Menu Contact/Location

Diocese has faith in preservation spirit

By Tony LaRussa
Monday, October 3, 2005

When the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese agrees to close church buildings, the decision helps keep parishes from being saddled with buildings they can no longer afford to maintain.

But the closing of a church often raises a red flag for people who want to save historically or architecturally significant buildings from the wrecking ball.

In the future, local church officials will collaborate with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to find ways to serve the mission of both organizations.

An agreement announced recently by foundation President Arthur Ziegler Jr. calls for the diocese to give his organization first crack at buying a church that is closed. If the foundation passes on the purchase, it will assist in finding a new use for the building.

The foundation also will provide tax credits and other benefits if a historic designation helps the buyer of a church building adapt it for another use. The diocese also agreed to accept the plaques the Landmarks Foundation places on buildings with historic or architectural significance.

“This agreement is a realization that while we may have different missions, there is a shared goal that we can work together on,” said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese.

“Church buildings are closed for a number of reasons, such as the loss of population we’ve experienced in the region and shifts in where people are living,” Lengwin said. “Our first priority is to serve the needs of people, not put our resources in maintaining buildings we no longer need. At the same time, we are sensitive to the significance of historic religious properties.”

The diocese currently does not plan to close any churches that would be affected by this agreement, said Lengwin, who will serve as a consultant on the planning committee when the National Trust for Historic Preservation has its annual conference in Pittsburgh next year. Lengwin is expected to participate in a session on the challenges of reusing historic religious properties during that conference.

For its part, the Landmarks Foundation will agree not to nominate buildings owned by the diocese to either the National Register or the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission without the church’s consent.

In 2001, preservationists essentially prevented the diocese from selling St. Nicholas Church along Route 28 in the North Side to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for a highway-widening project by securing a historic designation from the city.

St. Nicholas, home to the first Croatian parish in the United States, was closed last year. The diocese is working with Croatian fraternal organizations to possibly use the building or convert the former church into a shrine. PennDOT has altered its design for Route 28 to avoid the need to raze the church.

In 2003, the diocese successfully lobbied the city to exclude all active churches from being nominated as historic structures by anyone except the owner. The change, however, does not apply to church buildings that are closed.

Being placed on the National Register affects the alterations the owner of a property can make to the exterior of a building when federal funding is involved.

But the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission must approve all exterior changes to city-designated historic buildings and buildings located in one of a dozen city historic districts. The agreement between the Landmarks Foundation and the diocese does not prevent another preservation group or an individual from nominating a closed church building.

Ziegler praised the pact, saying it could serve as a model for historic preservation of religious buildings in other cities.

“This is perhaps the only such agreement between preservationists and the Roman Catholic Church, and we are pleased to have been part of it,” Ziegler said.

Collaborations between churches and historic preservationists are rare, said Jeannie McPherson, spokeswoman for the National Historic Trust.

“What’s happening in Pittsburgh is encouraging because many urban houses of worship are at risk around the country,” McPherson said. “It is important that we find ways to preserve these buildings, which, in addition to their architectural beauty, often are the anchors to a neighborhood. The way to make sure they are saved is for groups to work together.”

Tony LaRussa can be reached at or .

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633