For years, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials planned to buy St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in the North Side and raze it to make way for the improvement of state Rt. 28. But new designs have spared St. Nicholas, and a group of former parishioners and preservationists have stepped in to save the church. Members of the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance are working on a plan to buy the church and give it a $7 million renovation, transforming it into a cultural center/museum with an adjoining $3 million park. If the project is successful, all Pittsburghers will benefit from CACEA’s effort, even though some of them might not admit it.
Recently I was talking with a friend, who is like an uncle to me because he and his wife were close with my parents and my siblings and I were close to his kids. I mentioned to Bob that I was working on a story about a group trying to save St. Nicholas Church. I noted that the place was the first Croatian church in America.
“They should tear it down to make room for the road,” Bob said, with a dismissive wave. He mentioned that the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese had closed the church because the congregation was supposedly too small to support it. “I’ve visited all of these old churches in Europe, and they’re no longer churches, just museums. What’s the point?” he said, shaking his head.
“But you visited those old churches, didn’t you?” I asked incredulously.
Bob gave me another dismissive wave. He tilted back in his recliner, his hands folded over his belly, a crooked little grin on his face. Over his shoulder, I saw evidence.
On the wall about six feet away hung two framed baptismal certificates. Composed in a gilded scroll, with beautiful Eastern European iconographic-style lettering, the baptismal certificates were for Bob’s parents, who were Czech-Americans from the North Side. He’d told me the story of the baptismal certificates before: His parents were born in their parents’ homes, and they both happened to have the same midwife who delivered them. The midwife was a member of St. Nicholas, though Bob’s parents’ families weren’t.
“Before my grandmothers were out of bed after the deliveries, the midwife took the baby to St. Nicholas, to have it baptized,” he said, laughing delightedly.
The incident reminded me that sometimes, landmarks in our communities mean more to us than we want to admit. And sometimes we just don’t realize how important these landmarks are.
A few years back, St. Nicholas parishioner Elsie Yuratovich mailed PennDOT engineer Tom Fox a picture of the shining marble-clad interior of Pittsburgh’s “Croatian Cathedral.” Fox said later that when he realized what PennDOT would be tearing down to make way for a bigger Rt. 28, he thought, “Am I going to hell, or what?”
People change their minds sometimes. Even large organizations occasionally see the other view. Because PennDOT officials dialogued with the people who will be affected by Rt. 28 reconstruction, they saw a way to spare the church and save nearly a third in expected project costs of $200 million, paring the cost to $130 million. A road reconfiguration plan submitted to PennDOT officials by Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation board member George R. White in 2003 served as the basis for the new road plan.
CACEA’s effort to protect the centerpiece of the nearly gone Croatian immigrant neighborhood of Mala Jaska, (which once edged both sides of Rt. 28), is an effort to save a part of our collective history, not just the history of Croatians in Pittsburgh. My great-grandfather Franjo immigrated to Minnesota after being recruited in Zagreb to work in the iron ore mines. He worked for nearly five years before he had set up a house and brought his wife and daughter to Minnesota. The Croatians in Mala Jaska (meaning “Little Jaska,” named after the place from which many of them came) like Croatians in Minnesota, California, Steelton, Pa., and elsewhere, left behind their ancestral homes to dig for a better life in a foreign country of which they knew little. Like many of the Mala Jaskans, my great-grandfather was a peasant, but not illiterate. He’d learned some German in school in the homeland, and he picked up English pretty fast. And like all of that generation of Eastern European immigrants, and many other immigrants before and since, he did what he had to survive.
The stories of these local immigrants are like the stories of many more immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who arrived in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. These people fought hard to make a way of life for their families, and their children fought in the World Wars for the U.S. These folks helped to create some of the great organizations of this country, but it didn’t happen by accident. They were stubborn, and they wouldn’t give up. In that regard, the current would-be saviors of St. Nicholas Church are like their ancestors, whether or not those people attended St. Nicholas (and many of them didn’t).
Several former churches in Pittsburgh have been turned into bars, which Diocesan officials have said they wish weren’t so. But CACEA’s salvation of St. Nicholas could be a model for future adaptive reuses of closed places of worship. This model could inspire local congregations to find other uses for their closed churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. Maybe in the future, more people will be telling the stories of these landmarks and the people who made them, and thus, honoring the legacies that we all inherited.