Susan Petrick prayed she’d somehow know when workers would be removing items from her church, the closed St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the north side of Pittsburgh. Then one afternoon last March, her son was driving by the 106-year-old church, saw workers there, and told her when he got back to her house. They went over to the church to see what was happening.
Petrick, a lifelong parishioner, saw workers tearing out antique marble altars from the oldest Croatian church in America. As she was catching her breath, a man came up to her.
“You can’t be here. You don’t belong here,” the man said. Petrick recognized him as a member of the closed church’s sister congregation, St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, which the north side congregation had been merged with as one parish in1994, its centennial year. Ten years later, on St. Nicholas Day in 2004, the north side church was closed, and now it was being de-sanctified.
“I’m a parishioner of this church,” Petrick said to the man, trying to control her anger.
“You’re not supposed to be here. You have to leave,” the man said. “If you don’t leave, I’m going to call the cops.”
“Call them,” she said stubbornly, walking around her church and surveying the damage the crew had done. The framed Stations of the Cross that hung on the walls had disappeared. All of the statues were gone and workers had removed the Last Supper relief from the front central altar and were disassembling and removing the other altars. Petrick was devastated.
She had been trying for years to save the church, and now much of what made it special
had been carted away. Some of it was even being broken and taken away in front of her. It’s the type of thing that could make some people lose hope.
But nearly a year after the destruction, which was done to prepare the church for sale to Italian developer Follieri Group, Petrick says she’s still hopeful that her church can be saved as a shrine to St. Nicholas and a heritage site for the Croatian people. Her band of former parishioners and preservationists, the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, are meeting at least monthly, and the sale of the church to developer the Follieri Group is far from done. “We’re not giving up,” she said.
Petrick and others who want to save the church have won many victories in their quest to save the structure, built with the nickels and dimes of immigrants. In 1922, the north side church was moved up the hillside to accommodate the revamping of Rt. 28. In 2001, the church was given historic designation by the city of Pittsburgh. Five years ago, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials had slated St. Nicholas for the wrecking ball. PennDOT engineers were planning to widen Rt. 28 and the church was in the way of the proposed reconfigured road.
But George R. White, a retired electronics engineer and board member of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, recognized that getting the right of way to a set of unused railroad tracks along the river would enable PennDOT to build part of the reconfigured roadway over the railroad tracks, removing the need to tear down the church and excavate part of the hillside to rebuild the road. A road reconfiguration plan submitted in 2003 to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation by White on behalf of the PHLF was the basis for the PennDOT’s revised road plan. It ended up saving $60 million dollars on the project, which had been expected to cost $200 million. Part of the savings was the millions that PennDOT would have paid the Diocese of Pittsburgh to buy St. Nicholas Church in order to raze it.
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The stubbornness of Croatians is legendary, from their defense of Christendom from the Muslims to the modern-day fight of the Pittsburgh Croatians to save their church. Maybe the Diocese picked too stubborn an opponent in these children and grandchildren of immigrants, since it seems the only way they can be beaten is to sell the church to a Vatican-backed Italian company in a sweetheart deal. The Diocese’s plans to sell the church to Follieri Group, an Italian company with a Manhattan office, seems stubborn. The fact that Follieri chief Rafaelo Follieri romances both actress Anne Hathaway and tabloid journalists from Manhattan (they’ve named the couple Hathielo), doesn’t seem to be a concern of the Pittsburgh Diocese. Nor, apparently, is the Diocese swayed by the fact that Rafaelo Follieri is being sued for millions by billionaire businessman Ron Burkle, who says Follieri misused funds to pay for a lavish lifestyle. Still, Pittsburgh Diocese spokesman Father Ron Lengwin said recently that the sale of St. Nicholas Church to Follieri Group is pending.
“There’s no question Follieri as a company is going through some difficult times,” Lengwin said. “They’ve regrouped, and want to buy the church.”
