Elsie Yuratovich Led effort to save Croatian church
Obituary: Elsie Yuratovich
Friday, July 29, 2005
By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In her retirement, Elsie Yuratovich was driven by a singular mission: preserve the Croatian church and culture in which she had grown up. She still lived in her childhood home on East Ohio Street in the North Side, the house in which her grandfather had run a grocery store across from the railroad tracks and just down the street from St. Nicholas Church.
When the Roman Catholic church was threatened with closure and demolition due to the planned Route 28 expansion, Ms. Yuratovich became its most ardent supporter, conducting public and private tours of the church, meeting with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation staffers and speaking at public hearings.
She raised many people's awareness of the significance of the church, including that of City Council members, who designated it a city historic structure in 2001. PennDOT decided to re-route the road around the building and its hillside grotto. The diocese closed the church anyway in December, citing ongoing costs and maintenance problems, but formed a committee to examine the possibility of turning the church into a Croatian shrine.
Ms. Yuratovich, who touched the hearts of many with her optimistic spirit and valiant efforts, died Wednesday at UPMC St. Margaret. She was 83.
She had bounced back from a brutal beating during a May 2002 break-in and robbery at her home, which she believed she survived only by pretending to be dead. As word of her broken jaw and other injuries spread, her hospital room filled with flowers from PennDOT staffers, Mayor Tom Murphy and other well-wishers.
Ms. Yuratovich, who sold jewelry in Horne's Downtown store for 35 years, was always stylishly dressed and coifed, even though it may have been a style from decades ago. Petite and trim, she probably hadn't changed a dress size in 60 years, and with her perfectly groomed hair, she sometimes looked like she'd stepped right out of the 1940s.
She would apologize profusely for keeping you on the phone and then talk for another 20 minutes, always thanking you for your time. Her conversation was rambling and circuitous, but inevitably came back to the point she'd begun to make five minutes before.
She had the most beautiful, ornate handwriting, the kind children aren't taught anymore and most adults don't have the time to perfect. In it, she wrote her memories of Mala Jaska -- Little Jaska (pronounced yuh-skuh) -- the name Croatian immigrants called their stretch of East Ohio Street.
In Mala Jaska's turn-of-the-20th-century heyday, when Croatians were streaming into Allegheny City and Pittsburgh to work in tanneries, steel mills, pickle plants and other factories, many of those who settled on East Ohio came from the town of Jastrebarsko, nicknamed Jaska, about 20 miles southwest of Zagreb. Ms. Yuratovich's father emigrated from nearby Karlovac when he was 13.
Although her mother died when she was 8 years old and she grew up in a neighborhood friendlier to industry than to children, Ms. Yuratovich never felt deprived.
"We always loved the railroad," she wrote. "When we were just toddlers, we were so delighted when our parents carried us to the window to watch the trains rumbling by. When we grew older, we would count every boxcar that went by, sometimes 100 or even more -- and some of us still do."
At St. Nicholas' grade school, she learned to read, write and sing in Croatian, which helped make her a fitting representative of the culture and its church -- the first Croatian church in America.
Two years ago, the nonprofit Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, established when the church was threatened with demolition, made Ms. Yuratovich the building's unofficial public relations person.
"This was not done through the diocese because we had no authority to do it," said co-chairman Robert Sladack. "We had a business card made up with a picture of the church on it and her home phone number. It says 'Elsie Yuratovich, public relations -- guided tours.' She was ecstatic."
Throughout her struggle to keep the church open, she never lost faith in her religion or its clergy, and was elated when Bishop Donald Wuerl had his driver stop his car in the St. Patrick's Day parade so he could come out and greet her on the sidelines after she recovered from the beating.
She is survived by two sisters, Florence Ziccarelli of Michigan and Margaret Donlan of Cheswick; and a brother, George, of the North Side. Visitation is from 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday at Sperling Funeral Home, 408 Cedar Ave., North Side. Bishop Wuerl and Croatian-born Father Gabriel Badurina will offer her funeral Mass at St. Paul Cathedral at 10 a.m. Monday.
After the Mass, the funeral procession will return to the North Side and stop for two minutes in front of St. Nicholas Church.
"We will all say a silent thank-you prayer," Donlan said, "and remember the contributions of Elsie Yuratovich."
Patricia Lowry can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1590.