Tuesday, March 26, 2013

You Can't Raze My Memory

“Bez muke, nema nauke.”
(Without suffering, there is no learning.)
 -Croatian saying

Entrance of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh

Generally I am the type to gladly let your God go with you and leave it at that. Even so, having been raised by Born Again Christian Presbyterian parents who showed their devotion to the Lord partly by having 12 kids, my upbringing has given me a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude regarding Christian families. I wouldn’t blame it all on the parents, since I have chosen to be critical of those who claim to hold beliefs like “love your neighbor” and “pray for those who persecute you.” Because of my background and my skeptical nature, sometimes when I see hypocrisy in religious folks I have to call it out.

Monument to greed? Rubble of St. Nicholas Croatian Church

I view the actions of tribes with skepticism similar to my attitude toward religious sects, be they African, American, Irish or other. But I am speaking now of the Croatians here in Pittsburgh, who seem to have Balkanized from the start—splitting apart into two like-named parishes/churches more than a century ago, over a dispute among parishioners about whether to locate their church in North Side along East Ohio Street (now Route 28), or in Millvale. Both groups got their wish when they petitioned the Diocese to become separate parishes and built separate churches, both called St. Nicholas. 

View from choir loft inside St. Nicholas Croatian Church

For some reason I had foolishly expected more of this tribe in this dispute over the fate of the long-closed Saint Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the North Side. I don’t know why; maybe because I feel as if am part of it, being a quarter Croatian through my mother. And as a lapsed Presbyterian, I also think Christian families have an obligation to practice what they preach. These attitudes start at the top, though.

Hillside grotto by courtyard of St. Nicholas Church

I am talking to you, Papa Francis. You are the new head of this Holy Catholic Church and I want you to make amends for the Croatian abuse here in Pittsburgh. I want you to tell our Croatian brethren here to make things right with each other. You can start by ordering the Diocese and St. Nicholas Church Millvale members to apologize for the destruction of the church months back, and also have the Diocese give the land the church was on and a sum of money and the salvaged stained glass windows (and all other artifacts such as statues from the church’s hillside grotto) of the demolished Saint Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh’s North Side to the preservationists who wanted to convert the place first into a shrine and lately, into an immigrant museum. I repeat: Please make everyone involved apologize for the grudging--on both sides.

Windows in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, North Side

I know, I know Papa, you have a lot on your plate. But you must add this to that plate to be a true servant. I have a feeling you will listen, since like many Pittsburghers, you are a down-to-earth sort. I know it won’t be easy to tackle this burden, though. Croatians are hard.

It’s been my experience that Croatians are a tough people, and history attests to this perception. After the fall of Rome, Croatians made their way down into the Balkans and claimed the choicest lands there, but those lands did not come without struggle including with their kinsmen, the Serbians. Later, Croatians fought and kept the Muslims from penetrating further into Europe and thus were given the right by the Pope to observe Mass in their own tongue, a right granted long before others were given it. But well before and after all of that, Croatians were known for their ability as warriors, and valor in the fighting. Romans were writing about Croats nearly 2,000 years ago.

Croatian piety, too, has rivaled the Irish and other European tribes who were some of the first converts to the faith. Croatians became Christians early compared to many European tribes (and were first among Slavs), accepting the faith after coming to the Balkans from Central Europe around 600 A.D. But why am I doing all of this rambling about Christians and Croatians? Why does any of it matter here in America in 2013?

I am letting off steam, but also setting the scene of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese’s Croatian Abuse Scandal. On the one side, we have an insulated, out-of-touch patriarchal Boys Club of celibate priests robbing Peter the Croat of his inherited religious and cultural legacy for a few bucks to pay Paul the Lawyer for child sex abuse lawsuits. On the other side, we have Croatian-Americans as hard as stone, known to stand their ground and also the product of more than a hundred generations of stubborn Croats. This match wasn't made in Heaven.

For those who have been reading the news, it’s nothing new to hear Catholic church leaders have gone from abusing children to molesting Croatian-American parishioners. I know this is old news to many of you, but it is news I covered off and on for years and haven’t had the time or stomach to write about recently because it has been so hurtful to think that Catholic leaders chose to demolish the old church out of…spite? For money? Or both? Certainly for money at least, it would seem.

I personally think it was both, but we all will see if the land on which the church sat is sold for a princely sum to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation or some other entity. If the land is sold to any government agency, I say the fix was in with the government and reporters should follow the money and paper trail and also the networking trail—the web of professional and personal connections that tie together key local decision-makers and the Pittsburgh Diocese. Because of course if the fix was in with PennDOT or someone else, the reasons the Diocese was saying it had for destroying the church were just lies to cover their greedy intent.

Nobody, perhaps, but the Lord and a favored few know why the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese fathers turned down a $300,000 paycheck for the long-closed church that was offered by Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority in the last days the church was still standing. Maybe the Diocese already knew it had a better offer. Still, the URA had hoped to buy the church and then sell it to preservationists for $1, but the Diocese rejected the offer and tore down the oldest Croatian church in the Americas.

