Former orphanage site now diocesan pastoral center

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has moved its headquarters from downtown Pittsburgh to a place where thousands of young lives were once saved, a future governor was born, and where new priests have been formed for more than a half century.

The Diocesan Pastoral Center on the Boulevard of the Allies downtown, which served as the diocese’s main administrative location since the late 1950s, has relocated to Saint Paul Seminary in the Oakwood section of Pittsburgh, the former home of Saint Paul Orphanage.

Christmas dinner at Saint Paul Orphanage (undated photo courtesy of diocesan archives)

Bishop David Zubik made the decision as part of the On Mission for The Church Alive! strategic planning initiative. It calls for the Church to use its resources for mission rather than maintenance in order to bring Jesus’s love and mercy to everyone.

“Like our parishes and schools, we want the goods of the faithful to be used for ministry as much as possible,” said Father Lawrence DiNardo, diocesan general secretary and vicar general. “The seminary campus is the best location for all of our staff and visitors to gather in a post-pandemic world because of its good facilities, free parking and easy accessibility.”

The future use of the Boulevard of the Allies building is under study.

Early days

The story of the journey to the seminary site is even older than the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

In 1836—seven years before the diocese was created—three Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg, Md., founded Saint Paul Orphanage for girls in Pittsburgh. Nine years later they were recalled by their order and the Sisters of Mercy were given care of the orphanage.

In 1844, the first Bishop of Pittsburgh, Michael O’Connor established Pittsburgh’s first diocesan seminary in the city’s Birmingham neighborhood, today’s South Side. It briefly was discontinued, operated for a year in Cambria County, reestablished in Pittsburgh’s Glenwood section, but eventually closed.

Due to a pressing need to also care for orphaned boys, in 1846 Bishop O’Connor allowed Saint Paul Orphanage to expand into the Birmingham seminary building. In that era, some children deemed as orphans had parents who were unable to care for them. As the population of orphan boys continued to grow, another structure was built for them, but it, too, eventually became inadequate.

On May 27, 1900, the cornerstone was laid for the new Saint Paul Orphan Asylum on 17 acres between Crafton and Carnegie. The property was purchased for $28,000.

Boys and girls moved into the first building in 1902 and more structures went up. By 1919 there were 1,200 orphans at the site. The final addition was a recreational building featuring a gymnasium, swimming pool and auditorium.

St. Paul Orphanage, circa 1950s. It included a social hall (#5), chapel (8), hospital (9), school (11) and recreational building (12). In the upper left is the future site of Bishop Canevin High School.
St. Paul Seminary campus in 2016, with expansion of St. John Vianney Manor underway at top.
(courtesy Google Maps)

In December 1950, a boy named Kenneth was born at the orphanage. A year later he was adopted by couple and given a new name. Tom Vilsack received a good education, earned a law degree, and eventually became the 40th Governor of Iowa, served as U.S. secretary of agriculture, and ran for president.

Synod Hall

In the 19th century, the diocesan cathedral stood on Grant Street downtown, with the chancery offices located at Epiphany parish house. A new Saint Paul Cathedral was built in Oakland, opening in 1906. Nine years later, the diocese erected an adjoining structure, Synod Hall.

Synod Hall and chancery building in Oakland, circa 1930s.

The building contained offices for the bishop and his staff, a library, assembly rooms, and the 975-seat hall. Its primary purpose was to house the diocesan synod, a consultative body that makes formal recommendations to the bishop regarding ecclesiastical legislation, policies and guidelines for the diocese. Synod Hall also was one of the finest acoustical halls in the city and hosted many concerts.

Synod Hall upon its dedication in 1915.

As the number of parishes and schools in the diocese grew, so did the need for office space. Bishop John Dearden commissioned the Diocesan Pastoral Center to be built next to Saint Mary of Mercy Parish downtown. Staff moved into the five-story building in 1958. For a time, Synod Hall became the headquarters of the Newman Clubs of local colleges, and it has served a variety of purposes since then.

Seminary returns

In 1965, the operations of Saint Paul Orphanage were combined with those of Holy Family Institute in Emsworth, and Bishop John Wright founded Saint Paul Seminary on the property. It was the first minor seminary located in Pittsburgh since 1876.

The youth activities building on campus became O’Connor Hall, which is now a space for large gatherings. Saint John Vianney Manor for retired priests has expanded twice.

Over the past 55 years, hundreds of men have received spiritual formation for the priesthood at the seminary while taking academic classes at Catholic universities. In 2007, Bishop Zubik moved into an apartment at the seminary to live and pray alongside the future priests of the diocese.

The site, once the refuge of orphans, now is home to all diocesan staff as they serve the faithful and strive to bring people closer to Jesus across the six counties of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Please note that effective immediately, the new mailing address of the Diocese of Pittsburgh Pastoral Center is 2900 Noblestown Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15205. The main phone number for the diocese (412-456-3000), and for each diocesan office and staff member, remain the same.

The former Diocesan Pastoral Center at 111 Blvd. of the Allies, downtown.