Recent moves by PennDOT officials had some supporters of the closed St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church worried about the future of the building. But after a meeting two weeks ago between PennDOT district executive Dan Cessna and supporters of St. Nicholas Church, members of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation and other church supporters have regrouped, forming the nonsectarian Friends of St. Nicholas organization.
The new group was co-founded by Preservation Pittsburgh member Jack Schmitt (who also is a member of PCHF), and is working to buy and transform the church into a museum to the immigrant experience. If FOSN’s effort takes hold, the idea of making a shrine of the church could be finished.
With this new plan for the church, which is supported by PCHF, North Side Leadership Conference and others in the area, the church preservationists seem to have dodged another bullet from PennDOT. With the PennDOT meeting that was held Nov. 7, a new cooperative attitude may be growing between the preservationists and PennDOT officials. Barnestormin heard of PennDOT’s newest interest in buying the church to demolish it for a revamped Rt. 28 from Dr. Marion Vujevich, head of the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance, a local group that had been negotiating to buy the church from the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. Negotiations for the church recently broke down after an offer made by Vujevich for CACEA was rejected. Following a story in the Post-Gazette about the issue, Vujevich said he was contacted by Cessna, who wanted to know if CACEA would mind if PennDOT bought St. Nicholas and demolished it. Vujevich said CACEA no longer was interested in the church.
Contacted in late October (Barnestormin has been unable to get recent comments from him), Cessna said he’d called Vujevich to confirm what he’d read about the church in the newspaper. The option of PennDOT buying the church has always been open, Cessna said. Because of narrower shoulders on that stretch of Rt. 28, “access is available but not optimal,” Cessna said. “If we do need to buy the church, our purpose would be to demolish it.”
Cessna added that Diocesan officials had expressed interest in selling the church to PennDOT. “As we refine final design [of the reconfigured Rt. 28], we could make a determination that the access issues could compromise safety,” he said.
But it appears that the church’s supporters were able to take PennDOT’s aggressive stance on the church and possibly turn it to their advantage. “We’ve asked PennDOT to buy the church from the Diocese, take the land they need [for Rt. 28], and sell the church to us,” Schmitt said. “PennDOT is looking into it.”
According to Schmitt, there are precedents for such a deal. St. Boniface Church, on the east side of Rt. 279 in the North Side, was bought by PennDOT and sold back to parishioners, Schmitt said.
In its proposed new mission, St. Nicholas Church would be the crowning jewel of a green belt beside Rt. 28, running from the church to Deutchtown. The park also would include a trail for bikers and walkers that would run behind the church and connect to Rialto St. Mala Jaska Park trail would reconnect the church to all of the communities around it.
The park design was created by Astorino Architects. Lou Astorino, founder of the firm, has a long association with the church, which was built in 1901 and is the first Croatian Catholic church in the nation.
Mala Jaska, the once-thriving neighborhood that used to line both sides of Rt. 28 (then East Ohio St.), was named for the town in Croatia from which many of its inhabitants came. The area is what is left of Pittsburgh’s original Little Croatia. The neighborhood was the home of the first Croatian-English newspaper in the U.S., and was the birthplace of the Croatian Fraternal Union. St. Nicholas Church, topped with its lovely onion domes, is emblematic of Pittsburgh, so it is heartening to know that the church again could be a stopping point for visitors and natives.
FOSN would like to make the church a museum to immigrants, and also a repository for immigrant artifacts. The church’s difficult location, sandwiched between Rt. 28 and the hillside below Troy Hill, will be a great advantage for the museum, Schmitt said. “Seventy-thousand vehicles go by there each day,” he said. “It’s wonderfully situated for stopping in.”