died peacefully with a crucifix in his hand on June 15, 1892.
His earthly remains were laid to rest on June 18, 1892, at Most Holy Name of Jesus Cemetery, on Mt. Troy Road; his chapel stands to this day as a monument to his devotion and good works.