Shrine of the Blessed Mother

An open air shrine honoring Our Lady of the Parkway located in the neighborhood of South Oakland. The shrine is perched on a cliff overlooking downtown and your prayers will be complemented by the traffic buzzing by below.

Hours: Dawn to dusk

Admission: Free

Outdoors

Not Handicap Accessible

Transportation: Accessible on foot

Site Information: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/9433

 

If you descend into the very depths of South Oakland, as far south as you can go before you hit the Monongahela River, you will come to the edge of a cliff. Tucked away at the bottom of a treacherously steep cobblestone road behind two isolated houses is a small grassy area marked by a narrow brick walkway, several large crosses, and a dome-like structure facing away from the entrance. This is the Shrine of the Blessed Mother. It is sheltered by the cliff that it clings to, while also being open to a grand view of downtown Pittsburgh and the parkway below. The location ensures that the shrine is a peaceful, secluded retreat, even though South Oakland is hardly known as a quiet neighborhood- especially to Pitt students.

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View of the Shrine of the Blessed Mother from above as one descends the hill to visit.

 

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A small statue of Mary overlooks the parkway.

This Catholic shrine  features a lovely statue of the Virgin Mary within a brick arch. Shrines like these are frequently seen in Italian Catholic backyards (see Jonalyn’s story for more). Kneelers and benches provide a comfortable space for visitors to pray and give devotion to our Blessed Mother. Because of her location here overlooking the parkway, Mary has been named Our Lady of the Parkway by visitors of the shrine and faithful who know of her location. It is said that she is visible at night due to the lights at the shrine, and that she is always watching over the travelers buzzing by on I-376.

Who is Mary?

Mary is the mother of Jesus, the prophet and son of God who is at the center of the Christian faith. Jesus was born to Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (a manifestation of God that is part of the Trinity). That is, she remained a virgin, but was given the gift of carrying the son of God. In the Bible, Mary is often by Jesus’ side as he travels and preaches, encouraging him to perform miracles, and offering advice to him. Thus, a shrine to Mary is recognizing the Blessed Mother of Jesus and offering a place to Christians to offer their prayers and worries to her so that she might then deliver them to God. (See Jonalyn’s essay for more).

Italian Catholics are very visual in their religious practices.  We believe displaying the Madonna is a way to honor and show love to our mother.  The Virgin is the main mediator with her son, and when the going gets tough and you need special reinforcements, you go to the Blessed Mother. When the Blessed Mother has answered your prayers or requests, you honor her with gifts of flowers, jewels, and money to say thank you.

In addition to providing a space to pray to Mary, the shrine has features that allow it to be used for several other purposes. Next to the dome containing Mary’s statue is an altar that was used when Mass was said here. While masses are no longer held at the shrine, the the altar gives the shrine the peaceful, reverent air of a church. The shrine is lined by a series of large wooden crosses for the Stations of the Cross, an Easter ritual of Catholics. These crosses are grand and humbling to believers as they reflect on Jesus carrying his own.

How did all of this come to be here?

Built in the back yard of a dilapidated, run down area of Wakefield Street in South Oakland by a woman named Sophia Tolma.  Legend has it that one night while lying in bed the Blessed Mother came to Sophia and said she was going to meet a man, a man with fingers missing from his hand.  Stricken ill, Sophia was hospitalized, but in that brief hospital stay was where she met the man with the missing fingers.  That man, Phillip, was visiting Sophia’s roommate, and during conversation that is when Sophia noticed the missing fingers.  The two shared their stories of their visions of the Blessed Mother and what needed to be done to honor their lady.  After recovering from her illness Sophia and Phillip embarked on their journey to find the perfect spot for the shrine.  Miraculously the statue planted itself where it stands today, in the spot where Sophia and Phillip could not agree upon placement of the concrete symbol, The Blessed Mother.

