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Group wants to save 1815 church in Elizabeth Borough from demolition

Thursday, August 07, 2008
By Mary Niederberger,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

But it’s unlikely that the angel, considered the guardian and protector of the church that was built in 1851, will be able to save the building from the wrecking ball, even though some former parishioners would like to buy it. The church shut its doors 21 years ago when the parish built a new church several miles away in Elizabeth Township.

The July 20 announcement that the former church would be demolished appears to be creating some of the same angst and outcry that its closing caused in 1987, when a group of parishioners sued the diocese unsuccessfully in an effort to keep it open.

But St. Michael pastor, the Rev. Rudolph Smoley, said the former St. Michael building must be razed for safety reasons because the structural deterioration that has taken place.

He said the decision to demolish the church was made after he and diocesan officials toured the church in September after local building inspector Arlo Roma noticed that a retaining wall outside of the church was learning toward the street and a church wall appeared to be crooked.

The Rev. Smoley said one of the stations of the cross inside of the church had fallen off of the wall with chunks of plaster coming along with it. “When I went in a month ago, a second station had fallen and was in pieces. Each of these sections of plaster is going to continue to fall like dominoes. The inside of the church is just literally crumbling,” the pastor said.

He said that he and diocesan officials are worried that part of the church could collapse and harm someone, particularly children who play in the area.

Church officials have filed an application with Elizabeth Borough for a demolition permit. Borough Secretary Robin Stockton said the borough is waiting for documentation from the church and that all utility service to the building has been shut off.

But some former parishioners, who were part of the lawsuit against the diocese when the former St. Michael church was closed, don’t agree with the assessment that the Rev. Smoley and diocesan officials have reached.

Some of them entered the church July 23 for the first time since it had closed. That night, a company that contracted with the diocese was removing religious items from the church to be sold on consignment. Other religious items from the former church have been taken to the current St. Michael Church.

The items were being removed in preparation for asbestos abatement work in the church that has since been completed.

Though the Rev. Smoley had opened the church July 23 and was supervising the activity, some of the former parishioners called police to the scene. Elizabeth Borough police took no action after they saw that no break-in or theft was taking place.

J.C. Natale, who was a member of parish council at the time the former church was closed and also a member of the Save Our Church group that sued the diocese, said he went to the site Wednesday and was upset to see so many of the religious items had been removed from the church.

Still, he said, he believes the church could be reopened and used as a “chapel of convenience,” a place where a Mass could be said perhaps once a week or an occasional baptism or wedding held.

“When I went inside of there, there wasn’t even a musty smell. Some plaster had fallen because of a clogged gutter, but that was about it. You could have held Mass in there if you wanted,” Mr. Natale said.

He said diocese officials said the building was structurally unsound in 1987 when it was closed. “It’s been 21 years. I think it would have collapsed by now if it were going to collapse,” he said.

Susan Sopko, another Save Our Church member, said she would like to see the church reopened and some of the religious items that were removed from it returned.

Mr. Sopko and Mr. Natale are among a group of former St. Michael parishioners who meet each Monday night to say the rosary outside of the former church building.

Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said a plaque was awarded to the church when it was closed in 1987 to mark its architectural significance. “But the plaque has no legal binding,” Mr. Ziegler said. “It cannot prevent the building from being torn down.”

Former parishioner Robert LaFrankie, who now lives in Bethlehem, Pa., has in recent years sent a proposal to the diocese — first to former Bishop Donald Wuerl and recently to Bishop David Zubik — to turn the former St. Michael Church into a Catholic “museum and education/learning center.” That proposal has not been acted upon.

Mary Von Fosson, an Elizabeth Borough council member, said the building inspector who contacted the Rev. Smoley with concerns about the church last year no longer works for the borough and did not tell council about his concerns.

Mrs. Von Fosson said council was not a party to the decision to raze the church. “The only thing that council ever discussed about St. Michael is the wall facing Fifth Street needs to be fixed because it was falling down. That doesn’t have anything to do with the church itself,” she said.

Despite the protests and pleas from the Save Our Church members, some of the stained glass windows have been removed from the former church and it is being readied for demolition. The windows will be installed in the chapel area of the current St. Michael Church.

On Tuesday, Mr. Natale and Gerald LaFrankie, Robert’s brother, faxed a letter to Bishop Zubik and the Rev. Smoley asking for time to have an appraisal done of the former church building so that the Save Our Church group can make a formal offer to purchase it.

But the Rev. Smoley said the process toward demolition will not be halted.

“This process is moving forward,” the Rev. Smoley said. “It is a safety issue.”

The St. Michael School building adjacent to the former church will remain open for CCD classes, the Rev. Smoley said. The school was closed in June due to declining enrollment.


The disintegrating statute of St. Michael stands over the front door of St. Michael Church in Elizabeth Borough -- Lake Fong/Post-Gazette 

Mary Niederberger can be reached at or 412-851-1512.
First published on August 7, 2008 at 6:23 am
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