By the end of all the commenting I was drained. I hadn’t slept enough the night before or had lunch prior to attending the city of Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission meeting Downtown. The HRC was hearing testimony to consider allowing the Diocese to demolish the city designated historic building, St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the North Side. Still, while the real-life drama played out in front of me, it felt strangely satisfying to see people in their roles and to recognize how energetically everyone took up his part.
Some of those testifying before the Commission to support demolishing the church were members of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. The small Romanesque brick church, which is perched above Rt. 28 a few miles from the other St. Nicholas church, is known for its world-famous collection of murals, painted by artist Maxo Vanka in the 1920s and 1930s. It has about 220 active members and is struggling, and part of that financial hardship includes maintaining the closed North Side church, which is costing the parish about $1,700 per month.
St. Nicholas Millvale parishioner Darrell Woodrow said it pained him to think of the amount of money diverted from the word of Christ. “If we continue on this path, our future as a viable parish is in serious danger,” he said.
The Millvale church’s finance committee chairman, Bob Ehrman, said the burden of the East Ohio Street church on his congregation began before the North Side church’s closing. Millvale’s parishioners had to subsidize it for years, he said. In 1994 the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese joined the Millvale church with the North Side church and created one parish. Ehrman noted that $360,000 has been spent maintaining the building since it was closed in 2004.
“These expenses have already threatened our church in Millvale. Without relief, our church, a national historic landmark, faces the fate of the East Ohio Street property,” Ehrman said. “We are pleading to demolish the East Ohio street building and reduce the financial drain.”
St. Nicholas Millvale’s priest, Father Dan Whalen, said he’d seen “the continual strain that this building has had on our parish… We do not have a reasonable use for this building. We’re barely maintaining it at this point. There’s no reasonable return on this building for us,” he said.
Mary Petrich, 83, a lifelong St. Nicholas Millvale parishioner and one of the leaders of the Society to Preserve the Murals of Maxo Vanka, said six of the church’s murals have been restored since being damaged from Hurricane Ivan in 2004, but more work must be done. “You never want to recommend razing a church… The Millvale church is representative of immigrants who came here to the Northeast,” she said.
This testimony was a bit hard to take. I had worked very hard with Mary and others to bring attention to the production of Dave Demarest’s “Gift To America,” and for the preservation of the murals in general a few years back when the play about the murals’ creation was staged again after it’s initial airing in 1981. I wrote web site copy, magazine and newspaper stories, press releases, fundraising letters and other stuff, and called people for donations and support. I contacted editors and reporters in print, radio and TV news to ensure that the production got plenty of attention, and it did—four sold-out performances, and lots of funds raised and media attention, and many supporters gathered.
When I’d been working with the murals folks I had recognized a less-than-charitable attitude among some regarding the North Side church, and it bothered me. Some of the Millvale parishioners viewed the North Side church as not unique, and it hurt to hear that. How could you be so wholeheartedly dedicated to preserving Croatian heritage in one place, and be heartless towards your tribesmen down the road, who are in many cases your kin, I wondered. If you talk about Balkanization, Pittsburgh’s Croatian community should be referenced.
I am a quarter Croatian—my mother is half, and her mother was a child of Croatian immigrants from Minnesota by way of Zagreb. I am a native Pittsburgher, born in Bloomfield, raised in Bellevue and a resident of the city part of Regent Square. I am not religious and was actually raised Presbyterian, but just as I view the home of the Vanka murals as a unique Pittsburgh treasure worthy of working for, I see the closed St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in North Side in a similar way, and also as a testament to the dreams and ideals of all of our immigrant forefathers.
Members of North Side Leadership Conference feel this way, too, and are attempting to buy the church from the Diocese, with a plan in place for making the church into a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience. That museum would be the centerpiece of a thin park running alongside Rt. 28, connecting the museum and a parking lot with the nearby riverside trail in two spots—giving greater accessibility to the trail and connecting the neighborhoods of Troy Hill and East Deutschtown with the other nearby neighborhoods. Supporters of the idea say it could attract 50,000 new visitors to the area each year.
