By Jonathan Barnes in Pittsburgh
America's oldest Croatian church soon could be in the hands of an Italian company, despite efforts of Pittsburgh Croatians to buy the closed church and convert it into a shrine. St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, built in 1901 and worshipped in until it was closed in 2004, could soon be bought by the Follieri Group, which is based in Italy but also has offices in New York City.
Former parishioners and preservationists interested in saving the church still believe their plan will succeed. They said they hope an Oct. 25 meeting between Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh officials, former St. Nicholas parishioners and preservationists could still resolve the matter in their favor.
Negotiations fall apart
Pittsburgh Diocese officials said the impending sale is the result of an intractable attorney representing the Croatian preservationists. The preservationists have said the impasse was the result of the Diocese requiring, as conditions of the sale, that no alcohol be permitted in the church building, and that the Diocese would retain the right the take back the church for any reason at any time.
"We do have a signed sales agreement from Follieri now, and our lawyers are reviewing the agreement," said Diocesan spokesman Rev. Ron Lengwin. "In the meantime, we'll be meeting with the Croatian alliance, the parish council, and the pastor."
But the parish council is not representative of those who once attended the North Side church, since the North Side St. Nicholas Church and the Millvale St. Nicholas Church, just a few miles away, were built when the parishioners could not agree on where to build a new church building. Consequently, both the North Side church (which was preceded by an earlier church) and the Millvale church were built at the same time. Though the smaller Millvale church was completed just months earlier than the North Side church, the Millvale church was destroyed by fire in the 1920s and rebuilt. Founded in 1894, the North Side parish was the first Croatian Catholic parish in America.
The alliance that Rev. Lengwin referred to is the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance, which is the lead group that is working to save the church building and convert it into a shrine to St. Nicholas and the Croatian people. Until recently, representatives of CACEA were negotiating with the Diocese to buy the church and its sacred items for $250,000. The parties had a verbal agreement, when the Diocese broke off negotiations, CACEA officials said.
"We had come to an agreement, when a new [CACEA] attorney said he wanted to start the process over," Rev. Lengwin said. "We've met with the parish, and they're wanting to move on, because they're in severe financial distress. The real question is, what if the [Millvale] parish goes under? Then we have no Croatian parish."
Physical and spiritual obstacles overcome
St. Nicholas Church's history is partly an off-and-on struggle with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. In 1899, when members of the church could not agree on where to build their new church building, some agreed to build a new North Side structure, and others agreed to build their own church in nearby Millvale, just a few miles away. The Millvale parishioners successfully petitioned the Diocese to create their own church and parish, and later that church was decorated with the famous surrealistic murals of Croatian artist Maximilian Vanka.
The Millvale church remained independent until the Diocese merged it with the North Side church in 1994. The Millvale church effectively became the last Croatian church in Pittsburgh after the Diocese closed the larger, cathedral-like North Side church in December 2004. The church once was the focal point of a thriving immigrant community that was named for the town in Croatia from which many of the residents hailed.
Little remains of Mala Jaska, Pittsburgh's old Croatian enclave along what was once known as East Ohio Street, but now is State Route 28. Expansions of the road over the past century have left just a few clusters of row houses clinging to the hillside, as well as the still-imposing church, anchoring a ghost neighborhood. St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, closed in December 2004, still stands like a sentry, looking over the Allegheny River and downtown Pittsburgh.
The history of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in the North Side of Pittsburgh is also a 107-year-battle with the roadway. To accommodate the widening of the road in 1921, the church and rectory next door were lifted onto jacks and moved 21 feet back from their original location. The move required cutting back the bottom of the hillside on the northwest side of the church, and raising the elevation of the buildings by eight feet.
Today, the church's foundation runs nearly against the edge of the road, as it has for decades. The shrine in the hill to the side and above the church seems to hang precipitously, a quiet observer over this holy place. The church has remained silent for nearly two years now, after being closed on St. Nicholas Day in December 2004. But to those who hope to save the building, its connection to the Croatian people and the history of Pittsburgh and America are paramount. Many of the would-be-saviors of the church never attended St. Nicholas.
