Tours offered of Saint Vincent basilica, gristmill

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Saint Vincent Basilica sits in full view of traffic on busy Route 30 near Latrobe, but most who pass by don't visit what is considered by many as an architectural gem.

To bring the historic church and equally historic nearby gristmill into the limelight, the Westmoreland County Historical Society will hold public tours from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 11.

"We wanted ... an interpretive program to end our season with something a lot of people wouldn't normally think of doing," explained Joanna Moyar, the society's education coordinator. "One of our board members took a tour of the basilica and liked it so much, he recommended it to our program committee."

As education coordinator, it fell on Mrs. Moyar to coordinate the tours, and the plan is to offer a 45-minute guided tour of the basilica followed by another 45-minute tour of the gristmill, a national historic landmark that still operates. At the end of both tours, time will be allotted for questions and refreshments will be served.

The basilica

On April 16, 1790, the Rev. Theodore Brouwers, a Franciscan friar from Holland, purchased the approximately 300-acre tract that became the parish of Saint Vincent. Fifty-six years later, Archabbot Boniface Wimmer founded the first Benedictine monastery, college and seminary in North America. Consistent with Father Wimmer's vision of a self-sufficient community, the gristmill was established in 1854.

The Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica is a notable architectural feature of the campus and monastery. In the mid-1880s, Father Wimmer and architect William Schickel began working on plans for a basilica hall-style church, but Father Wimmer died in 1887 before his dream could be realized.

His successor, Archabbot Andrew Hintenach, appointed Brother Andrew Traxler to supervise a team of 75 monks and 70 lay craftsmen who built the church. On Dec. 21, 1891, the parish children, who were viewed as the future of the church, broke ground and construction began. The basilica was completed in 1905.

The basilica used timber from the nearby Chestnut Ridge and vibrant red orange bricks made by monks on site, who also crafted the oak and chestnut pews. The basilica is 230 feet long, 122 feet across at the transept, or crossing. It contains 27 stained glass windows. The interior of the church is 68 feet tall at the sanctuary and hold 18 rose-colored granite columns quarried in Scotland and an altar of Carrara marble.

The mill

The gristmill operates year-round on a part-time basis, grinding grain -- wheat, rye, corn and buckwheat -- purchased from local farmers. The grains are sold in the gristmill store along with local maple syrup, pancake mix and bread baked by Friendship Farms of Pleasant Unity with gristmill grain and the St. Vincent Gristmill label. The store is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

"On the tour, people will be able to walk around the gristmill to see how large it is," said Kelsey Harris, curator. "Inside, they can look through a large glass window at the wheels that grind the grain."

The mill is a four-story structure with machinery on each floor that is connected by a pulley system. Visitors are permitted only on the first floor.

The Westmoreland County Historical Society has about 900 members. Annual membership fee is $38, which includes admission to Historic Hanna's Town, a quarterly newsletter, a subscription to Westmoreland History magazine and discounts on most programs and purchases in the museum shop. Student memberships are $18; family memberships are $48.

Cost for the Saint Vincent tour is $7, $5 for society members. Reservations are due Dec. 7.

For more on society events:

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Dave Zuchowskli, freelance writer:


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