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Historic church closes its doors forever

By Megan McCloskey
Tuesday, December 7, 2004

The statue of the Virgin Mary still sits atop the hill where generations of Croatians have prayed in the grotto beneath her, but it has been almost a month since worshipers last attended Mass in their historic church.
Despite parishioners’ fight to save the building from the wrecking ball, the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church building on Route 28 will close permanently today.

The 100-year-old church needs repairs the parish cannot afford and has been closed since mid-November because of a boiler leaking carbon monoxide, said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Robert Sladack, who has been attending the church for 70 years, said he is heartbroken. Sladack was baptized, schooled and married at the East Ohio Street church.

“I was hoping to have my funeral there,” he said.

The Rev. Gabriel Badurina, pastor of St. Nicholas parish, said he understood parishioners’ feelings of loss and pain, “but life has to move on.” The parish has two churches. The other is in Millvale.

The St. Nicholas parish is not alone in that sentiment.

Two other parishes this year have had to look at consolidating buildings, joining 17 others that have done so since 1994.

Good Samaritan Parish in Ambridge closed three of its four buildings this fall. St. John Vianney Parish, which encompasses several south Pittsburgh neighborhoods, has sent a proposal to Bishop Donald Wuerl for approval to do the same thing.

From 1988 to 1994, 48 church buildings closed during Wuerl’s reorganization and revitalization plan that was aimed at adjusting the diocese to better fit the changing demographics of Catholics in Pittsburgh, Lengwin said.

Many of the Catholic churches in Pittsburgh had been formed by European immigrants who came to the city to work the coal mines and steel mills. Croatians settled in the North Side and founded St. Nicholas, the first Croatian Catholic church in North America.

Keeping the church open is “extremely important” to keeping Croatian traditions alive in Pittsburgh, Sladack said. He is co-chairman on the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, formed after the parish voted in 2000 to close the building.

“We are not giving up the fight,” Sladack said.

However, the diocese said closing the church is a way to preserve a Croatian heritage that is dwindling along with the numbers of parishioners. With the consolidation, Lengwin said, the 400 members of the two-church parish — which had 900 members in 1994 — can go to Mass together in Millvale. Badurina also will increase the number of Masses celebrated in the Croatian tongue to one a week, up from one a month, Lengwin said.

Both churches were recommended for closure during the diocese’s reorganization plan, but Wuerl wouldn’t let that happen because of the need for preserving Croatian culture, Lengwin said.

“These are not easy decisions to make,” he said. “Everyone’s been given time to see if there was a solution to this problem.”

Members of the foundation said they don’t think their proposals to save the church were given adequate consideration by the pastor or the diocese.

“They just wanted to close the church,” said Jack Schmitt, a board member with both the foundation and Pittsburgh Preservation.

Both groups lobbied successfully to get the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to reconsider its plans to widen Route 28, two of which included razing the church.

After the East Ohio Street building earned a historical designation by the city, the Catholic Diocese successfully lobbied to have churches excluded from any further landmark designations, said Cathy McCollom, chief programs officer for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Megan McCloskey can be reached at

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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