 


My Personal Story…

By: Jonalyn Pezzuti

Oakland is approximately 2.2 miles from downtown Pittsburgh.  It was previously named this because the property held many oak trees.  It began to flourish after Andrew Carnegie built the library, museum, and concert hall.  The Western University of Pennsylvania relocated to Oakland in 1907 and became The University of Pittsburgh.  Soldiers and Sailors, Forbes Field, and numerous hospitals took up residence in Oakland.  The Cathedral of Learning was under construction in 1925, which at this time was the largest educational structure in the world (Alliance).

Among the obvious landmark is an inconspicuous shrine that hold much significance for some Pittsburgh Catholics.  Oakland is one of the most ethnically mixed areas in Pittsburgh.  Consisting of mainly Italians, Blacks, Jews, Syrians, and of course college students, there are many different cultures represented here today, over 88 foreign countries in total.  For the purpose of this post we will focus on the Italians and their culture and quirks.  One of these quirks are constructing shrines of worship in their yards.

The Shrine, built in the back yard of a dilapidated, run down area of Wakefield Street in South Oakland by a woman named Sophia Tolma.  Legend has it that one night while lying in bed the blessed mother came to Sophia and said she was going to meet a man, a man with fingers missing from his hand.  Stricken ill, Sophia was hospitalized, but in that brief hospital stay was where she met the man with the missing fingers.  That man, Phillip, was visiting Sophia’s roommate, and during conversation that is when Sophia noticed the missing fingers.  The two shared their stories of their visions of the Blessed Mother and what needed to be done to honor their lady.  After recovering from her illness Sophia and Phillip embarked on their journey to find the perfect spot for the shrine.  Miraculously the statue planted itself where it stands today, in the spot where Sophia and Phillip could not agree upon placement of the concrete symbol, The Blessed Mother.

Growing up in an Italian American family, shrines like this are not odd to me, they are just the opposite.  They bring a feeling of safety and comfort, it is a little piece of home away from home. As a child this was a common site, having a Blessed Mother shrine in your front or backyard was as common as having a mailbox on your house.  My grandmother had a Blessed Mother shrine in her back yard with a brick grotto constructed around her, like the one in the picture.  The Roman Catholics believe that the Blessed Mothers birthday is September 8th, which is also my birthday, so every September 8th I would bring the virgin Mary flowers to honor and show appreciation to my guardian mother.  This is something I still practice today, the location may be different due to the fact that my grandmother grew ill and had to move into a smaller house, but the concept and the value still remains the same today as it did when I was a little girl. Most of the time the statues survive even after the owners die or move away.

Italian Catholics are very visual in their religious practices.  We believe displaying the Madonna is a way to honor and show love to our mother.  The Virgin is the main mediator with her son, and when the going gets tough and you need special reinforcements, you go to the Blessed Mother. When the Blessed Mother has answered your prayers or requests, you honor her with gifts of flowers, jewels, and money to say thank you.

In 2007 I undergone major intestinal surgery where I had found myself knocking on deaths door.  My surgery was a success, but my body began rejecting everything the doctors had just corrected and my internal organs began to shut down.  My surgeon knew how severe my condition was and asked my mother if she would like me to have the sacrament of last rights.   In the midst of floating in and out of consciousness, I heard my mother talking, she said “I want to know why your son wants my daughter more than I want her here with me on this earth?  And as a mother how are you OK with giving up your only son? Tell me? I cannot accept this, how were you OK with this because I am not!” It was months later after I began recovering when I recalled this incident and asked my mother about it.  I asked her who she was talking to that night in the hospital, and her reply was Mary, so I asked her why, and she simply said because she is a mother and that is the bond we share.  She said she bypassed Jesus, God, and anyone else that night and went straight to the Blessed Mother for answers.

