Pittsburgh recently lost one of the strongest defenders of our collective heritage—Elsie Yuratovich.
She died recently after a brief illness.
Post-Gazette staff writer Patricia Lowry wrote a moving obituary on Elsie. When I spoke with Elsie in the past about her church and those who believed in it, she had always spoken very lovingly about Patricia, who obviously was as charmed by the wisp of a woman as I was. Elsie had many charms, and her love and dedication to her church was often the focus of those charms. The place might have been destroyed years ago, if not for her and others at her church.
A lifelong resident of the North side, Elsie was the highest profile member of the St. Nicholas church, a Croatian Roman Catholic parish that was just doors from her home. She successfully lobbied PennDOT to alter its plans for reconfiguring Route 28, which runs beside her church. The place was the first Croatian church in America, but it was to meet the wrecker. Initial plans for the road reconstruction had wiped the historic church from the map, but PennDOT officials changed those plans, largely because of Elsie’s efforts.
Despite those efforts, which effectively blocked a potential multi-million-dollar sale of the church to PennDOT, St. Nicholas church was closed last year, after the Pittsburgh Diocese said its dwindling membership and the costs associated with running the historic church no longer justified its existence. Members of the parish again were grouped with the members of St. Nicholas church in Millvale, whose congregation split from the North Side church in the early part of the last century.
“That place is strange, it’s scary,” Elsie said to me about the Millvale church, after her church was closed. “They think we’re going to go up there, but many of us won’t. I’m not going there.”
So after 82 years of faithful churchgoing, Elsie intentionally removed herself from the church.
It is tempting to say that losing her church broke her heart, and eventually killed her. Maybe it was just her time. Maybe it was meant to be.
Some Pittsburghers might have noticed early this week that there were flowers on the steps of the closed church. They were put there in remembrance of Elsie.
I’ll always remember her as one of Pittsburgh’s most stubborn guardians of our heritage. She couldn’t bear the thought of the North Side skyline without her beloved St. Nicholas. She even took on her own church leadership to save a place that she knew in her heart was sacred.
The Pittsburgh Diocese appointed a group of the former church’s members and others who are influential in the local Croatian-American community to serve on a panel that is considering whether the church can be saved for use as a shrine or cultural center. Maybe Elsie’s passing will give a greater urgency to this task. Perhaps it will be the breaking point that will lead the Diocese to declare her church a sacred place.
Pittsburgh is a bit poorer without this super stara baba. To know this lady truly was to love her.
Following are a couple of stories, which Elsie helped to inspire, that I wrote for Pulp:
The Salvation of St. Nicholas
The old Croatian immigrant neighborhood of Mala Jaska runs along East Ohio Street and is anchored by the first St. Nicholas Church and its hillside grotto. Down at Javor Hall, the Croatian Fraternal Union chapter off of East Ohio Street, they still polka every week. And up in Millvale, where the second St. Nicholas Church stands, parishioners and others are working to restore the world-famous murals adorning the walls and ceiling of that church. The dark hues of those surrealistic murals, painted on nearly every inch of wall and ceiling in the church, draw the gaze of visitors who wonder at their creation. The murals were painted by Croatian artist Maximillian Vanka in 1937 and 1941, and have been designated as both a city and national historic landmark.
The first St. Nicholas and what's left of the old neighborhood, including the house just doors down where the Croatian Fraternal Union of America was founded in 1894, evoke a picturesque memory of Old Pittsburgh, particularly for those viewing the church's onion domes from across the Allegheny River.
The old ethnic neighborhood and some of its landmarks will be gouged out, along with the hillside above them, if a plan to widen Route 28 proceeds according to a strategy designed by PennDOT with the cooperation of diocesan officials, who want to consolidate St. Nicholas parish in the Millvale church. With both church and state seemingly aligned against them, the St. Nicholas faithful might appear to be without a prayer, but so far they continue to hold their own.
In the ornate sanctuary of St. Nicholas, parishioners worship on Sundays as they have for the past century, oblivious to the traffic rumbling just feet from the open front doors. The beautiful sanctuary is replete with seven kinds of Italian marble, shades of red, pink, white and gray, as well as four altars and several statues of saints. The main altar is adorned with candles and flowers, and on the wall above is a large mural depicting Christ the King on his throne, keeping watch over the church.
