In the late 1800’s, the wooded knoll located near the present intersection of Johnston and McMurray Roads in Upper St. Clair was the center of an enormous farm owned by the Michael Baldesberger family. While today the area surrounding this site is virtually dominated by suburbia, it was once beautiful rolling farmland interspersed with apple orchards, grazing herds of cattle and fields of wheat and corn.
During these early years, Mrs. Martha Baldesberger, a dedicated Catholic with great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, had frequently expressed the hope that one day a Catholic Church would be erected on this very site. So strong were these feelings, that even during the final moments of her life, Mrs. Baldesberger uttered a prayer that someday her profound wish and lifelong dream would come true.
With God’s help, this wish was fulfilled on May 25, 1961. It was on this day that Bishop John Wright announced the establishment of St. Louise de Marillac Parish. The boundaries of this new parish were to include the same wooded knoll which once formed the center of activity on the old Baldesberger farm. Also of interest is the fact that the Sisters, who were to eventually teach at St. Louise, and reside in the same Baldesberger home, are the Felician Sisters, an Order of St. Francis.
On May 31, 1961, six days after establishment of the parish, Father John Schonhardt was assigned to St. Louise as pastor. Following Father’s arrival, a conscientious and dedicated congregation joined him in the difficult job of organizing the new parish.
The Upper St. Clair Municipal Building was used for the first Mass on June 3rd. However, this building proved inadequate for the nearly 400 families within the parish, and arrangements were made to hold future Sunday Masses at Fontbonne Academy, a new girls’ high school located on Highland Road near Route 19.
A tremendous spirit of cooperation became quite evident at the very beginning. Groups of volunteer workers answered Father Schonhardt’s plea for assistance, and set to work renovating the old farm equipment building on the property. This building, later named LeGras Hall in honor of St. Louise de Marillac’s married name, was to serve as a center for meetings and social activities. The old farmhouse was likewise remodeled, and was utilized as a convent for the Sisters.
The Parish engaged the services of architect Lucian Caste to design a building (the original portion of the present day school). Contractors Sawyer and Smith were retained to erect the new building. The first Mass was said in the all purpose room of this building on September 15, 1963, and the first Mass was said in the ‘new church’ (present Fr. Schonhardt Hall and gym) on Christmas Day, 1963.
The next vital phase was the opening of the school. The first three grades of St. Louise de Marillac School were completed and opened in September, 1963. The school later expanded to include the eight elementary grades and expanded again in 1992 to include kindergarten.
All these projects – LeGras Hall, the convent, the school, the church – were completed without difficulty or delay. Wherever there was a job to be done, loyal parishioners were willing and eager to help. St. Louise parish has literally been built by the people for the people, but most importantly…for God. As Father Schonhardt had so often said, “God has been good to St. Louise de Marillac Parish, because the people of the parish have been good to God.”
St. Louise Parish continued its rapid growth during the late sixties and early seventies. However, the parish suffered its first real setback in July, 1973 with the untimely death of Father Schonhardt. A short time later, Father Raymond Vollmer succeeded Father Schonhardt as pastor.
During the seventies, St. Louise de Marillac School also continued to gain recognition throughout the diocese for the depth and quality of its educational programs under the Felician Sisters. In addition, greater emphasis was placed on strengthening the Religious Education program, and expanding the opportunities for Adult Religious Education.
On October 2, 1978, Father Vollmer was transferred from St. Louise to become pastor of St. Clare Parish in Clairton, PA. Seven days later, Father Robert Reardon was appointed as the new pastor.
By early 1979, it became readily apparent that St. Louise de Marillac Parish was experiencing tremendous growth. In fact, in just eighteen years, the congregation had grown from less than 400 families to well over 1500 families. The need for larger facilities, especially for Sunday Mass, became apparent. Consequently, the parish began to take a serious look at not only its present needs, but its future requirements based on projected growth.
In light of these needs, a resolution was passed advising Father Reardon, the Temporalities Committee and the Building Committee to request approval from Bishop Leonard and the Diocese of Pittsburgh to secure plans, specifications, drawings, and estimates for construction of a new building. This building was to include a church, rectory and meeting rooms, with provisions for converting the existing temporary church into a gymnasium/auditorium.
The design for St. Louise de Marillac Church was conceived not only as a Parish Church, but as a Pilgrim Church…a natural place for all to come from distant places to find hope and inspiration. The Church was designed with a great remembrance of the forms, spaces, and materials of historic church architecture. The Church is an organic expression of structure and materials. The rugged Somerset Field Stone is used both on the exterior and interior to continue the unity and tradition of the first church and school buildings. The exposed steel structure of columns, girders and trusses ornamented with a series of sub-members expresses the heritage of our local culture—the steel making industry of Pittsburgh.
