In an age when profit trumps pride, place and position elbow out posterity, and when spaceship-like buildings supposedly owned by the public are discarded to cater to sports franchise owners, saving something as simple and unimportant to most people as St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh’s North Side might seem the fancy of a graying blue collar apologist. But those who love the old church, which welcomed Croatians for more than a century to their New World, believe it’s worth a thousand Civic Arenas, and then some.
Saving St. Nicholas Church has always been the task of a hardcore group of former parishioners and preservationists. Closed since St. Nicholas Day 2004, the fight to save the venerable old church has always been a war that’s been fought battle by battle. Those trying to preserve the 109-year-old church building, which is the oldest Croatian church building in the Americas, have another uphill battle: passing again through a city of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission meeting unscathed.
Today, at 1:30 p.m., the Historic Review Commission will consider the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s request to demolish St. Nicholas Church because of the economic hardship placed upon the Bishop, who is the owner of the property. The meeting will happen at 200 Ross Street, on the first floor. Everyone is invited. Please come if you love Pittsburgh’s unique history, or if you’re Croatian and proud of it, or if you simply can’t stand to see another of Pittsburgh’s great landmarks torn down.
That designation won’t happen if North Side Leadership Conference chief Mark Fatla has anything to say about it. Fatla, who is Polish American, sees the closed church as potentially a strong draw that could bring 50,000 new visitors each year to the Deutschtown and East Deutschtown neighborhoods. The plan his nonprofit and other St. Nicholas supporters have put together would create a green park-strip alongside Rt. 28, from East Deutschtown by the Penn Brewery, with a trail system that would connect at two separate points with the existing riverfront trail. The plan would also create a new space for parking for the trail, by the old church. He called the infusion of so many new visitors into the North Side “a game changer.”
Fatla, NSLC, members of Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation and others are clamoring to save the church to convert it into a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience in America. Built with the pennies, nickels and dimes of Croatian immigrants, the church has been stripped by Diocesan officials of its religious items, and the hillside shrine beside it which seems suspended above the church no longer has its statues. But the tangible collective memory of generations of new Americans striving to make a home in a strange land, sweated and prayed into this church built against a hillside in Pittsburgh-esque fashion, will never be forgotten and forever will imbue the place with an earthly reverence that most would find ineffable.
The Rev. Dan Whalen, priest of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, said the Diocese needs to have the option to demolish the church because the costs to pay for it are too much for his small congregation to continue to bear. “We have to try to stop the financial bleeding,” he said.
Rev. Whalen added that neither his parish, which owns the church since it was closed and was part of the parish at that time, nor the Diocese are opposed to the church being used as an immigrant museum. “The problem is, nobody can come up with any money,” he said.
But according to Fatla, St. Nicholas supporters have money to buy the building and have tentatively agreed with the Diocese on a price for the property.
“We’re not really there yet,” Diocesan spokesman Rev. Ron Lengwin said of the would-be deal to sell the church to preservationists. “We’re covering all of our bases… We’re doing this on behalf of the parish.”
To make the museum a reality, supporters must raise a $5 million endowment and $10 million capital fund, Fatla said. “We’ve been trying to acquire the site for two years,” he said.