When St. Nicholas parish was formed more than 100 years ago, the parishioners were mostly working-class immigrants, laboring hard at their jobs at nearby industrial sites -- in the steel mills, the wool works, the meat processing plants, the railroads. Today their task is the preservation of the church through the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, which solicits donations to maintain and restore St. Nicholas and spreads the word about it historicity and its plight.
At nine a.m. on a recent Sunday, despite hot weather, the church is about half full for Mass. The parishioner-singers in the choir loft at the back of the church sound as good, if not better, than any professional choir employed by the richer churches in Pittsburgh. The choir seems to have conviction in their voices, a heartfelt melody coming from within, like a song shared with a loved one. They sing in perfect three-part harmony: "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us."
After the service, Scott Township resident Tom Cummins approaches lifelong parishioner Elsie Yuratovich. Cummins, a retired minister who once served Dormont Presbyterian Church, asks Yuratovich for a tour of the church -- her duty as the matriarch of the congregation. "They are wonderful!" Cummins says of the choir while touring the choir loft. "I came in and I immediately felt at home with that music."
The choir's song was in fact rich and sonorous as it echoed off the marble walls; it seemed to take on a visual aspect and shine off the walls, drawing in sunlight through the tall, stained-glass windows. "Let us be one in the Lord," the choir sang with fullness at once heavenly and of this world.
One in the Lord, indeed. It's hard not to question the faith of the Catholic Church when it would pursue the demolition of a place as culturally important and beautiful as St. Nicholas to make way for something as banal as a highway. But with congregations shrinking, the diocese claims that it needs to count every dime -- including the $10 million the diocese reportedly will receive for allowing PennDOT to raze the church in order to widen Route 28.
Tagging along behind the Cummins and Yuratovich after the service, I couldn't resist asking Cummins, "What is the church?"
"For practical purposes, it's the believers in Christ," he says as we make our way out of the church and up to the hillside grotto. The grotto, built in 1944 to celebrate the church's Golden Jubilee and in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes, towers on the hillside almost as high as the steeples of the church itself.
The steep concrete steps appear to have been repaired recently, and the railings seem new as well. "A few years ago we raised $4,000 to fix this," Yuratovich says, placing a hand on my arm, as if to relay a confidence. "Just two women, and we did it!"
Despite the pressure from PennDOT and the Pittsburgh diocese, Yuratovich and other members of the parish labor as if the church's preservation is inevitable. "I have a lot of hope. I've been working on this for 10 years," Yuratovich says. "St. Nicholas is a monument to us."
It's hard to know how to react to such overwhelming odds, but the parishioners do what comes naturally, given the environment. "We can continue to pray for it," says Josephine Crame, of Reserve Township, while cleaning up in the church kitchen after the service. She notes that the church hosts activities every week and that the parish teaches catechism in Croatian and English to 27 Bosnian Croatian children here in Pittsburgh.
Josephine's daughter, Megan Crame, 19, leans back on one of the counters in the kitchen with an indignant look and says, "Nothing's written in stone."
"The engineers say the building could be moved," Josephine says.
In fact, the entire church was moved up the hillside once before, in 1922 -- an achievement dubbed "the Ascension of St. Nicholas" by parishioners -- to accommodate expansion of the road that runs so close to the church's front doors. But a great deal of decorative work has been added to the church since then; moving St. Nicholas, even if it were economically feasible, might do irreparable harm to much of what makes the interior unique.
Immaculately dressed in a green suit, Elsie's brown eyes flash at the notion of St. Nicholas being destroyed or altered in any way. "I hope it stays right here," she says with a quick nod. Then in a minute her mood is lighter, and reminded of PennDOT spokesman Dick Skrinjar, she laughs at the smallness of the city. "It's Skringar-ich," she says. "I used to dance with his father and his uncle down at the Cro Hall."