Edward Soja’s theory in “thirdspace” consists of three parts, each part building off the previous and having affects on the other categories.  First Space is what is perceived, what is real and tangible, what we call reality and exists. First space is physical space, and spaces are measurable and mappable. Second Space is conceived, what is imaginary space, something that is conceived or imagined. The second space is a mental or conceived space which comes from our thinking and ideas. The second space is ideology/conceptual and it is also known as mental space. For example, the second space will explain the behaviors of people from different social class and the social segregation among the Italian Catholics and the rest of the world.  And Third Space is lived, it is a social space/lived space which is a social product that is a space created by society under oppression or marginalization that want to reclaim the space of inequality and make it into something else.  Space that refers to the process whereby the images has produced new kind of space. The images may be in different form and shape; ranging from painting to photograph, from portrait to post card, and from religious theme to entertainment. Nowadays, we are highly influenced by images in many ways and these certain images can tell us new social and cultures values, or something new about how we see the world. Images, symbols and sign do have some kind of spatial expression. It is how we use our space, it combines the real and imagined, which builds off of First Space and Second Space.  The Shrine of the Blessed Mother captures all three of Soja’s spaces.  Space is the social space in which we live and create relationships with other people, societies and surroundings. Space is an outcome of the hard and continuous work of building up and maintaining collectives by bringing different things into alignments. All kinds of different spaces can and therefore do exist which may or may not relate to each other. Thus, through space, we can understand more about social action. Spacing refers to the act of placing or the state of being placed of social goods and people in places.

It does not matter if the place of worship is a typical church structure. All that does matter is the value lies in what is important to yourself and what beliefs you put into those prayers and symbols.  You can pray to a concrete structure in a dark, damp basement or in the backyard of a declining neighborhood, the importance of the belief of the prayers being heard are greater than the location of the place of worship.  Just because you are not in your ritualistic church setting does not mean your prayers hold less value, most of your sinners attend their weekly mass as an act of their good duty for the week and live life completely heathenistic the rest of the week.  Your relationship with your god should not be measured on attendance or how much money goes into the basket on Sunday, it is something that should be held near and dear to your heart.  The relationship with what you choose to worship is just that, it is your relationship; no matter where you are at, or what you do, god, the blessed mother, all the angels and saints are always with you to watch over you and protect you in your time of need.

 


Traditional worship in unconventional spaces

By: Kaitlin Kiernan

The Shrine of the Blessed Mother is a sacred space devoted to an icon of the Catholic Church, the Virgin Mary. The shrine is a space dedicated to meditation and prayer, with an altar and Stations of the Cross to make the space almost church-like in its functionality, if not in its appearance. The Shrine of the Blessed Mother is located at the very edge of South Oakland overlooking the Parkway (Interstate 376) and the Monongahela River in what is effectively someone’s backyard. The space has been repurposed from its original function as a living space for someone living in South Oakland, and is now a space where anyone can come to pray and find some peace amidst the traffic noise wafting up from the highway below. In this essay I will explore the alternative spaces of worship in the city of Pittsburgh through a detailed analysis of the ways the Shrine of the Blessed Mother is used, perceived, and conceived by visitors in comparison to traditional Christian worship spaces. By referencing space theorist Edward Soja and Theologian Philip Sheldrake, I will discuss in depth how the designation of this green space as a Shrine affects its function and use, and how the Shrine as a rather unconventional sacred space pushes the limits of what we would consider a religious space based on previous lived experience and conceptions about what a shrine should be.

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Soja’s Trialectic of Space depicted by a swirl. Credit: J. Fitzpatrick, class handout

