St. Nicholas is spared, but what about its windows?
Elsie Yuratovich was a pest, and I mean that in the most admiring and respectful way. She pestered me, she pestered the bishop, she pestered PennDOT, she pestered anyone she thought could play a role in saving St. Nicholas Church.
Thanks to Elsie, I have a voluminous file on the church, thick with photographs, postcards, anniversary booklets and her own memories written in her beautiful script. She never went to college and never took a course in public speaking, but she was the most dedicated and knowledgeable advocate the church ever had. Elsie always believed that then-Bishop Donald Wuerl would do the right thing by the church. Her faith in God and man never wavered.
So it was Elsie, who died almost two years ago at age 83, I thought of when I heard that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh was removing religious objects from the church, demolishing its altars and painting over its murals. If Elsie were still alive, this would have broken her heart.
In the life of a city, there are sadder things than the closing of a landmark church, but not many. For life-long parishioners like Elsie, whose grandparents were among the church’s founders, there is the inevitable grieving: disbelief, anger and often a profound sense of loss. For the city at large, it signals a shifting population — usually to the suburbs — and perhaps even the demolition of a building that has played an important role in its neighborhood and sometimes beyond.
St. Nicholas Church on East Ohio Street is an especially prominent one, at the foot of Troy Hill, along the Allegheny River and with three onion domes and stained glass windows that reflect the Eastern European roots of the first Croatian church in America. The church’s namesake fraternal twin — St. Nicholas in Millvale — was completed the same year, 1901, by the same architect, Frederick Sauer, but was destroyed and rebuilt after a fire in 1921.
A few days after the diocese closed the church in December 2004, it announced that it was forming a committee to study turning the church into a national Croatian shrine.
This was something that a group of former parishioners and supporters had lobbied for; they had formed the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation in 2000 to save the church, even as its fate seemed to have been sealed that year with the Route 28 expansion plans. The diocese had agreed to sell the church to PennDOT, and it would be demolished to make way for the widening of the road.
But in 2001, City Council designated the church a city historic landmark. Because the diocese opposed the designation, approval required a supermajority of council, and got it.
When PennDOT was able to draft new plans that shifted the highway toward the river to save the church, everyone who had worked and hoped and prayed for its survival breathed a sigh of relief.
Even the diocese seemed to be getting on board. A tentative sales agreement was drawn up between it and the newly formed Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance, which would buy the building and its contents for $250,000. But the deal fell apart, with the diocese and the Croatian group each blaming the other for the collapse.
For the Croatians, the ultimate deal-buster was that the diocese required that it be able to buy back the building for $100,000, even after they had completed their million-dollar transformation of the church into a shrine.
Why would the diocese insist on a non-negotiable clause it knew would be unacceptable? Why didn’t it do what Elsie always believed it ultimately would do, which was everything in its power to help the Croatians save their church?
Perhaps because a new suitor had entered the picture: the Follieri Group, an Italian development firm with ties to the Vatican that is seeking to buy and renovate Catholic church properties around the country, with limited success. But in this case, Follieri came up with a better offer — neither party is saying how much better — and the diocese accepted it. Follieri plans to purchase St. Nicholas Church and nine other buildings from the diocese.
The Croatian group still hopes to buy the church — not from the diocese, but from Follieri.
It has been disheartening to watch this unfold after the Croatian-Americans, whose national headquarters are here, worked so hard to preserve the church their ancestors built. For the diocese, the bottom line seems to be just that, the bottom line.
St. Nicholas is the only church that is a city historic landmark. After it was designated, then-City Councilman Bob O’Connor sponsored legislation, lobbied for by the diocese, stipulating that only the owner of a religious structure could nominate it as a landmark, and it passed.
But a church is never only a religious building; it is also one that speaks to the cultural and architectural heritage of a place.
The St. Nicholas windows, for example, depict the Croatian patrons Cyril and Methodius and other saints, and are the glory of the church. Sponsored by Croatian lodges around the country, which are also remembered in the glass, and made by Films Art and Glass Co. of Columbus, Ohio, they are an essential part of the church and its cultural significance.
The diocese hasn’t decided whether it will seek Historic Review Commission approval to remove the windows, which is required by canon law when a church no longer has a religious use. But what happens when canon law butts up against preservation law?
If the diocese wants to remove the windows from the church, it will need the commission’s approval. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, and that the diocese finds a way to do the right thing, for Pittsburgh, for the Croatians and for Elsie.
(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590. )