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Of all the nights of our conference with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, Wednesday night would be the one that I will remember forever. After three days of sitting through talks from speakers on many topics of Catholic education and going to breakout sessions on specific aspects of teaching, we were given an evening to go out and explore the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Besides some suggestions on where to go from the conference coordinators and additional recommendations from natives of the city, we had little idea where we would go for the night. With some planning between us and a group of teachers from Colombia, we made the plan to go to Primanti Bros, a famous sandwich place in Pittsburgh, then go to St. Anthony’s chapel, which has the largest collection of relics outside of the Vatican, and then go on the Duquesne Incline, a nearly 150-year-old cable car ride that travels up the mountains around the city. We mostly kept this plan, but the night would be so much better than we expected.
First came our half-hour walk to the nearest Primanti Bros, a walk I particularly enjoyed for the buildings we passed. Going into the trip, I had assumed that all the buildings in Pittsburgh would be big steel and glass skyscrapers like any other US city, but the buildings we saw were mostly made of brick and stone and were built over a hundred years ago. Jennifer Meisenzahl and I spent most of the walk gawking at the beautiful buildings we passed, marveling at the stonework and beauty of the architecture. This only grew when we turned a corner on our walk and found ourselves across the street from a small stone church with a beautiful courtyard full of statues of saints and well cared for flowers and trees. The inside of this church, called St. Patrick’s Church, was just as beautiful, filled with many portraits of saints, beautiful marble work and stained glass windows, and a simple but beautiful sanctuary that took my breath away. What was even more wonderful about this church was that they had a set of stairs going from the naive of the church to the sanctuary known as The Holy Stairs, a tradition of the church going back to the Fourth Century. Many of the teachers in our group took this opportunity to pray on these stairs, climbing the twenty-eight steps on their knees toward the Tabernacle. It was such a beautiful place to see, and one we never expected to find. This occurred again after we had eaten at Primanti Bros. After we had eaten, we realized that down the street there was another church called St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, the first church for Polish Immigrants in the Pittsburgh area. This church was more grand than any other church I could imagine. It was a beautiful brick building covered with stained glass, columns, and arches. Inside, the church was decorated with beautiful paintings on the walls and ceiling, depicting the history of the faith in Poland and the saints they claimed. I couldn’t imagine finding such a remarkable church in Pittsburgh, but what was even more surprising was to find a kneeler sitting before a shrine of the Virgin Mary with a sign saying that St. John Paul II had knelt there during his visit to the diocese in 1969. It was such a humbling experience to kneel in the exact spot that this holy man prayed at so long ago. After leaving the church, we realized we would be unable to make it to St. Anthony’s Chapel before it closed, but we all agreed that seeing these two beautiful little-known churches was worth not going to the relics.
It then came time for our journey to the Duquesne Incline. Due to the size of our party, we split into two groups to Uber there. The drive itself to the incline was uneventful until my group arrived and we couldn’t find our friends. We had no idea where they were, especially since they had left the church before we did. After some texting and phone calls, we hilariously learned that while we were at the top of the Incline, where the best view of Pittsburgh was, the rest of our group was at the bottom. After laughing about the situation, we took the chance to enjoy the view of the city and rivers. It was also during this time that we met another group of visitors to Pittsburgh, also enjoying the view of the city. I was wearing a Benedictine College t-shirt that night, which one of the men noticed and said he was a Benedictine. After speaking with this man, we learned he is a theologian who has lived in Jerusalem and Rome and works on many translations and anthologies of Genesis. With him were his cousin and her husband who happened to be from the exact same town one of our Columbian friends was from. These two were able to speak the same dialect of Spanish about their hometown, figuring out where each other had lived and how the town had changed. Once again, no one in our group expected this trip to be like this. I would have never expected that we would not only see a fantastic view of Pittsburgh at the top of the incline but also meet someone from the exact same town as one of our new friends and meet a great theologian and neither did anyone else in our group.
After going to the Duquesne Incline, we stopped at a local bar for drinks and to relax. We talked about our respective schools, talked about our families and our lives, and laughed at the stories we told each other. We learned so much about what classical education looked like in South America and how their program had grown over the years and we shared with them how our school was developing our program and our plans for the future. It was a perfect way to end such a surprising and exciting night, with everyone laughing and ready to start up a new school year. Everyone in our group, both from our school and our friends from Colombia, agreed that this trip was so wild and surprising that nothing else could come close to the excitement of what we had done. Going into this conference, I had no idea what I was getting myself into or what would happen. Now, I am happy that I went, not only to learn more about Catholic classical education but also to get to know this amazing group of teachers I went with and become friends with so many fellow educators from around the world.