“Bez muke, nema nauke.”(Without suffering, there is no learning.)
Entrance of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh
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. 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
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
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):
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.