Main altar of the oldest Croatian church in the Americas

City Councilwoman Darlene Harris, preservationists, local Croatians, North Side leaders and many others were involved for years in trying to save the church, but the Diocese was able to put off selling it while Diocesan leaders claimed to be acting in good faith. The evidence says the opposite. Years ago I was talking off the record on the phone with a friend, a prominent local Croatian-American who was a generous supporter of the effort to save the North Side church. In explaining the details of stalled negotiations to buy the church for a quarter of a million dollars, the man got exasperated and blurted: “Jonathan, I really believe the Diocese just doesn’t want to sell the church to them [the former parishioners].”

Which reminds me of what Rev. Dan Whalen, the first non-Croatian priest in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale’s history said of the North Side church a few years ago: The best thing for everyone would be for the church to be razed .

In February 2009, Whalen was openly calling for the demolition of St. Nicholas North Side, which was heartbreaking and maddening to me at the time. I asked him about the rumor that the Diocese thought the best thing to do with St. Nic’s was to tear it down. Whalen agreed.

“That church is a monument to the fact that Croatian Christians could not come to agreement about it,” Whalen said. “The old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ applies.”

I really should’ve known then that the fight to save the church was already over. But even sixteen months ago, in November 2011, there still seemed to be real hope of saving the landmark church.

Then the Historic Review Commission meeting happened and after that a judge said forget about preservation, it’s the Diocese’s property, and all hope was lost. I don’t know why. It seemed the preservationists had sympathetic ears on the review commission and elsewhere in local government and that they were gaining ground.

Maybe this whole issue with the church has been something of a blood loyalty sort of a thing for me. I grew up a member of the Croatian Fraternal Union in the Clairton club, with a sense of the greatness (and humility) of this tribe (below is the Clairton Cro Club, as we called it):
Though I am not Catholic and not religious, I will always be Croatian and also a Pittsburgher, so it has always seemed wrong to me that others should get to decide to tear down a place that was a part of my ethnic and cultural heritage. Of course it’s not fair.

But life and people aren't fair and the system is skewed and historical assets to a region are casually destroyed as if a few folks knew the mind of God (or did not care but worshiped the Almighty Dollar). One of the worst things about this whole struggle to save the church is that its fate was sealed by Croatians--the members of St. Nicholas Church in Millvale, who voted to have the North Side church destroyed. Now it could be argued that the Millvale church members believe they will profit from the sale or destruction of the church, but the more conservative bet would be they were following the orders of the Diocese. Years back, the two churches were forcibly reunited into one parish by the Diocese, and the Millvale church had a more stable congregation (plus the world-famous Maxo Vanka murals, which surely helped its case), and so ultimately, the North Side church was razed.

The biggest kick is that the parishioners from St. Nic's North Side avoided going to the Millvale church after their own church was closed, yet the Millvale parishioners got to decide the fate of the North Side church. It didn't matter that Millvale was the last Croatian church in the area, or that in many cases, the North Side folks have kin who go to the Millvale church; the other St. Nics wasn't their church, which the North Siders wanted back. Some of the North Side parishioners still held onto the century-old grudge which was the original rift in the Croatian community. They weren’t alone in keeping that fire going.

Still, the grudge was partly the North Side congregation's undoing. Because at least some folks in St. Nicholas Millvale also held onto some remnant of the grudge, each group of parishioners, generally speaking, viewed their kinsmen from the like-named church as the Others. And we all know from history what people can do when they categorize fellow human beings as Others--they can be enslaved for hundreds of years or massacred. So I guess in comparison, tearing down an old church isn't the worst thing to happen to a people. It's not a good thing, though.

It was never about Catholicism, since I am not Catholic. This fixation I had with the old church had more to do with my Croatian blood--some unspoken filial vow I felt in my blood. Not that I could really sway the outcome of this struggle. Back when though, I thought I might. And so I met Elsie Yuratovich many years ago for Mass at St. Nicholas, and what was remarkable about the place was its grandeur--while it was not a large church, its vaulted ceilings, seven colors of century-old Italian marble, three marble altars, Stations of the Cross and other architectural features made it breathtaking.

Behind the altars high on the wall was a mural of Christ The King, one hand raised in the sign of peace. Though the small place was less than half full during the Mass, when I walked around the church afterward it seemed the air was infused with joys and sorrows, sacrifices and needs of generations of people. Not in a creepy, dead museum kind of way, but more like the wondering silence of a shrine.

Others recognized the need to save this treasure--even those in high places in government. Years ago, then PennDOT District Engineer Tom Fox got a big color photo of the altars and mural in St. Nicholas from Elsie, who was trying to sway him since PennDOT was considering buying and demolishing the church for the widening of state Route 28. Looking at the picture, Fox said to himself: "If I destroy this church, I'm going to hell."

