Do you know what lies beneath Saint Vincent? Perhaps you have heard rumors of old tunnels and abandoned rooms. They might seem farfetched— a strange underground world, here in this friendly college? It turns out that the rumors are true.
Fr. Brian Boosel, OSB, is an unofficial historian for Saint Vincent’s past. He’s an official historian, too, in the sense that he teaches history, but he is well-known even to non-history majors through his social media presence. Boosel’s Instagram account offers photos of historic parts of campus, frequently objects that students may walk by daily without knowledge of their identity. There are scorch marks on the cafeteria walls, an old laundry chute in Wimmer Hall and so on. So it was only natural for me to go to Fr. Boosel to learn about the scope and purpose of these semi-mythical underground galleries.
The tunnels consist of two types, Boosel explained. Some are original basement and storage areas, while others are part of the heating system.
“I think the original tunnels are just the basement of the buildings, and they were used as storage— in the nineteenth century, some of the brothers even lived down there,” Boosel said.
“There are rooms— big alleys, long expanses of tunnel. That’s one tunnel. The second type of tunnel here is steam tunnels that carry steam heat to all the buildings. Those were built a little later, and they are all over the place,” he said.
The steam tunnels go all the way from Benedict and Rooney Halls under the basilica and to the power plant across the road, he explained. Some are large enough to accommodate people. But they’re very risky, or even deadly, to enter in winter, simply because they, carry steam.
The “basement” tunnels are the ones people usually refer to, Boosel said.
“I think those are the ones that have really captured people’s imagination. There are all kinds of stories,” he said.
At the moment, though, they are used for mundane purposes: they house electrical equipment, heating, storage and so on. That very dullness is the reason they’re kept closed, Boosel explained. The risk of someone messing with electronics or equipment is too great.
It seemed I had reached a dead end. I knew about the tunnels, but they were closed. So I did what any good journalist should do. I went in.
After some querying, I was able to find a student who knows the tunnels well. I agreed to meet my contact at night, without even knowing her name. I will call her Molly.
Molly has been exploring Saint Vincent’s hidden side for some time. In fact, she wrote an entire guide to exploring the tunnels. It goes into incredible detail and is now in its fourth edition, although it is unpublished.
After some quiet introductions, Molly led me down. We entered near the cafeteria, through a door that was conveniently unlocked. We entered a sort of hallway. It appeared to be in use; it was well-lit. Molly said the area was often used by cafeteria workers. It was not quite tall enough for me to stand, but not low enough to be uncomfortable.
After a bit of maneuvering, though, the lights were gone. We walked into a set of low galleries off to the side.
“There used to be a mattress and couches here,” Molly said. Apparently, at some point in the past, students used this area as a sort of lounge. All that is gone now, though, leaving only cold stone. [Go to our website for a video of these rooms.]
Next, we moved into another side passageway, this one more inviting. It contained less desolate rooms, including one full of exercise equipment. This one, Molly said, serves as a gym for the monks. It can be accessed from the seminary building. This area also contained a back door to an office that, on the other side, leads to the seminary as well.
It turned out that we were just getting started. We retraced our steps. On the way, we passed a set of brick ovens. These, Molly told me, were once used by nuns from St. Emma’s convent in Greensburg to bake bread for the monks back in the 1940s.
We moved on and selected another passageway. This one was full of cafeteria storage. I saw one room filled with packs bottled water. The hallway itself was lined with old kitchen equipment and stacks of metal food trays, the kind used at catered events. Not all of them were clean. Off to the side were the rooms containing electrical and heating equipment Boosel had mentioned. He was right, I realized: an unscrupulous prowler could do massive damage to the college by getting into these rooms. Even Molly agreed.
“It’s really not safe,” she said.
Next, she took me to a kind of boiler room. A door at the end led to one of the steam tunnels. It was open, but one look inside convinced us to leave it alone. Molly admitted that she’s crawled through the steam tunnels before, though, but only early or late in the semester when the heat is off.
Leading off from this were several doors. One, marked Q11, was locked. Once, Molly said, she was exploring the tunnels and was able to get in this room. As soon as she made it, someone or something began to pound furiously on the door. Was it a worker waiting to catch her? But Molly was positive she hadn’t seen anyone.
Instead, we selected another door, which led into a large room filled to the brim with old wooden desks-- the sort that might have adorned a classroom fifty years ago, before they were replaced with plastic ones.
The walls were completely covered, in graffiti. Even another set of brick ovens hadn’t escaped vandalism. Molly told me that students used to party down here. Twenty or thirty years ago, she said, the tunnels were still open. Students would go down here to drink— with the college’s tacit consent, or so Molly claimed. A Rolling Rock beer bottle testified to this debauchery. At least the perpetrators went for a local brew.
However, the some of the graffiti was newer than twenty years old. And some dated from the last two years.
“Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer!” one wall blared.
“Trump sucks,” read another.
Another wall said, “Stop spray painting, silly Bearcats!”
The next room, again unlit, was haunted, Molly said. It contained a meat grinder, labeled as such by graffiti. The hallway outside the graffiti room bore what appeared to be a poorly-executed mural. I don’t believe anyone heeded the warning.
There are more tunnels -- some near the basilica’s crypt, others under Aurelius -- but we couldn’t get in. So Molly showed me a few more steam tunnels, and a massive cistern behind the library I’d never seen before. You can find photos of all the things I saw on our website.
The tour was almost over when Molly asked me a question.
“You’re a sophomore, aren’t you?” she said. “Do your friends know much about the tunnels? Do you know many people who have been down there?”
They don’t. I know a few people who have talked about them, or even been down, but hardly any are from my year.
That disappointed her. She also wishes more people knew about them. That’s part of the reason Molly was willing to give me this tour and even the map that accompanies this article.
“I feel like I’ve had my go,” she said. She thinks it’s time to pass on her knowledge to other students.
Fr. Boosel, in our interview, said he also wishes more people knew about the tunnels and their history.
“I love the idea of the tunnels,” he said. “I wish there was a way we could repair them and have parts of them open. Because they’re really neat. They’re all stone, and it’s mid-19th century.”
For the time being, they remain hidden. In a few years, I suspect, no one will even remember this article, the last unlocked doors will be closed, and the tunnels will slip entirely into the darkness.