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O’Connor wants church owners to have control

By Stephanie Franken
Sunday, January 5, 2003

Pittsburgh Councilman Bob O’Connor fought to save his former church, but when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh decided it had to close St. Philomena in Squirrel Hill 10 years ago, he acquiesced.

O’Connor said he believes parishioners or others shouldn’t stand in the way when leaders decide it’s time for a place of worship to close.

At least 25 churches and temples could be affected by a bill he proposed that would prevent the public from nominating places of worship for city historic status, which often blocks the closing of the buildings. The legislation would allow only the owners of the buildings to nominate the structures.

“When they closed my church, it was the worst thing that happened to me outside a death in my family,” said O’Connor, the father of a priest. O’Connor’s proposal is supported by the diocese. “We fought to keep it open. We tried to raise money. But in the end, it was not to be.”

O’Connor’s bill “deprives all church members and all citizens of the right to protect their buildings through the nomination process, and it leaves the decision solely in the hands of the owners of the buildings, which are generally the diocese or other church leaders,” said Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday before the city Historic Review Commission, 200 Ross St.

The public also may comment at meetings scheduled for Jan. 14 and 28 before the city Planning Commission. Ultimately, the city council will get the final say.

The Historic Review Commission so far has received only a handful of comments, said Angelique Bamberg, the city’s historic preservation planner. All oppose the legislation.

Ziegler said the measure could open the floodgates for other groups.

“Under the general principle (of the bill), any group could say that historic designation poses a problem for them. Why churches, and why not schools or factories or individual houses?”

Today, any city resident may nominate a building to become a City Designated Historic Landmark. The designation prevents alterations or demolition of structures without approval from the Historic Review Commission.

To be eligible for the designation, a building must be linked to historical events or people, represent a noted architectural type or have archaeological significance.

Six houses of worship have the designation today. Twenty-five more are eligible. A half-dozen local houses of worship are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which does not protect a building against demolition by private landowners. At Rodef Shalom Temple in Oakland, completed in 1907 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Executive Director Jeffrey Herzog said he has no problem with O’Connor’s bill.

“There is probably a difference of knowledge between the parishioners and the people who run the institution,” Herzog said. “In the case of the diocese, they would know whether a building is of significance as opposed to a parishioner, who would have an emotional tie.”

Pastor Michael Poloway, of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church on the South Side, agrees.

“A parishioner could make a suggestion,” Poloway said, “but a pastor is in charge, not the parishioner.”

Stephanie Franken can be reached at

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

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