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Diocese to decide on churches’ historic status



When the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation designated 27 historic structures this year, St. Mary Magdalene Church in Homestead and St. Michael Archangel Church in Munhall were on the list.

But the Pittsburgh Diocese has not yet decided whether to accept the designations and the plaques that come with them.

Inspired by the recent events surrounding St. Nicholas Church on the North Side, where a last-minute historic designation threatens to block the diocese’s plan to sell the church, diocese officials met Wednesday to re-evaluate historic designations.

“The decision is that we want to have a procedure where, before a plaque such as that can be accepted, it will have to be reviewed by the diocese,” said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, a spokesman for the diocese.

Lengwin said a decision on the two churches should be made soon, once a specific process for arriving at a decision has been established.

“We’re just in the process of determining how approval will be given,” he said. “It’s not going to be very complex.”

Lengwin said many of the diocese’s churches have been among the more than 400 historic structures designated by the foundation since the group’s plaque program began in 1968.

He said this designation, which places a plaque on the building or structure indicating its name, date of construction and architect, has not been problematic for the diocese in the past.

Such a designation “could become a matter of pride for a parish,” Lengwin said.

“There are a number of buildings in the diocese that have received this. It doesn’t impose any restrictions on the building, it’s just recognition,” Lengwin said. “It’s a rather simple matter, but it’s part of a larger issue that’s rather important to us.”

That larger issue – one that does trouble the diocese – is other historic designations, such as the one given by the City of Pittsburgh to St. Nicholas Church.

Those designations can prevent the diocese from selling churches.

“It imposes restrictions on a building that could limit the church in its mission and ministry,” Lengwin said.

“The church supports the notion of historic preservation. It’s done that since the founding of the church. But not nonconsensual historic designation.”

In May, Pittsburgh City Council designated St. Nicholas a historic structure, which might interfere with the diocese’s plans.

Lengwin said the situation with St. Nicholas, which the diocese wants to sell to the state Department of Transportation so it can be demolished and allow for the expansion of Route 28, is not the first of its kind for the diocese. Similar scenarios have played out at St. Leo on the North Side and St. Michael on the South Side.

“There are other incidents, (St. Nicholas) is just the latest one,” Lengwin said.

Cathy McCollom of History and Landmarks said the designation does not prevent the owner of the building from altering, selling or demolishing it.

“It’s not legally restrictive,” she said.

McCollom said some structures are nominated by their owners, while others are selected by the foundation’s staff because they are “buildings that we feel are important to be acknowledged.”

McCollom said the east suburban churches were nominated by the foundation’s staff.

“They’re both built by significant architectural firms,” she said.

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

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