The Follieri Group is supposedly in the business of buying and re-using church properties, but did not return numerous calls for comment for this story. Still, the question of why the Diocese wants to sell the church to outsiders—people with no cultural affinity to the church and no goal of preserving the identity of the building—lingers suspiciously. Some say it comes down to the bottom line, and supposedly Follieri Group offered more money for the church. But where is the money? Ron Burkle wants to know.
Meanwhile, people with the means and the desire to save the church building are being ignored by the Diocese. A group of prominent Pittsburgh business people, most of whom have some Croatian blood, are part of the Pittsburgh-based Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance’s effort to buy the church and turn it into a shrine to St. Nicholas and a cultural site dedicated to the Croatian people. The group also would like to create a park on the strip of land alongside Rt. 28 from the church down to the north side proper, as a green gateway to the city.
Preliminary plans for the renovation of the church and creation of the park had been designed, when the Diocese gave CACEA and PCHF unacceptable terms of sale for the church, and the preservationists rejected the terms. That was in October of 2006, and the church still is empty, unused and slowly deteriorating. But the decision to sell the building to non-Croatians goes against public opinion and the views of those in the Pittsburgh preservationist community.
Dan Holland, chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh-based Young Preservationists Association, said he believes religious properties across the nation are at risk “Our general attitude about historic properties is that if a suitable re-use of a property can be found, then it should be used that way,” Holland said. “However, if it can be used as it was intended, that’s wonderful.”
Preservation Pittsburgh executive director Steven Paul said his group believes the church is a local and national treasure. “We think it should be a national shrine, and was uniquely suited to that purpose,” Paul said. “The Diocese has not acted in good faith to those who want to protect the church, which is profoundly disappointing to us… I’m very hopeful that the Diocese will begin to see the value of preserving that structure inside and out.”
Some preservationists wondered about the particular obstacles inherent in a negotiated sale between the Croatians and the Diocese. “We would all like to see the church saved, but the complexities are still there,” said Arthur P. Zeigler, Jr., president of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.
The Croatian preservationists rejected the sales agreement of the Diocese in part because the agreement stipulated that the Diocese could buy the church back for $100,000 at any time if it did not agree with the way the building was being used. At issue is the use of the church building for a specific religious purpose—as a shrine—over which the Diocese says it should have jurisdiction. The sales agreement also would have denied the new owners of the church the right to have alcoholic beverages in the church, which has a basement social hall with a bar. The Croatian preservationists found these conditions unacceptable because wine is used in church services, and also because they envisioned having fundraisers to pay for the $2 million church renovation and endowment that would support the shrine.
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Eight years ago, St. Nicholas Church parishioners first heard of a plan to destroy their church for a road, and they formed PCHF in response. Now, nearly a year after many parts of the interior of their church were pulled out and hauled away, former parishioners of St. Nicholas keep their convictions. “It’s not about faith,” one parishioner said of the struggle to save the church. “These decisions were made by men.”
Susan Petrick, who is secretary of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, said she would not give up the fight. There are still promising signs.
“I believe my immigrant grandparents and all our immigrant forefathers would say, ‘Save and rebuild St. Nicholas Church,’” Petrick said. “To me, the fact that our church has not been sold is a sign that God wants us to rebuild his church.”
Parishioner Peter Karlovich said he has not given up because the fight is not over.
“The status of St. Nicholas is as much in the air today as it was eight years ago,” Karlovich said. “I believe that the church is a valuable asset to the city. It is a historic building that is also a work of art. It should be preserved to mark the presence of past generations and to inspire future generations.”
Other former parishioners involved in the effort to save the church have said they won’t quit. They won’t allow one of the most beloved landmarks in Pittsburgh to be wasted, or used for some commonplace purpose.
“We have to continue because this is part of us, part of our own history—what the Croatian community has accomplished. We shouldn’t disband because we don’t have a church,” said parishioner Rich Sestric. “We are still alive and want to carry on the culture. The church building is the symbol of us. I’m going to stay until I die.”
To learn more about the effort to save St. Nicholas Church, email Susan Petrick at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email Peter Karlovich at email@example.com.
Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer who is part Croatian.
This story previously was published in Croatian Chronicle. http://www.croatianchronicle.com/