By Karen Mansfield
When Rev. Martin Brennan was assigned to the Historic Church of St. Peter in Brownsville in 1931, he was directed to tear down the church and build a new one.
But Brennan balked at the plan when he saw the old stone Gothic Revival church and persuaded Catholic leaders to allow the parishioners to restore the church, which was dedicated in 1845.
It turned out to be a prescient decision.
Today, the church is among the most stunning sacred landmarks in Pennsylvania and has earned designation on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Architecturally, the church is just phenomenal, but it also has amazing historical significance,” said Rev. Timothy Kruthaupt, who has led the church since 2015. “When the Bishop assigned me here five years ago, I knew nothing about Brownsville. When I saw the church, I was blown away by its beauty and its simplicity. It’s majestic.”
Perched atop a hill on the east bank of the Monongahela River, the church’s exterior features a distinctive Gothic spire. It is surrounded by a cemetery that includes graves of Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers.
Among other notables buried there are Ephraim and Maria Gillespie Blaine, whose son, James G. Blaine, served as a U.S. senator and Secretary of State, and lost three U.S. presidential bids, including a narrow loss to Grover Cleveland in 1884.
Rev. Kruthaupt said it is believed the first Mass offered west of the Allegheny Mountains was held near the church site, on July 1, 1754.
French troops on their way to capture Fort Necessity from the British disembarked from the Monongahela River at the mouth of Red Stone Creek – below the site of the present St. Peter’s Church, where their chaplain prayed for victory. The Mass is commemorated in one of the stained glass windows in the church.
Inside, the church is modeled after village churches in Ireland that Brownsville’s Irish immigrants had attended.
Kruthaupt, a self-described amateur historian, said the church was designed to be a Bishop’s cathedral and was originally intended to be the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Western Pennsylvania.
The church walls are lined with stained glass windows that depict the church’s history.
It includes a pulpit to the left of the altar, as it is in cathedrals, sedilias (stone seats where clergy sat during services,) and a crypt located in the center aisle near the communion rail for the entombment of bishops.
But the church never became a Bishop’s church.
“The church was finished the year Pittsburgh was established as the episcopal See, where the Bishop would reside,” said Rev. Kruthaupt.
A narrow, circular stone stairway leads to the loft, which provides a birds-eye view of the church’s interior.
And the church includes a leper window, which was a feature in European churches that enabled lepers to stand outside, watch Mass and receive communion before returning to the leper colony.
Rev. Kruthaupt also noted the cemetery’s unique heated graves.
The boiler that heated the church was located in the Catholic school across the street, and the pipes running under the cemetery to the church pumped hot water to the radiators installed in the church.
“The pipes went underneath a number of graves, and when it would snow, the snow would melt at those gravesites,” said Rev. Kruthaupt. “It’s kind of unique to run your heating pipes beneath someone’s grave.”
The Historic Church of St. Peter is actually the third St. Peter’s Church built, Rev. Kruthaupt said. The first two were destroyed by fire, and the crypt and the bell tower are lined with red brick salvaged from the second church.
One of the most significant restoration projects in the church’s history occurred during the Depression.
In the early 1900s, a pastor oversaw a project to plaster and paint the stone walls to cover up efflorescence, powdery white salt deposits that appeared on the interior walls in the fall, a result of humid summers.
“The interior discolored because of the plaster, and the discoloration was horrific,” said Rev. Kruthaupt. “Fr. Brennan directed the restoration. Most of the men were unemployed because of the Depression, so the women cooked, and the men worked on the church. It took five years, but they totally restored the interior.”
Today, part of the maintenance of the church includes removing the efflorescence each fall.
During the renovation project, workers also discovered the church’s original baptismal font in a heap of trash.
“I have no idea why it was thrown away, but the men grabbed it, brought it up and restored it, and it’s still used today,” said Rev. Kruthaupt.
Rev. Kruthaupt credited the church’s faithful parishioners for creating a vibrant church community.
About 400 worshipers attend church services each week.
The church recently completed the construction of a social hall and recreation center to host social events and house the parish’s food bank and clothing ministry.
Historic Church of St. Peter offers tours of the church and grounds. For information or to schedule a tour, visit stpeterstcecilia.org.