In order to provide a working vocabulary for the rest of my discussion, I would like to introduce the Trialectic of Space as described by Edward Soja. Edward Soja is a space theorist who proposes three categories that we can use to categorize our understanding of space. These categories are not distinct from each other. Rather, they are depicted by Soja as a swirl, which represents that each of these categories interacts with and influences the others; we cannot have one of these categories without the other two. The three categories are Perceived, Conceived, and Lived space (Soja).  Perceived space is the concrete space that exists in this physical world (Soja). For example, the perceived space of a Christian church would be the altar, the pews, the stained glass windows, and the people sitting inside. Conceived space is a projection of our internal thoughts onto the perceived space that we are standing in (Soja). To continue the church example, conceived space would include someone’s expectations of what a church should look like from movies. This also includes projections of negative or positive feelings about churches based on experiences throughout your life. For example, if you did not grow up in the Christian faith, your conceived space upon entering a particular church would be very different from a devout Christian, even if you both were visiting for the first time.  Lived space is the personal experience of being in the space (Soja). These would include people’s experiences of masses and sacraments in the church or that time you met a cute guy/girl on the steps outside. Lived space is a combination of the physical space that you are in with your imagined ideas of the space, as well as the actual events that are happening at that instant in time.  These categories provide a vocabulary for a discussion of alternative worship spaces in the form of the Shrine of the Blessed Mother, and how it compares to a traditional Christian worship site like a cathedral.

Perceived:

In his article “Placing the Sacred: Transcendence and the City”, Philip Sheldrake describes the twelfth century shift in the central area of worship of the Christian Church being located in a rural area to a grander urban space. The image of the Garden of Eden as paradise was replaced by the ideal of the New Jerusalem as represented by grand Gothic Cathedrals (Sheldrake 247). “Church buildings had to be more impressive than all others in a city” (247). This mode of thought can still be seen today in Pittsburgh monuments such as St. Paul’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in Oakland which is quite imposing with its twin spires. This particular building encompasses many of the hallmarks of traditional Christian worship spaces. A few of the perceived hallmarks include crucifixes, statues of saints and Jesus, and stained glass windows.

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Father Cox leads a Catholic service in an unknown location in Pittsburgh in 1931, demonstrating that unconventional worship spaces have been a part of Pittsburgh history for decades.

The Shrine of the Blessed Mother is has several hallmarks of a traditional worship space and yet does not seem to fit the bill entirely. There are the requisite statues of Mary and a crucifix above the altar that was previously used for serving Mass. The shrine even features a whole row of pew-like benches that visitors can sit upon if they do not want to kneel in front of Mary. How then is the space perceived as an alternative sacred space? The location of the shrine entirely outdoors makes it decidedly unique for a public shrine. Private home or street shrines are common in countries with robust Catholic populations (Sheldrake 248), as well as in the yards of Italian Roman Catholics in the United States of America (see Jonalyn’s narrative for more details).  Additionally, the setting of the Shrine on the edge of the cliff makes the space seem isolated, while traditionally, churches are located in the middle of the community they serve. This difference can be explained by the function of the shrine as a get-away from the bustle of Oakland. The Shrine of the Blessed Mother is a peaceful retreat to nature (amidst some traffic-themed white noise).

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The altar at the Shrine of the Blessed Mother is an element of traditional worship spaces that is carried over into this non-traditional sacred space.

Conceived:

Conceived space regarding traditional worship spaces can come in any variety depending on the person who is imagining the space. However, these conceptions tend to fall into either of two categories: a church as cold and imposing or warm and inviting. A cold and imposing view would focus on echoey stone walls and the stuffy opulence of a half-lit gilded ceiling. In contrast, a warm and inviting conception of a church would involve an abundance of candles illuminating a full church decorated lovingly for the Christmas season. Either of these views could be applied to a traditional worship space, coloring the perceived space with the emotional imaginings that depend on one’s experience with the Christian faith and churches. Likewise, the Shrine of the Blessed Mother could be imagined in a positive or negative light, but there are some ideas that I believe many Catholics would apply if asked to identify what they imagined in any given shrine.

 

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Instead of stained glass windows, the shrine boasts a stunning view of downtown Pittsburgh.

