The healing priest: In late 1800s, thousands sought out Rev. Mollinger at Troy Hill church

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He was born to a wealthy Belgian family, studied medicine in Europe, became a priest, and rode on horseback in northwestern Pennsylvania to say Mass and treat people's ailments.

But it wasn't until the Rev. Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger arrived in Pittsburgh at the end of the Civil War and became priest at Most Holy Name of Jesus parish in Troy Hill that his reputation blossomed, said Kate Lukaszewicz, lead educator at the Heinz History Center.

During his more than 20 years here, she said in a talk at the history center Saturday, the "healing priest" became so well known that 20,000 people would make the pilgrimage to his church for the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua each June, seeking cures for everything from blindness and deafness to crippling ailments and heart problems.

A biographical dictionary page that Ms. Lukaszewicz displayed from the 1890s showed that the item for Father Mollinger was twice as large as the descriptions for both Queen Victoria and composer John Philip Sousa.

Yet he is little known today, despite his reputation as a faith healer and his ability to amass the second largest collection of sacred relics outside the Vatican, at St. Anthony's Chapel in Troy Hill.

Pictures of the German-speaking priest from the late 1800s show a man with a voluminous gray beard and pale blue eyes.

And while some priests in the region were none too happy with his faith-healing services, he was enormously popular with Catholics from around the nation.

An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people a week would make their way to his parish, Ms. Lukaszewicz said, and the trolley line to the base of Troy Hill was so crowded with invalids that it was known as "The Ambulance."

Once people on crutches and canes made it to that stop, she said, they would then struggle up the boardwalk and through the mud to the Troy Hill parish, just to see Father Mollinger.

When they arrived, he would treat them with either the practice of faith healing -- in which he would tell them to trust God to make them well but would also order them to carry out an act of penance -- or by administering medicines that he concocted himself in a nearby apothecary.

His growing reputation came at time when faith healing was springing up throughout the world, Ms. Lukaszewicz said, possibly as a reaction against the growing emphasis on science and rationalism during the same period.

The Pentecostal Holiness Movement in the United States held faith healing services; Mary Baker Eddy began the Christian Science church, which taught that physical illnesses were in people's minds; and hundreds began to go on pilgrimages to Lourdes after a woman saw visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1858.

What made Father Mollinger different, Ms. Lukaszewicz said, is that he believed in both faith healing and the practice of medicine, although his compounds would be seen as patent medicines today.

There were many reports of Father Mollinger telling people to throw down their crutches or canes and walk, but there were also stories about people for whom the rituals didn't work, and even times when the priest would pay for people to see other doctors when he felt he couldn't help them.

After he died, some obituaries estimated he had seen more than 320,000 people at his faith-healing services. During his time in Pittsburgh, he also collected thousands of relics of the saints from Europe at a time when clerics in Germany and Italy were worried that strife in their nations endangered the safety of their collections.

Father Mollinger led the fundraising effort to build St. Anthony's Chapel in Troy Hill to house the relics. On the day that the final expansion of the chapel was dedicated in 1892, an estimated 20,000 people attended. He collapsed from exhaustion, and died a couple of days later, Ms. Lukaszewicz said.

Because he left no will, relatives descended on Pittsburgh and announced that they intended to claim the relics and sell them. But the Pittsburgh diocese paid them $30,000 -- more than $760,000 in today's currency -- to retain the relics, and the Holy Name parishioners worked for years to repay the diocese.

Asked by one audience member Saturday what she found most remarkable about Father Mollinger, Ms. Lukaszewicz said:

"What blows my mind most is how few people know of him at all."

Mark Roth:, 412-263-1130 and on Twitter: @markomar

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