Dr. Marion Vujevich is a Pittsburgh dermatologist who heads CACEA and did not attend St. Nicholas, but is committed to seeing the building preserved. His group's lack of progress in buying the church was mystifying, he admitted.
"The Diocese gave us their sales agreement about a year ago," Dr. Vujevich said. "If they didn't want to negotiate, they should've at least let us know that they didn't want to negotiate."
Dr. Vujevich added that his group was hoping to work closely with the parish council in Millvale, and that he was looking forward to meeting with Diocesan officials to discuss the church.
Bernice Goyak, 63, was raised in St. Nicholas Church, and remembers well the many functions that the church once hosted. Now, former parishioners can't even clean up the weeds that have sprouted around the empty church, or light candles at the shrine.
"It's just heartbreaking. We don't know what the Diocese is doing," Goyak said.
Zora Spudic, who came to Pittsburgh in 1969 from Duga Resa, Croatia, and raised two children at St. Nicholas Church, said the church's closing had devastated its former members, including some of the recent Bosnian immigrants.
"This church is very importantour kids came there to get together, and newcomers also came to that church. People are torn apart. Families are torn apart," Spudic said.
Another agreement brings few answers
The tentative agreement between the Pittsburgh Diocese and Follieri Group has brought few answers to those who hope to save the church. Asked if he knew what Follieri Group planned to do with St. Nicholas Church if the company bought it, Rev. Lengwin said he did not.
"We know Follieri is in the business of buying church properties to be used in an appropriate manner," Rev. Lengwin said. "They could turn [the church] into apartments, I don't know."
Down at Javor Hall, the local Croatian Fraternal Union lodge just blocks from the church, members of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation meet at least once a month to discuss the closed church. Many of the members that regularly attend the meetings were parishioners at the church, while others are preservationists who simply want to see the building saved. Named "Javor" for the maple trees that were prevalent in the area of Croatia from which the early residents came, the lodge also is known as the Croatian National Hall, and is another tangible connection to Mala Jaska, which was where the Croatian Fraternal Union began. The walls of the place are lined with yellowed pictures of sober-faced founders and old documents guaranteeing the right of those immigrants to associate together in the club.
Jack Schmitt, a board member of Preservation Pittsburgh and a board member of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Alliance who has no Croatian blood, said PCHF would like to see the church saved as a shrine to the Croatian people.
"It would be a wonderful thing if people from all over could come here to see this place, which was built with the pennies of the Croatian immigrants," Schmitt said. "We know it can't be developed for anything. We need to complete this effort to save the church as a shrine, as [former Bishop, now Archbishop] Wuerl intended."
Like the industrial sites that once lined the Allegheny River around this part of the North Side, much of what made Mala Jaska was torn down long ago. The tanneries that once employed many of these first Croats on nearby Herr's Island have been leveled and replaced by an upscale neighborhood called Washington's Landing. College kids and yuppies practice rowing in the nearby back channel of the Allegheny River. Many of the folks who lived in Mala Jaska have moved away to the suburbs. Some, like the late Elsie Yuratovich, worked for years to preserve the church, then died before they could see their beloved worship site saved for future generations.
Other former parishioners, such as Susan Petrick, try to keep the faith.
"We teach our children about their ancestors, how poor they were and about the sacrifices they made to come to the USA, how they worked so hard to build such a beautiful church to worship in, so that they could pass this church on to their heirs," Petrick said. "It is truly sad when we try to instill the importance of heritage to these young people, then the Diocese does everything to work against this."
George White, a board member of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, successfully led an effort to change plans for reconfiguration of Route 28 that would have meant the razing of St. Nicholas Church. He said the church is architecturally and historically significant.
"We were interested in saving the church, but also in saving it as a place of worship," White said. "The challenge in Pittsburgh is not only to save traditional architecture, but to save it for respectful uses. Architecture, without people who use it, is just a museum structure."
Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. Two of his great-grandparents immigrated to America from Zagreb.
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