Although the Diocese of Greensburg is relatively young, having been canonically erected by Pope Pius XII on March 10, 1951, its four counties in southwestern Pennsylvania are rich in Catholic history and in the early colonial and industrial history of the United States.
The see city of Greensburg, named for Revolutionary War hero General Nathaniel Greene, celebrated its bicentennial in 1999. It is the current political seat of Westmoreland County, which was formed in 1773. Allegheny County, which includes the Diocese of Pittsburgh, would later be formed from a part of Westmoreland County.
The Catholic faith had taken hold in the area several years earlier. Some records indicate the first Mass west of the Allegheny Mountains was celebrated in 1749 along the northern border of the diocese near Kittanning by a French priest serving as chaplain to French troops.
On July 1, 1754, Recollect Father Denys Baron, chaplain at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh), celebrated Mass for French troops near Brownsville in Fayette County. That event is captured in a stained-glass window in the historic St. Peter Church in Brownsville.
The French force was on its way to challenge a group of Virginia militia led by George Washington; the dispute was about control of the area surrounding Pittsburgh. The ensuing Battle of Fort Necessity (near Uniontown) on July 3-4, 1754, in which Washington had to surrender to the French, sparked the French and Indian War.
Shortly after that war ended, a battle against Native Americans in 1763 at Bushy Run Battlefield near Greensburg broke a siege of Fort Pitt and ended Pontiac’s Rebellion.
The illustrious history of the region now encompassing the Diocese of Greensburg also includes some of the most influential Catholic pioneers in the nation:
Prince Demetrius Gallitizin, who became Father Augustine as the second priest ordained in the United States, arrived in Loretto in 1799 to spread the faith. Father James A. Stillinger, who served as pastor of SS. Simon and Jude Parish in Blairsville for 43 years, ministered to Catholics as far southwest as Greene and Washington counties and north to the New York state line. Benedictine Father Boniface Wimmer, who came to Latrobe from Germany, established the Benedictine presence at Saint Vincent in 1846 and St. John Nepomucene Neumann, a Redemptorist priest serving in Pittsburgh, helped establish the mother church of the diocese in 1846-47 that is now Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg.
The cathedral sits on property purchased in 1789 by six pioneer Catholics who are considered the first permanent Catholic congregation west of the Alleghenies. The Greensburg effort was abandoned in favor of a site purchased in 1790 that is called the “Cradle of Catholicity” in western Pennsylvania - the property that is now Saint Vincent Archabbey, College and Seminary and Basilica parish. The parishioners used Sportsman’s Hall as their first church.
Prince Gallitzin spread the faith to early settlers in the diocese. He is thought to have established the church in Sugar Creek in 1806. The refurbished log church at that site is the oldest church west of the Alleghenies and today serves as a chapel to St. Patrick Parish in Brady’s Bend.
Parishes and churches had been established in Brownsville, Cameron’s Bottom in Indiana County, and Freeport and Kittanning in Armstrong County when the Diocese of Pittsburgh was established in the western half of Pennsylvania in 1843.
The Benedictines arrived in Latrobe in 1846 to establish their first monastery in North America. The Sisters of Mercy established a school, St. Xavier Academy, near Latrobe in 1847. The Sisters of Charity established their motherhouse, Seton Hill, in Greensburg in 1882, while other congregations of religious women came to the area to work in schools and other apostolates.
While Catholicism grew slowly in the region prior to the Civil War, that growth boomed in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. The church growth was fueled by ethnic Catholics who settled in the four counties of the diocese to mine coal and produce the coke that fired steel mills in Pittsburgh, which fueled the industrial development of the United States.
More than 80 parishes and missions were built in the four counties between 1865 and 1917.
The steel industry was still booming when the Diocese of Greensburg was formed March 10, 1951. Bishop Hugh L. Lamb, an auxiliary bishop in Philadelphia, was appointed first bishop of the new diocese at a time when the church in the United States was beginning to move from an immigrant, laborers’ church that was often looked on with suspicion by mainstream society to a church that was itself a part of that mainstream.
That transition continued as Bishop William G. Connare, a Pittsburgh priest, was appointed second bishop of Greensburg Feb. 23, 1960, after Bishop Lamb died.
Bishop Connare, who attended every session of the Second Vatican Council, directed the diocese through many changes in his 27 years as bishop. In addition to the significant changes brought by Vatican II, Bishop Connare oversaw a long period of church growth in the diocese.
The only auxiliary bishop of the diocese, Bishop Norbert F. Gaughan, served from 1975-84 when he was then appointed chief shepherd of the Diocese of Gary (Ind.).
Bishop Connare’s resignation was accepted Jan. 20, 1987. He died June 12, 1995 at the age of 83.
The local economy and church began feeling the effects of the decline of the steel industry in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. That presented serious challenges for Bishop Anthony G. Bosco, who was installed as the third bishop of Greensburg June 30, 1987.
Bishop Bosco’s leadership was marked by his commitment to Vatican II’s call to the laity, changes in religious education and formation, and the promotion of collaboration among parishes.
Because of the severe economic downturn and aging populations, however, Bishop Bosco had to close or partner several parishes and schools, decisions met with varying degrees of opposition.
The church of Greensburg celebrated the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity in 2000 and marked the golden anniversary of the diocese in 2001.
A new chapter in diocesan history began when Pope John Paul II accepted the retirement and resignation of Bishop Bosco in late 2004. Bishop Bosco welcomed his successor, Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt, during a Jan. 2 2004 press conference at the Pastoral Center.
Bishop Brandt, ordained to the priesthood Dec. 19, 1969, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was ordained and installed as the fourth bishop of the diocese March 4, 2004 at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.
Today, the diocese continues to address the changing needs of the Catholic Church, its parishioners and the people of southwestern Pennsylvania.