Sunday, July 30, 2006

For All The Saints

Unctuous—Characterized by a smug, smooth pretense of spiritual feeling, fervor, or earnestness, as in seeking to persuade; too suave, or oily in speech or manner.

Last Sunday morning, as I weeded in the backyard garden, I heard the congregation singing hymns in the church up the block. For a moment I flattered myself, thinking maybe they were singing just a bit louder that Sunday to try to convince me of their rectitude. At least some of them had read my piece, "How I Became A NIMBY," which ran in the Post-Gazette’s Sunday Forum section last week. My regular readers will know of the piece by its first title, “Love Thy NIMBY,” which ran here in Barnestormin a while back.
I know members of the congregation read my piece because one of them gave it to the minister, who sent me an email. I didn’t dignify his note with a response, because his note was, as my friend Juandy Don aptly put it, “unctuous.” I am not so much surprised by the tone of the letter as I was of the audacity of him sending it, after he completely disregarded me when I called him a few weeks back.
“He didn’t care about what you thought until you burned him in the newspaper,” Juandy said.
A lot of good it did, anyway. The church still has its ugly new parking lot, which is good, since now they won’t be inconvenienced the day a week that they get together to worship the Lord. Not having to walk that extra 100 feet will no doubt give them more energy for praise and worship.
Last Sunday, I didn’t hear them sing “For All The Saints,” which was probably my favorite hymn when I was growing up in First Presbyterian Church in Downtown. I can only remember the beginning:
For all the saints, who from their labors rest
But I remember well the sort of marching beat of the hymn, which sounded like it might have been one of those hymns that borrowed the tune of an old English drinking song. It also had a neat organ riff in the middle of the hymn, which pulled the whole tune together well.
I’ll admit that part of me wanted to respond to the minister, but I just don’t feel that he deserved a response. I wanted to quote one of the Bible passages that was drummed into my head in my evangelical upbringing, such as:
Love vaunteth not itself; it is not puffed up;
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked;
Rejoiceth not iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things;
Love never faileth.

One of the things I learned from my NIMBY experience is that churches throughout the Pittsburgh area are treating their neighbors in ways those neighbors view as unkind and thoughtless. I received a few letters regarding this church parking lot issue after my story ran in the P-G, including one from a gal I’ll call “Kris,” who jumped the gun and thought the church might be building a garage on their property. She has taken an interest in this issue, because she has found that nonprofits in lower Wilkinsburg, where she lives, are buying up more and more property and taking it off of the tax rolls, which she finds problematic. She also has been fighting to ensure that thoughtless property owners in Wilkinsburg aren’t allowed to buy empty lots in neighborhoods, simply to build a garage on the lot, to store their cars. She is fighting against people who she perceives as wantonly bringing down property values in Wilkinsburg, and now, our neighbor the church is on her list.
I also received a letter from a fellow I’ll call “Gabe,” who lives in Moon and who has an Episcopal church as his next-door neighbor, since the church bought eight acres next door several years back. Gabe’s first problem with his neighbor was the floodlights that were installed high on the church and left on all night, illuminating every blade of grass in Gabe’s yard. Then came the basketball hoop in the church parking lot, and basketballs bouncing into his garden and smashing Gabe’s plants. The kids who go to the church even ski through Gabe’s yard in wintertime, he wrote.
And in Juandy’s old neighborhood in the North Hills, the parishioners of the Catholic church across the street from his neighborhood insist on parking in the neighborhood, though it is illegal to park on the street in that municipality. The churchgoing folks park up there in that Franklin Park neighborhood so that they don’t have to wait in line to exit the church parking lot. Breaking the law makes things more convenient for them. But in the meantime, they forgot about the neighbors.

Monday, July 10, 2006

$10 million project to renovate St. Nicholas Church into cultural center and park

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.”

Friday, July 07, 2006

Finding my marbles

Summer is here in Pittsburgh, and thankfully, the expected humidity has not yet fallen on our slice of the western Pennsylvania hills. The beautiful weather has me fighting the urge to go outside and work in the yard, so I’ll do the next best thing to gardening—I’ll write about it.

Rooting around in some of my old papers recently, I found a piece I wrote thirteen years back about landscaping my folks’ house, and here it is:

I lost my marbles so long ago I can’t remember when. Lately I’ve been finding them, in my folks’ yard.

The last few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of yard work around my parents’ house. I’ve replanted azaleas and pines; I’ve planted tulip, daffodil and gladiolus bulbs, as well as snapdragons, impatiens, pansies and begonias. I’ve dug up sod, built up flowerbeds, composted and mulched, and I’m not nearly done.