Pity the Diocese and St. Nics Millvale folks for not feeling the same way. Let those with ears use them and hear the truth.

Now maybe I'm all wrong about this. Maybe our collective desire to save this historic landmark was itself a form of idolatry. It could be we were unwittingly engaging in some place-based ancestor worship. And then again, maybe the Washington Monument is just an obelisk for war dead. I don't know.

I do know this desolation of a holy place hurts. And I understand that ostensibly, the final decision to reject the sales offer was made by those at St. Nics Millvale. But the real decision, of course, was made long ago by Diocesan officials, who always claimed the final vote on the church's fate would be made by those in St. Nicholas Millvale. The Diocese couldn't have gotten away with the destruction if not for the Millvale Croatians, who OK'd it.

The valor, piety and stubborn nature of Croatians is well-documented. In Europe they were the defenders of Christendom, fearless and heroic. And now it seems that here in Pittsburgh, the only enemy the Croatians could not beat was themselves.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Home of the Dead, and Gardeners

Interior of Homewood Cemetery gate by Forbes Avenue

There are about 70,000 burials in Homewood Cemetery and quite a lot to cover in the 135-year-old graveyard, which is built up with obelisks and angels, a pyramid and at least a few Irish crosses accenting the rolling landscape that abuts Frick Park’s 561 acres.

Cross gravestone stands sentinel on a hill

The nonsectarian burial ground is home to a herd of deer, and joggers and walkers enjoy the scenery daily.

Greek temples are eternal homes of the departed

Tours are available for this land of the dead. One of two $5 tours details some of the histories of leading Pittsburgh families on a hill that is the final resting place for members of the Frick (including Henry Clay Frick), Mellon, Benedum and Heinz families (including the grave of the beloved Senator H. John Heinz III).

Road to the Cemetery Keeper's House

Also buried there is Frick’s daughter, the philanthropist Helen Clay Frick. We have her to thank for the wonderful wilderness park that bears her name, as well as Frick Fine Arts Building across from Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh’s old Cultural District, Oakland. The sprawling park is one of Pittsburgh’s natural and historic treasures.

It’s a spot that my old professor Dave Demarest took my class to check out for our Reading The Built Landscape class. An author, journalist, English professor and labor historian, Demarest felt the best way to experience a place was to get out on foot and walk around. But you have to walk—even riding a bike is not the same pace. Walking, you can happen upon scenes and take a moment to see what’s what. This is how you discover, we learned well from gravely voiced Dave.

Path in Homewood Community Garden

Homewood Community Garden is a public garden comprised of small plots for ninety-some gardeners who mostly grow vegetables, though quite a few also grow flowers. (Photo above is of the center path dividing the many plots in the garden.) My regular readers here know of my plot there, and of my love of gardening and landscaping.

My garden plot

The acre or so of land granted for use on a year-by-year basis by the cemetery board also has a few spots from which to get water to care for thirsty plants. Deer, raccoon, groundhogs, fox and other animals often drink from a small spring (not one of the few water spigots for gardeners), pictured below.

Jonathan Barnes is Barnestormin. Email him at barnestorm@alumni.cmu.edu or contact him via social media:


Monday, March 11, 2013

Pittsburgh Mansion

Can't get enough of this place and the environment around it, which is just several blocks from my home and adjacent to Frick Park

And here is another view


Saturday, March 09, 2013

Bridge to Light

Here's a pic I caught today, of Forbes Avenue Bridge above a valley in Frick Park. I live several blocks from this spot.
It's just a short walk from there to Homewood Cemetery and also to Homewood Cemetery Garden, a public garden that the graveyard board kindly allows me and about 90 other gardeners to use to plant our veggies and flowers.
This is a good place. We are lucky.

Briarcliff Road in Park Place

Today I saw some beautiful sights in Park Place, which runs up along Frick Park in Pittsburgh. Many would think the area called Park Place actually is part of the area called Regent Square, but it isn't.
Here's the Forbes Ave./ Briarcliff Rd. entrance:
Just up the bend on the right side of the above scene, is the interesting naturalistic stone steps of Jim's house.
He also has ashlar walls high on the hillside you can see in the above pic.
A bit further up the road is Sylvia's house.
She's a kind German woman I met some years back while I was walking down the street and stopped to scrutinize her lovely and nearly always changing front garden:
With scenes like this even in late winter, is it any wonder that Pittsburgh is often called the most livable place on the planet?

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Worthy Mayor Of Ye Trash

Here's to Pittsburgh's next mayor not feeling compelled to inscribe his name on city-owned trash cans... Can you imagine deciphering this mayoral promotion to visiting Parisian journalists?... "He is mayor of all the trash too," I explained.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Freelancer Tip #420

Freelancer tip on selling stories:
Re-style. Re-sell. Repeat.