Several local businessmen are guiding an effort to buy St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church and adapt it for tourism and community use. The group’s plans for the North Side church include renovating it into a cultural center/museum and community center with an adjoining park. The $10 million master plan for the landmark includes a $3 million park that would extend along Rt. 28 from the church to the road’s intersection with Deutchtown, near the Penn Brewery.
Those leading the effort to save the church include Mt. Lebanon dermatologist Marian Vujevich, PNC Advisors vice president David Klasnick, E-Transport founder Peter Karlovich; and Joseph Katarincic, an attorney with Thorp Reed & Armstrong, who is negotiating the sale of the church property. Katarincic grew up attending St. Nicholas Church in Millvale, while Karlovich’s family belonged to the North Side church. Vujevich, who is an honorary consul to Croatia, was not a member of St. Nicholas, but was named to a Diocese-appointed committee to explore options for the future of the church after it was closed 18 months ago. Vujevich leads the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance, which was formed about a year ago as the answer to the question of what to do with Pittsburgh’s Croatian cathedral.
CACEA members say the onion domed cultural center and its adjoining park would provide a beautiful gateway to downtown, giving a scenic view of the city. The organization is a collection of members of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, a parishioner-led group that has worked for years to save the church; leaders of the Croatian Fraternal Union of America, a Wilkins-based international fraternal organization; and other Pittsburghers concerned with saving the 105-year-old church, which was the first Croatian Catholic church built in the America.
St. Nicholas Church anchored the Croatian immigrant enclave of Mala Jaska, which once lined both sides of Rt. 28 and was an extension of the German neighborhoods of Troy Hill and Deutchtown. Hillside steps still give residents of Troy Hill pedestrian access to the church. Members of CACEA have collectively pledged $250,000 to buy the church, and intermittently for nine months, the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese and the preservationists have been negotiating the church sale. Members of CACEA hope the Diocese will sell the church property to them for $150,000. The property also includes a parking lot, a house that was a rectory, and a shrine on the hillside above the church. Diocesan officials are asking for an additional $100,000 for the religious artifacts housed in the church, which was closed 18 months ago when it was merged with the congregation of St. Nicholas Church in Millvale.
Several of those involved in the effort to save the historic landmark were not parishioners there, such as Vujevich and Katarincic. Klasnick also was not a member of the church and is of mixed descent, as are several of those helping with the effort.
“I’m interested in this because of my Croatian heritage, but also because I’m Catholic,” Klasnick said. “And because of my background in business, I like to help out.”
Astorino founder Louis Astorino, who is part Serbian, has contributed free designs from his company for renovations to the church and for the creation of the would-be park. Astorino’s first job with his new company more than three decades ago was a renovation project on the church.
Recently, CACEA members gathered in a modernistic boardroom in the Wilkins Township headquarters of the Croatian Fraternal Union. They discussed strategies for raising funds, and they agreed to move forward with the sale, despite the funding that would be needed to completely finance their project. Astorino senior vice-president John Francona told the group that Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials have responded well to the preservation plan. “They’re willing to support the park,” he said.
Some questioned how much the CFU might help the effort, since it has a network of tens of thousands of members. CFU president Bernard Luketich agreed that his group would help the effort, but he said CACEA first must buy the church.
“Then you have to raise the funds,” Luketich said. “The Croatian government should be contacted.” An honorary consul to Croatia, he knows the country’s top officials.
Contacted after the meeting, Vujevich said his group was working to finalize the sales agreement for the church. “Once we own the property, the CFU will support us through its contacts,” he said.
PennDOT officials said the park could work well with the Rt. 28 renovation project.
“We met with the folks who are proposing the [park] project,” said Daniel Cessna, district executive for PennDOT District 11. “We want to work with them to accomplish their goal of enhancing St. Nicholas and that entrance to Pittsburgh.”