Items from monastery campus in Ross to sell at 4-day auction

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 11:38 p.m.

Sister Evelyn Dettling led a tour of the mementos of her life down the back stairs of the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh campus in Ross, where she and other wannabe nuns used to slide down the banister.

Nearly 1,000 items from the monastery and girls school on Perrysville Avenue will be auctioned May 8-11. Up for sale: everything from a gold-plated tabernacle with hand-painted silk linings to the giant cast-iron furnace in the basement where some girls — not her, she assures — crept down at night to smoke cigarettes.

Highmark Inc. bought the property for $2.7 million last year. Of the 50 Roman Catholic nuns who lived there, 40 moved on April 22 to a new, smaller convent in Richland. The auction of the contents will start at 9 a.m. each day at the monastery.

“I've had smaller and larger (auctions),” said Mark Barkley, owner of Barkley Auctions in Zelienople, who will run the sale. “It'll be enough to keep my mouth dry for a day or two after all the hollering.”

Dettling said her religious order has not estimated how much it will make from the auction, but hopes it is enough to cover the cost of the move.

“It was exciting. It was scary. It was a leap of faith that we had to take,” she said of the move.

With the number of nuns dwindling from a peak of 200 in the early 1960s, the order could no longer afford to maintain the campus.

A Highmark spokesman said the insurer has not determined what it will do with the land.

Built in 1870, the four-story brick monastery features two turrets and an arched portico. In its heyday, the order did not have enough space to teach all the girls, so it opened the limestone school building in 1950. Dettling enrolled that first year, arriving from Canton, Ohio, at age 13. Now 77, she has lived there on and off ever since.

“The hardest thing for me to leave is this chapel,” said Dettling, waving a yardstick she used as a pointer. Light gleamed through the stained-glass windows, casting hues of blue, green and red.

For sale in the bakery are a convection oven, a dough mixer, a refrigerator and freezer and cake molds in the shape of a lamb. In the corner rests a commercial potato peeler.

“Turn that on and stick your arm in,” teased Barkley, the auctioneer. “It would take the hide off to your knuckles.”

Other pieces include bookcases with leaded glass doors, a pipe organ and a baby grand piano. Religious artifacts abound. There are hand-carved crucifixes, paintings of the Last Supper, a crucifixion scene, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and John the Beloved.

Buyers can bid on two of the statues on the grounds — larger-than-life, cast-iron St. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica. In the old days, students would place a cigarette in St. Benedict's right hand raised in a blessing.

Dettling entered Room 424. The 10- by 12-foot space was her room. It was nearly empty. About all that was left was a tiny bed, a wicker mirror and the view from the window where she used to watch deer feast on fallen apples. Everything but the view will be auctioned, and Highmark bought that.

“I used to have a prayer chair there,” she said, referring to the window. “It was a wonderful place to sit. There's a good feel to the room. Doesn't it feel peaceful?”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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