Could be that the marbles are slowing me down. It seems like every time I get on a roll working in the yard, those dirty marbles open their lonely eyes to me, looking pitiful, stuck in a clod of soil or a chunk of clay, or mud-plastered on an old rock. I just can’t help but drop what I’m doing and pry the little buggers loose, to check them out—faded turquoise balls, glistening emerald green ones, half-chewed calico marbles, cloudy yellow and green big mommas, and dark-glass kaleidoscopic blues…

Rediscovering some of the marbles that I played with as a kid, I find myself recovering my forgotten past. From what I can remember, the value of marbles to me when I was a kid was almost nil. I liked the way they looked, and it was good to have a lot of them, but no big deal. I remember finding the game of marbles to be pretty boring.

The marbles that I have been unearthing, though, have come to me accidentally, like unexpected artifacts found in an archaeological dig. I unintentionally discovered them, only to realize later that they had significant value to me.

The marbles reminded me of a part of my childhood I’d forgotten. For most of my childhood and until a few years back, a somewhat lonely old man named Pete lived in the house next to my parents. When my siblings and I were young, we hung around old Pete (and sometimes his equally kindly wife Char), because he was a kind old guy, and also because he gave us treats, and because he never seemed to get angry. We called him Uncle Pete, and his wife was Aunt Char. They had no kids.

Pete had beautiful gardens in his front and back yards. Everything was neatly edged with Belgium blocks and ivy. In spring, the yard was an ebullient mass-bloom of crocus, mums, daffodils and tulips. In summertime, the floribunda and tea roses in Pete’s front yard seemed to simultaneously beckon and warn. We kids picked the roses on the sly.

Pete was sick for the last three years of his life, and his yard quickly went wild. He tried to clean up the yard from time to time, but he was fighting more than one losing battle.

For the past few years, an absentee landlord has owned Pete’s house, and the place has gone to seed. A catalpa tree is growing smack against the side of the house, pushing off the fascia. Ivy covered nearly everything like a sneaky blanket, hiding the stone paths and pushing over block borders. Tulips push defiantly through the tangle, proudly waving their pinks and soft whites, yellows and blaring reds. The daffodils seem to nod approvingly as the rose bushes swell and bud.

The block wall that held up the front garden has collapsed several times, and the well-meaning old guy who rents the second floor of Pete’s old house keeps re-setting the blocks in a soldier’s course, instead of laying the blocks across the gaps and stepping back the wall a bit.

Pete was one of the first people to interest me in growing things. He was always weeding, planting, and pruning, and as I hung around him, he would carefully explain to me how to do whatever task he was working on. I always loved to get dirty, so I’d help him. The faint violet scent of the till as we worked it, and the reverence with which we planted, combined with the fragrance of the flowers and the almost exotic greenery of Pete’s yard, like an indoor garden with the sky for a ceiling, impressed with a notion of how to keep a yard.

I like to think of Pete and his love for beauty, his cultivation of nature, and his ability to create his garden with his own hands. When I was young, I was vaguely conscious of viewing Pete’s gardens as the natural embodiment of a sense of beauty and order that I’ve always craved, and which I think we all seek, in one way or another.

Lately, I feel as if Pete’s spirit has been paying a visit to the old homestead. As I work in the yard I remember things that he said, and the care he always seemed to take with the earth, and how he always worked to make his gardens more beautiful, when they could’ve won prizes as they were.

I guess it was Pete’s spirit that made me take those Belgium blocks from the front wall of his old place. When I was in the yard a while back, I swear I heard Uncle Pete whisper to me: “Go ahead, Johnny, take some of those blocks. They won’t even miss them in that mess.” So one night I grabbed a few and took them over to my folks’ yard to use in some borders.

I was talking about marbles. One afternoon, as I stopped digging for a moment to pick up a couple of denim-blue orbs (which looked suspiciously like my eyes), I felt a wave of joy, and I congratulated myself at having come that far—having lived to unearth those marbles and memories.

As I knelt and planted, the neighborhood came alive to me. I heard the sparrows and the jays and the robins and starlings, and out of the corner of my eye I caught a cardinal flashing his color from tree to tree.

The people in my folks’ neighborhood—really my neighborhood for most of my life—came around gradually and complimented me on my work. At first they approached my cautiously, as you would approach a stranger at night on a dark street. Then they would talk to me, and I’d realize that this old lady remembered me from when I was a kid, and that little dude’s brother knows my younger brother, so the little guy knows me, calling me by my surname—pretty ballsy for a 10-year-old. I’ve begun to reacquaint myself with the people in the neighborhood, and I feel a new sense of community there. I lost my marbles, but one by one, I’m finding them.

This story originally was published in Radio Transcript Newspaper.

A monument for all of us

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.