Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Past Is Present

St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church was closed by the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese four years ago, and it now appears lonely, in need of friends. The hillside grotto beside the church is bereft of its statues, and weeds and fallen tree limbs give the holy place a forlorn look. Though its cupolas once funneled the prayers of the faithful heavenward, this beloved landmark may be Pittsburgh’s most endangered historic place.
The Croatians in the congregation up the road, who are the stewards of this, the oldest Croatian church in America, want to tear it down. They want to sell the “desanctified” church and its property to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which would then tear the church down for the reconstruction of PA State Route 28—the same road the church was moved up the hillside to accommodate generations ago. The members of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, home of the world famous Maxo Vanka murals, want their former sister church destroyed, and they’ve found a way to profit from it. They’d like to sell the church for the Rt. 28 reconstruction project. Ironically, it’s the same project that preservationist George White helped save $50 million on by offering an alternative to the box-like thinking of PennDOT engineers, who only could envision tearing away the hillside for the reconstruction of sprawl-engendering road.
Who cares about Mala Jaska, or what’s left of the formerly bustling Croatian immigrant neighborhood the once lined both sides of Rt. 28? The road was known back when as East Ohio Street, and St. Nicholas Church was the hub of that neighborhood. Home to the first Croatian-English newspaper in the United States and the birthplace of the Croatian Fraternal Union, Mala Jaska beckoned to the homeland, drawing in thousands, and making Pittsburgh one of the largest Croatian diasporas.
The importance of the neighborhood to the development of this nation, and the church’s impact on Croatians throughout the New World, is only hinted at in the array of stained glass windows in the 108-year-old church. The windows were donated by various CFU lodges throughout the country, reflecting the regard that the new Croatian-Americans felt for what was one of the first stops for many of them on their journey to their new American homes. Generations later, the descendants of some of those optimistic Croats now seem thoroughly jaded, and want to see the old church torn down at taxpayers’ expense.
I am part Croatian, so one can see why this church might matter to me. But I was raised Presbyterian, and I rarely attend church services anymore. My interest in St. Nic’s Church in the North Side is not just due to my Croatian blood, but also because I am a lifelong Pittsburgher who is proud of our region’s many immigrant and working class contributions to America.
But parts of what’s left of this cultural fabric are being chopped up and torn apart, justified in the name of Almighty Private Property, cultural legacy and history be damned. Such an approach is as shortsighted as that of strip miners, who once despoiled the land to get its riches, and fouled the waters in the process.
Since St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church—the oldest Croatian church in the nation, representing a continuous line of Croatian-Americans over a century long—is again being seriously considered for a date with the wrecking ball, no church in Pittsburgh is safe. Not even the other St. Nicholas is safe, even with its passionate murals documenting the immigrant experience in America.
If the oldest Italian church in Pittsburgh were slated for demolition at taxpayers’ expense, would this essay need to be written? Wouldn’t Pittsburgh’s Italian-American community, and many of those who love that community, be up in arms, squashing the plan? If the Port Authority were planning to destroy that church, would it be acceptable?
It’s interesting to note the motivations of those who want to sell the church. Father Daniel Whalen, diocesan administrator and acting priest of St. Nicholas Church in Millvale, which owns the North Side church, wants to see the closed church gone.
“I truly believe that the best thing to do for everyone involved would be to demolish the building,” Rev. Whalen said. “That church is a monument to the fact that Croatian Catholic Christians could not come to agreement about it.”
Balkanization in Pittsburgh? Not just here, but all over the country—splitting apart and forming our own groups has always been a portion of the American experience. The Episcopalians, to name just one example, are doing it nowadays. Our country was founded by such dissenters. Weren’t the Puritans dissenting Christians, who wanted a less oppressive place in which to live?
So why save St. Nicholas Church? Because it’s a legacy to the independence (and interdependence) of newly arrived immigrant Americans. And because the church is a reminder of the values of faith, hard work, and humility that have helped propel this country forward. Or, because the slowly decaying landmark is a warning that if we don’t guard and cherish these values, they might become as quaint as a museum display. We need to save St. Nicholas Church in the North Side because it is a touchstone for discussion about our shared heritage, and its continuing impact on American life.
What’s it matter that I, a partial Croatian person, care about this issue? It matters because it's to be expected that some Catholics, some Croatians, and some former parishioners of St. Nicholas Church would care enough to fight to preserve it. But that small group isn’t enough to sustain the effort that will be needed to make the church a viable cultural destination point. Friends of St. Nicholas, a nonsectarian group, is aiming to buy and save the church and hillside shrine, with the intention of transforming it into an immigrant museum and national shrine to St. Nicholas. The building would contain a repository of immigrant artifacts, a cultural center offering foreign language classes, and it would host weddings and other respectful celebrations. But the group will need lots of supporters, from many backgrounds.
We never really outgrow some of our experiences, and perhaps we shouldn’t. Pittsburghers would do well to remember that the past is never past, and that our shared cultural legacy is one of this region’s greatest resources. We all carry our histories, experiences and understandings with us. Sometimes, we carry those understandings in a landscape devoid of any physical reference to them.