Contacted later, Skrinjar says the issue of what to do with the church has hit home for him personally. He was baptized at St. Nicholas in Millvale. "I'm Croatian, I'm Catholic and I work for PennDOT. So it's tough," he says. "But faith endures regardless of buildings.
"The state has been respectful of the church's position on things regarding that piece of property," he adds. "On a temporal level, it's a property transaction. People made that parish. They also make the church, and they make the state."
Asked whether he thinks there is much hope of saving the church, Skrinjar is noncommittal, or perhaps tongue-in-cheek: "Where's there's faith, there's always hope," he says.
Elsie stops a train
Elsie Yuratovich has a little trick she pulls on anyone she thinks needs to be convinced that St. Nicholas Croatian Church in the North Side must be saved: She sends the person a large glossy photo of the interior of the church. Sometimes the tactic works, sometimes it doesn't.
It worked in a big way recently when the photo tugged on Pennsylvania Department of Transportation engineer Tom Fox's conscience. Fox said so at a recent open house on alternate plans for upgrading Route 28, asking Yuratovich to stand up and be recognized for her efforts to save the church and bring a fresh look at ways to upgrade the road.
The concerns of the St. Nicholas parishioners are the main reason that PennDOT officials chose to draft new plans for reconstructing the dangerous, four-lane road, according to Fox. "Elsie sent me a photo of the interior of this church," he says, remarking that he then realized the beauty of the church, which was to be razed in the original plan for the road. "Here I am with this picture of this church, wondering if I'm going to burn in hell or what."
Chalk one up for the power of conscience and the wiles of one super stara baba. At about five feet, five inches tall and not much more than 100 pounds, Yuratovich isn't exactly intimidating. But there's an energy in her frame, an earnestness in her voice that compels people to listen to her story. Always impeccably dressed, she wore a blue-and-white flower print jumpsuit at the public hearing on Washington's Landing, looking much more youthful than her 80 years. Despite her meek appearance, Elsie is a fighter, and she's too stubborn to take no for an answer.
"I know all of those guys," she says casually of the local PennDOT employees. "I've been talking to them about this for 10 years." She fondly recalls the days when what most of us think of as Route 28 -- East Ohio Street to her -- was just a set of trolley tracks running past her front door. She had neighbors across from her that lived on the riverside of the road, the backs of their homes facing the railroad tracks. Things were simpler then, and Mala Jaska, Pittsburgh's Little Croatia, was full of families who kept up the community and kept up the church.
Nearly two years back, Elsie fought an attacker who tied her up after robbing her in the home she's been in nearly all her life. The dirtbag left her tied up and she was rescued by a neighbor. "As God is my witness, he didn't touch me indecently in any way," she says, referring to her attacker as "scum."
You'd never know all of this if you just spoke briefly with this wisp of a woman, soft-voiced and beguilingly persuasive. Elsie's modesty would stop her from divulging it all -- indeed, she'd rather just concentrate on the church. Which, thanks to Elsie, other parishioners, members of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, Preservation Pittsburgh and other preservationists, might well be saved.
Two alternative plans of the six plans presented to the public at the open house seemed to be most popular, Fox says. Both of the alternative plans save the church. Fox, PennDOT district engineer Ray Hack and others now will consider the various plans before putting out a draft environmental impact statement within the next year. The statement will include PennDOT's recommended plan for the Route 28 work and will be followed by a public opinion period that likely will involve more public hearings on the plan.
Sandy Brown, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, which has lobbied hard to save the church, says the alternate plans for Route 28 are a heartening result. "Not only the creativity [of the plans], but the fact that they allowed for public comment," she says. "It's the last church to be historically protected in Pittsburgh. They changed the law."
Preservation Pittsburgh has sponsored tours of some of the city's historic churches in the past and is working to schedule more events in the churches, including concerts, Brown says. "It's a way to get people into the churches to see what it's like inside."
George R. White, a board member of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, is another player in the struggle to save the century-old church. He helped to devise some of the alternative plans that PennDOT is considering. He says even if parishioners no longer can support some of the old churches, the buildings at least should be saved and put to adaptive reuse. "What does a city which is blessed with precious assets that were born in another era do with those assets? You can convert them to other uses," he says.