Reusing the closed church as an immigrant museum is a way to stimulate economic growth in Pittsburgh, and also will compliment nearby historic structures such as St. Anthony’s Chapel (with its world-class reliquary) in Troy Hill, and the Maxo Vanka murals at the Millvale church, PCHF member Richard Sestric said to the Commission. “We care about out shared community heritage, and want to honor our great-grandparents who settled in this region from Eastern and Central Europe including Croatian and German immigrants of North Side, and the Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Swiss, Slovak and other groups who populated Pittsburgh as a whole,” he said.
Others said that the North Side church’s supporters would be generous to the Millvale parish if it would finally sell the church to preservationists, who for years have been trying to save the church building.
“Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation is ready to produce substantial financial resources to the parish,” PCHF Foundation president Bill Vergot declared in a booming voice to his fellow Croatian-Americans from St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale. “We are looking for a commitment that the people of both sides will support fundraising efforts for both sides and for the parish in general.” Then he read from a letter sent several years ago to the Millvale church by Peter Karlovich, a strong supporter of the cause. “‘It’s our desire to heal old wounds and save Croatian heritage.’ I want my fellow parishioners at Saint Nicholas to know we made every effort to work together, but we were refused.”
St. Nicholas North Side church supporter Bronco Benardic, a construction contractor, testified to the Commission, which was considering whether to allow the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to demolish the church building, though it was given historic designation by the city 11 years ago. The building is in decent shape, he said, and should not be demolished.
Anthony Benvin, chairman of the Troy Hill Citizens, said his group is against demolishing St. Nicholas North Side. “We see it as a very important part of our neighborhoods,” he said of the church at the base of his neighborhood’s hill, directly connected by a small stairway ascending the hillside. “It’s a gateway to our neighborhood.”
People don’t like to be bullied, whether they are ancient Hebrews, shouting “Let my people go!” or modern-day Croatian Americans saying “We will never give up!” And some people just won’t tolerate their holy places being desecrated, either, though this has been repeatedly been done to St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in North Side, known partly for the fact that you speed by it and it is literally feet from your car.
And so to some, it seems the lies stink to high Heaven, as the Croatian blood burns here on Earth. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is the original Old Boys Club, they say, but the Diocese puts the burden on the parish. Still, they add, we will get our church back.
Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation’s motto is “Saving our place in the future.” Amen. But a more earthly treasure could be at root of this years-long question of ownership of the church building. The longer trail of this story could lead straight to the bank.
It’s not about economic hardship, it’s about profit, PCHF member Jack Schmitt said. “The issue is about money and profit. PennDOT needs two slices of the property [for its planned rebuilding of Rt. 28]… For the sake of profit, we cannot allow our landmarks to be demolished one-by-one," he said.
North Sider John DeSantis, who was chairman of the Commission for 13 years, said the Diocese had not presented a good case for demolition. “There are in fact people who can provide reasonable use of this building. Right there, it’s an open-and-shut case,” he told the Commission. “It’s not a matter of how much they can get. This building has to be found to have no use.”
Susan Petrick, a former parishioner of the closed church and a member of PCHF, said her group had covered the costs to board up the closed church. Despite their efforts to secure the closed church, three people caught stealing from the church were not prosecuted by the Millvale parish. NSLC is in negotiations with the Diocese for the church building, but an agreement hasn’t been reached, she said.
“If the parish is truly experiencing financial hardship, you have to ask yourself, why haven’t they signed this agreement?” Petrick said.
HRC Acting Chairman Ernie Hogan said based on the ordinance, there are more questions raised that the HRC needs to have answered. He said the Commission would have its staff ask those questions, and after they receive answers, a decision will be made. He continued the hearing on the matter for 30 days. The issue will be discussed at HRC’s December meeting.