Saint Vincent Parish, 1790-1846
Saint Vincent is situated on land that was deeded to John Fraser of Bedford in 1766, shortly after the French and Indian War. This land was soon to be called the Sportsman’s Hall Tract because it was used for hunting. In 1790 Father Theodore Brouwers, a Franciscan friar, purchased the property and established on it the oldest continuous Catholic parish in western Pennsylvania. It was then known as Sportsman’s Hall Parish. The often-pictured Sportsman’s Hall structure of hewn logs was one built for Father Brouwers to serve as a residence and church.
Father Brouwers and his successors brought ministry to the Catholic settlers of this area, so much so that the Sportsman’s Hall Parish has been called “the Cradle of Catholicity in Western Pennsylvania.” The most renowned among those early Catholic settlers in the area were the three brothers Christian, Simon and George Ruffner; and Christian’s brother-in-law, Henry Kuhn. The beginnings of the Sportsman’s Hall Parish coincided with the establishment at Baltimore of the first Catholic diocese in the United States, and with the installation of its first leader, Bishop John Carroll.
It was also during this time that the United States Constitution became effective with the inauguration, on April 30, 1789, of George Washington as the first president.
But Father Brouwers was at Sportsman’s Hall Parish only six months until his death. His major contribution to Saint Vincent was the continuity that he ensured through his Last Will and Testament, which left the property in trust to the Catholic priest who would succeed him.
There were fifty-six years of Saint Vincent history before the arrival of the Benedictines in 1846. And these fifty-six years were rough-and-ready times for both pastors and parishioners on this frontier. A legendary pastor of Sportsman’s Hall Parish was Father Peter Helbron, a Capuchin friar, who served from 1799 until his death in 1816. Through his kindness he was able to nourish a growing congregation, largely composed of German and Irish immigrants. Father Helbron, despite his advanced age, not only cared for the Sportsman’s Hall Parish, but also did missionary work throughout seven counties of western Pennsylvania. He became the friend and confidant of the legendary prince-priest, Father Demetrius Gallitzin, “the Apostle of the Alleghenies.”
But the development of the Sportsman’s Hall Parish was given its greatest impetus in these early years by a newly ordained priest, Father James Stillinger. He served the Sportsman’s Hall Parish from 1830 to 1845, and gave it a sense of community by building a brick church and parochial residence as a center of activities. It was at the dedication of this church on July 19, 1835, that Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia placed it under the patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul, whose feast day it was. From that day Sportsman s Hall Parish has been known as Saint Vincent Parish. Thus the origin of the name, Saint Vincent, which has endured to the present day as the name not only of the Parish but also of the Archabbey, Seminary and College. This Saint Vincent church was used for one hundred and twenty-eight years until it was destroyed in the fire of 1963. Those who were acquainted with Saint Vincent from 1905 to 1963 knew this church as the “Students Chapel.” The walls of the parochial residence still stand as a part of Maur Hall, the oldest of the existing Saint Vincent buildings.
In 1830 Father Stillinger had been appointed not only as pastor of Sportsman’s Hall Parish but also as the founding pastor of Saints Simon and Jude Parish in Blairsville, where he served for forty-three years until his death in 1873.
In 1845 Father Michael Gallagher was appointed to take the place of Father Stillinger as pastor of Saint Vincent Parish. It would be a short pastorate for Father Gallagher, one of preparation for the coming of the Benedictines one year later. In fact Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh successfully persuaded Father Boniface Wimmer to make his foundation of a Benedictine monastery and school on the historic Sportsman’s Hall Tract. Bishop O’Connor lost little time in naming Father Wimmer as pastor of the parish; and, so as successor to Father Brouwers, he was in possession of the Sportsman’s Hall Tract in accord with Brouwers’ will.
The Saint Vincent of these first fifty-six years prepared the way for the arrival of the Benedictines in 1846. There had been early indications that this Sportsman’s Hall Tract was destined to serve as the site for a monastery and as a center for education as well. In fact there is evidence that in 1794 the Benedictines of Downside Abbey in England had been offered by Bishop Carroll this property on which to establish a monastery and school, an offer that they did not accept. In 1835, in addition to building a church and parochial residence, Father Stillinger had a small one-story schoolhouse erected on the property. It was destined to serve as a temporary residence for Father Gallagher, and for Father Wimmer and his companions as well. This arrangement was necessitated by the fact that from 1845 to 1847 the parochial residence was serving as a temporary convent and academy for the Sisters of Mercy until they could move into a new building at an adjacent location, known as Saint Xavier Academy. Another indication of early interest in education at Saint Vincent was the attempt, also in 1845, by Father Gallagher and Bishop O’Connor to establish a minor seminary at Saint Vincent an undertaking which was passed on to Father Wimmer upon his arrival one year later.
And so there was fertile soil in which Father Boniface Wimmer could plant the first Benedictine monastery and school in the United States. The role of Saint Vincent Parish and the Sportsman’s Hall Tract was forever altered by the arrival, on October 18, 1846, of Father Wimmer and his eighteen companions. From that day Saint Vincent would be inseparably linked with the Benedictine monastery and educational institutions that would flourish on this hallowed hill.
Omer U. Kline, O.S.B.