Rev. Robert Reardon served as Pastor until July 1, 1991, when he was named Pastor at St. John Capistran Church. The Rev. Albert J. Semler was appointed Pastor in June, 1992. Father Semler remained at St. Louise until July 1, 1996, when he was named Director of the Department for Clergy Personnel of the Diocese. Rev. Thomas E. Kredel was appointed Pastor on July 22, 1996.
During the decade of the nineties, the population of St. Louise Parish continued to grow dramatically. By the turn of the new millennium, the parish which began with 400 families now had 3000 families enrolled with an estimated 10,000 individuals depending on St. Louise as their spiritual home. Approximately 70 parish organizations were operating to provide ministries of all kinds to the people of the parish and the wider community in the South Hills. Pressure on existing physical facilities became a serious issue. Over the years, the parish Long-Range Planning Committee and a variety of study groups pointed to the need to build a parish center with suitable meeting, conference and storage space.
In 1999 a steering committee was formed and the parish launched its St. Louise Campaign 2000. A long range site plan was developed which included not only a new parish center and additional parking, but also plans to expand both the school and the church buildings.
On October 12, 2002, a closing ritual was held to mark the end of service for both LeGras Hall – the old farm equipment building – and the Baldesberger farmhouse which had been home to the Felician Sisters from the early days of the parish. Both buildings were razed, and the stone from LeGras Hall served to fill in the old convent basement. On a cold and rainy November 17, 2002, many parishioners joined the priests and religious in a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the beginning of the new construction atop the grassy knoll of the old Baldesberger farm.
On January 25, 2004, the parish family of St. Louise de Marillac dedicated the new parish Center at 320 McMurray Road with the Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, Bishop of Pittsburgh presiding at the Mass and dedication event. The new Parish Center carries on St. Louise’s married name – LeGras.
“Forty years ago, 400 families built our initial school building,” noted Father Thomas E. Kredel, pastor of St. Louise de Marillac Parish. “Twenty years later, a community of 1800 families built the Church. Now we serve 3,000 families and over 10,000 people in the same facilities. We faced over-subscription in current programs, unmet pastoral needs and still more enrollment growth in coming years, especially with development in Peters Township. Investment in more adequate facilities has been urgent for some time”, said Father Kredel.
The LeGras Parish Center holds approximately 16,000 square feet of space for use by seventy different parish organizations that minister to youth, adults and seniors throughout the region of Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and Peters Township.
The Center holds offices for parish staff, ample work and meeting rooms for social services, and an 8,000 square foot conference facility on the lower level with a fully equipped commercial kitchen. The lower level facility will be suitable for large-scale receptions and overflow services on major holidays. “We now have the room to meet the needs of many parish ministries,” noted Father Kredel, “and particularly our growing community of seniors.”
As part of the project, the LeGras Parish Center and the adjacent Church were accented by a new, 40-foot lighted bell tower with three bronze bells, the largest weighing 3,800 pounds. The three bells, cast in the 1890’s were acquired from the closed Annunciation Church on Pittsburgh’s North Side. The bells ring before each Mass, and chime the Angelus prayer at noon and six o’clock p.m. daily. Located on the grassy knoll which is one of the highest topographical points in the township, the tower upholds a 6-foot bronze cross over the 21 acre parish campus.
Land surrounding the new Center was extensively re-graded to create a full-size football field along with a full-size baseball field in an amphitheatre setting. This replaced two small ball fields which were adjacent to McMurray Road. New lighted parking on a level plane with the Center and Church added 140 spaces.
“The generosity of the people in the St. Louise Parish community,” said Father Kredel, “will stand as a testament to their faith, and as a means of transmitting that faith for many decades to come. All who participated in many years of prayer, work, discussion and decision-making have been a great blessing to our parish.”
On Sunday, August 3, 2008, Father Michael A. Caridi was officially installed as the sixth pastor of St. Louise de Marillac Parish by the Most Reverend David A. Zubik. Under his direction a committee was formed to make plans for the parish’s 50th Golden Jubilee Anniversary in 2011.
Stained Glass Windows
Many people often ask about the stained glass windows in our church. St. Louise was designed as a “Pilgrim” church…set in a pastoral field as if it were a “day’s journey” on the distant horizon from a previous church.
The “hill-top” setting is one that receives the full benefit of the sun’s total azimuth. There are 53 windows in our church–some very large, some very small, but they are all part of a total movement that relates to the seasonal azimuth of the sun and the way the light enters and “strikes” the interior surfaces and structure.
The great rectangular Narthex window (above the entrance) is the “symbol” of our Church – reminiscent of the Gothic “Rose” windows. This window gathers the first rays of the rising sun and floods the entry with color – cool greens and blues, suggesting new life.
The colors of the stained glass begin at the east windows of the Ambulatory with cool blues and greens and follow a soft transition through the southern orientation and yellows and oranges and end at the westerly windows with reds and violets. Thus, the “stained glass hymn” is constantly changing in tone, clarity and intensity.