By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

St. Paul of the Cross Monastery Church open after renovations

Passionate plea spurs call to keep Monastery open, renovate Church on Slopes


Last updated 10/14/2020 at 8:57pm

St. Paul of the Cross Monastery Church on the South Side Slopes has reopened after nearly two years of renovations.

A little over two years ago, in July 2018, the future of St. Paul of the Cross Monastery and Church was cloudy at best.

The Passionist community of about a dozen priests heard a presentation at a house meeting from a New York firm outlining how the Church could be used as a museum, a small house erected on the property for the religious to live in, keep the retreat house open and demolish the Monastery. The New Yorkers said with the Monastery gone the property would be worth millions of dollars to build condominiums.

Fr. Justin Kerber C.P. had just arrived at St. Paul's Monastery a week or two prior after having spent the past 20 years in Raleigh, NC.

"I was getting annoyed with them, this is one of the most historic places that we have in the world," Fr. Kerber said. "This is the first church in the world named after St. Paul of the Cross. This is the first Passionist foundation in the New World."

He added that so many of the Passionists were trained at the monastery.

"One hundred and thirty of our men are buried here. We have the crypt downstairs where saints are buried. Bishops are down there," he said.

"This is our Monte Argentario of the New World (where the Passionist community was founded)" Fr. Kerber said in an impassioned speech at the time. "This is crazy."

The Provincial, the head Passionist of the United States, was in attendance at the meeting and was asked if the community could elect a new Superior then instead of in the fall. Every four years a Superior is elected to lead the foundation. Even though he had only been at the Monastery a short time, Fr. Kerber received every vote from the community the next day.

That October, he was scheduled to go to Rome with the Provincial to meet with the Pope and represent the community in electing a new General. In his meeting with Pope Francis, he was permitted to ask for one thing and he asked the Pope to pray for the Church in Pittsburgh in light of the troubles at the time.

After being in Rome for 35 days, Fr. Kerber returned and began having doubts about his ability to carry out what looked like a monumental task ahead of him.

"What am I doing here, this place is a mess, it's falling apart, it has no money, it's going to close. We have no young people, everybody is old and I remember thinking 'I shouldn't go through with this,'" he thought to himself.

Even though it was 2 a.m. at the time, he went into the church to the tomb of Fr. Theodore Foley and prayed out loud "If you want me to make us all holey and keep us all good and you want us to do something here, send money."

Fr. Foley was a rector at the monastery and is a candidate for sainthood.

The next day the Rector received a call from a well-known Pittsburgh builder asking, "what are you going to do for the place?"

The builder said he had been helped by Fr. Theodore and prays to him every night and offered to send $500,000 by December 10 and another $500,000 by January 10 to put toward renovations to the church.

Fr. Kerber remembered the builder saying "that's a million dollars, could you fix up the church?" He was also asked if he could raise that much money to add to the project. He answered yes, having raised $74 million to build a cathedral in Raleigh.

The ensuing capital campaign raised more than $2 million for renovations to the church. "This is God's doing, this isn't my doing," he said.

The renovations were just about completed and Fr. Kerber said he was prepared to make the final payment on the work when they found the ceiling and floor were collapsing. The additional work needed to make the repairs put them almost a half million dollars over budget. The builder's company did the work and gave them generous terms in paying for the additional work.

When the construction on the church was almost completed, the builder offered to make renovations to the monastery, adding bathrooms to all the priests' rooms and making other amenities.

Fr. Kerber said he didn't want to change the nature of their lives and asked instead if he would consider making improvements to the Retreat House. The builder offered enough money to fix up the Retreat House.

Fr. Kerber said they have received some criticism for putting so much money into renovations to the church and now the retreat house. He explained the money for the renovations was donated for specific projects and they were unable to use it for anything else.

The Passionists continue to provide services to the greater community. Among other things, they operate a food pantry serving more than 50 area families each week and hear confessions every day.

"You have to use the money for the intention it was donated for," he said. "I did not take any money to better our lives. I took money so that people would come here and we could preach and we could do God's work."

He stressed the project hasn't been his doing, that the whole Passionist community has undertaken the renovations and has been informed and involved every step of the way.

The Monastery Church reopened, with proper covid-19 restrictions, several weeks ago and is planning a reopening Mass with the Bishop.


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