In the specific context of a shrine, a Catholic would expect relics, pieces of a deceased saint’s clothing or skin. While the presence of these relics holds religious significance, they often lend a rather eerie feeling to the building. Personally, on my first visit to the Shrine of the Blessed Mother, I expected a small building with stained glass windows, cherished relics, a chapel for services, and a full-time staff to keep the place up and running. This conceived notion of the space was far from reality. The building was replaced by a grassy yard and the stained glass windows by the open sky. The reality of the space was very different from my preconceived notions about what a shrine should be, but that just made the Shrine of the Blessed Mother a pleasant surprise.

Lived:

Growing up as a Roman Catholic, I have had countless lived experiences in numerous churches across several states. I have participated in sacraments, weekly masses, and interacted with many people in traditional sacred spaces. Most of the time, churches are welcoming, warm places for me to find rest after a busy week. However, I have also experienced loss and heartbreak in a church after the death of a loved one. Sheldrake describes best the lived experiences that the faithful have within the walls of traditional sacred spaces, specifically cathedrals. “Cathedrals were repositories for the cumulative memory and constantly renewed aspirations of the community. Even today, to enter such a building is to engage with centuries of human pain, achievements, hopes, and ideals” (Sheldrake 247).

My lived experiences with the Shrine of the Blessed Mother have been twofold. The first time I entered the Shrine, I was with our Secret Pittsburgh class on only the third field trip of the year. The second time was by myself, almost three months later. The difference in temperature and my company was not the only thing dissimilar about my experiences at the shrine. When I was alone, I was able to appreciate fully the humility and simplicity of this small, grassy shrine hanging onto the side of a cliff in South Oakland. There was something so beautiful about how unpretentious this space was in comparison to the vaulted ceilings and lengthy aisles of cathedrals and grand churches. “Here, beauty is linked to an ability to evoke wonder and to grant access to the ‘sacred’” (Sheldrake 256).  The opulence and grandeur of those traditional worship spaces have their place, but this shrine stole my heart with its persistence. Somehow, this statue of the Virgin Mary continues to exist and provide a way for visitors to experience a sacred space at the edge of a neighborhood well-known for its accommodation of college debauchery.

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A look back across South Oakland at the Cathedral of Learning as one nears the Shrine of the Blessed Mother

Travelling to the shrine is almost a pilgrimage in itself, since you have to make your way through the sometimes gritty, often grimy streets of South Oakland to find this piece of paradise. There may not be amazing stained glass windows to gaze at, and it may not boast stunning architecture, but the shrine of the Blessed Mother finds its own way to “help us perceive pathways to the sacred” (Sheldrake 256). Maybe the Shrine of the Blessed Mother does not meet the criteria of a traditional sacred space in what is perceived, conceived and lived, but there is something about the space that brings one into the presence of God. In this way it is its own unique kind of sacred space. The outdoor location and the perch above the parkway provide a kind of white noise over the green space, almost like the hum of a distant choir.  The isolation and meditative air offers the visitor an opportunity to reach out in a personal way to Mary and through her, to God. Pittsburgh is a city of churches of many denominations, but the Shrine of the Blessed Mother proves that sacred space does not have to be confined within the walls of a sanctuary.

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“… [F]or Christians the ‘sacred’ is embodied in people and their everyday existence as much as in fixed sacred sites. For this reason, Church buildings make spiritual-theological sense ultimately in relation to the human community and the quality of sacred life that they encapsulate and enable. For this reason, sacred space also denies itself in a way. Christianity is a religion without spatial limits.” (Sheldrake 248)


 

Works Cited

Alliance, Pittsburgh Neighborhood. An Atlas of the Oakland Neighborhood of Pittburgh 1977. Data. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1977. Print.

Archival Photograph. 1931. James R. Cox Papers, 1923-1950. 695.0102.FC. Archives Services Center, University of Pittsburgh. Online. 30 October 2015.

Sheldrake, Philip. “Placing the Sacred: Transcendence and the City.” Literature and Theology, 21. 3. Oxford University Press, 2007. Web. 16 September 2015.

Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Lost Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Cambridge : Blackwell Publishing Inc., 1996. Print.

 

 

 

 

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