Ongoing History: The Word of God

"Mary Queen of Croatians," Maxo Vanka

As part of its ongoing Word of God exhibit, the Andy Warhol Museum created a “pilgrimage” of culturally significant sites around the city, and last week they offered a guided tour of two: St. Anthony’s Chapel in Troy Hill and St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. Since both churches are well known — St. Anthony for its sacred relics and St. Nicholas for its Maxo Vanka murals — I won’t go into much detail about them here, but I wanted to relate a small incident that occurred at the end of the afternoon, and it will only make sense if I explain a little bit about the whole event.

The tour began at the museum, where there is an exhibit of religiously themed work by Jeffrey Vallance. It’s actually not so much “religiously themed” as “religiously structured.” Vallance used Catholicism to tell his life story, writing and illustrating The Gospel According to Jeffrey and building reliquaries to hold mundane objects from his travels: a bottle of Paul Mitchell mousse that memorializes a breezy summer drive, a collection of plastic animal toys buried in the back yard, a Tiki soap-on-a-rope. Vallance also made reliquaries for cultural artifacts: a miniscule fragment of Elvis’ hair and authenticated squares of bed cloth from a hotel where the Beatles spent the night.

From there, we drove up to Troy Hill to see the sacred relics lining the walls of St. Antony’s Chapel. We heard about the history of the building from a guide named Carol who wore a prim green sweater and sculpted hair. She clasped a rosary in her hands while she described how local craftsmen made the giant cabinet behind the altar, and how the congregation bought the relics for $30,000 in the late-1800s because no one could find the will for priest that built the chapel, and how parents in Troy Hill would threaten to send their misbehaving children to The Sisters of Good Shepherd orphanage that is now a Unimart and a Laundromat. She seemed to be reciting the entire half-hour monologue from memory, not just the words, but the delivery, too, each intonation and aside.

Next, we followed the winding roads down into Millvale. A guide named Bill, wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and shoulder-length white hair, explained that the diocese chose Bennett Hill for the site of the church in 1894 to split the distance between the Croatian communities in Lawrenceville and the North Side. He tilted a squeaky spotlight at the mural behind the altar. It features a quaint Croatian village on the left and smoky Pittsburgh on the right beneath a Croatian Mother Mary and Baby Jesus floating in the clouds. Vanka would paint late into the night before retiring to the rectory to join his patron, Father Albert Zagar, for wine and cake and a conversation about the work. When Bill said this, an image popped into my mind of Vanka, tired, trotting across the courtyard in the dark, the courtyard just outside, while his work dried on the walls.

What’s the difference between a church that collects relics or a church that fund murals and an artist that uses the tools of a faith to relay his stories and interests and ideas? What’s the difference between localizing a religion and personalizing it? Afterward, in the basement — the most welcoming place in any church — eating glazed Danish from Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery, one of the Warhol docents asked what we thought of the tour. I said I thought the power of the relics and the murals came from the communities that keep them, and that Vallance focused too much on himself. She said she disagreed. His objects created a community of shared experiences: the fragment of Elvis’ hair wouldn’t be important without the legion of Elvis fans, she said, and the backyard toys brought back memories of her children playing outside. Given that I’d spent all day as a tourist, pondering items meant for active worship, I realized I was proving her point.

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