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Relics of ‘radio priest’ and ‘labor priest’ presented to Pittsburgh diocese by relatives

By Patricia Bartos
March 12th, 2008
Pittsburgh Catholic (www.pittsburghcatholic.org)

PITTSBURGH, PA (Pittsburgh Catholic) - St. Patrick Church in Pittsburgh’s Strip District has just received the perfect gift in time for its 200th anniversary year.


The historic church — the first established in the city of Pittsburgh — has received a treasure trove of material on its most famous pastor, Father James Cox, the noted “radio priest” of the 1920s and ’30s who advocated for the poor and unemployed.

Four huge boxes filled with newspaper articles, photos and other memorabilia on the famous labor priest arrived as a gift from Father Cox’s nephew and his wife, Dr. James and Nancy Mason, of Amarillo, Texas.

The church, now part of St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in the Strip District, will open the jubilee year on Sunday, April 27, when Bishop David Zubik offers Mass at 11 a.m. at St. Stanislaus Church.

The parish hopes to have some materials from the donation on display for the celebration. “The role that Father Cox played in the ’30s is particularly fascinating and also a very important part of what the church was doing at that time,” said Father Harry Nichols, pastor of St. Stanislaus-St. Patrick.

The new materials will give a better picture of Father Cox’s work in those years of the Great Depression, Father Nichols said. “He took the social teachings of the church from Leo XIII and fleshed them out, made them a reality.”

A welcome donation

Josie Santapietro, parish secretary, received that first phone call from Nancy Mason and welcomed the material.

The Masons are planning to fly in for the anniversary Mass.

James’ grandfather and Father Cox’s mother, Julia Mason Cox, were brother and sister. His mother, Marie, created the collection.

James Mason is a pediatric physician at Texas Tech University and Hospital.

“I always wanted to send it to the parish, but Jim was kind of reluctant,” Nancy Mason said.

“He didn’t know if it would be treasured.”

She got to know Father Cox through his family’s traditional Sunday dinners at their home on Perry Highway in Ross Township. As Jim’s fiancee, Nancy attended too.

Father Cox had planned to officiate at their wedding at St. Patrick Church, but had a heart attack and died before the event.

“He was a wonderful man, very kind, always doing something for someone to alleviate suffering,” Nancy said.

He helped people in mixed marriages, she said. “He would make arrangements. A lot of things that are done now, he was doing. He was ahead of his time.”

He also, she laughed, “often got into trouble with the bishop.”

Local boy makes good

James Renshaw Cox was born in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood on March 7, 1886. He studied at Duquesne University and St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, where he was ordained July 1, 1911, and died March 20, 1951.

He was assigned to Epiphany Church, served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, later at Mercy Hospital and became pastor of Old St. Patrick in 1924 — “the youngest pastor in the oldest Catholic church in the city,” one paper reported.

Soon, the paper added, he found himself “the confidante of thousands.”

The huge church stretched for a block along Liberty Avenue at 17th Street. Built in 1865, it featured a huge grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in tribute to Father Cox’s devotion (see accompanying article) and was destroyed by fire in 1935.

It was succeeded by the present smaller building at 1711 Liberty Ave.

“Father Cox was most unusual in that he didn’t just talk about the poor, he went out and did things,” said Father James Garvey, former president of the Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.

“He led a march to prevail on Congress to do something. He was very well known for his charitable outreach, but a lot was not known — providing coal to families, medicine for sick children, food and other help.”

Part of parish anniversary celebration

Derris Jeffcoat, sacristan and historian at St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus, said, “We are thrilled to have these items in time for the 200th anniversary of the founding of St. Patrick.”

The Masons are also having Father Cox’s early radio recordings updated and will forward them, too. He was a regular on WJAS radio from 1925-50.

“We’re anxious to just hear that voice again,” Jeffcoat said.

He is just beginning to pore over the materials. “I can just imagine what a wealth of information awaits us. It’s going to be years of work.”

The parish hopes to attract volunteers, retired teachers and history enthusiasts to help with the cataloging.

The donation includes huge volumes of newspaper clippings, plus photos, correspondence, Father Cox’s prayer books and a plaque commemorating his 25 years on WJAS.

“A real treasure,” Jeffcoat said, is Father Cox’s light blue silk shirt, in delicate condition, featuring a banded white collar and “National Chief” and “Father Cox’s Blue Shirts” embroidered in yellow on the pocket.

Jeffcoat encouraged people with historical items or remembrances of Father Cox or the other Strip-area churches of long ago — St. Patrick, St. Philomena, St. Elizabeth and St. Stanislaus — to share “that living history tradition” with the parish.

The parish’s Web site at www.saintsinthestrip.org already carries substantial historical background.

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