Menu Contact/Location

Religious objects removed from historic St. Nicholas Church

Pittsburgh Post-GazetteBy Ann Rodgers,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A crew has removed religious objects from the interior of St. Nicholas Church, North Side, a landmark building on Route 28 caught in 15 years of wrangling between the parish that no longer uses it, former parishioners who want to save it, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

On Friday the altar, statues and other religious objects were removed, and religious murals were painted over in preparation for a pending sale to the New York-based redeveloper of church properties, The Follieri Group.

Although that deal has not yet closed, a decision was made to remove the objects now because there had been a break-in at the unused rectory, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese.

“We feel that it is necessary to prepare the building for sale and to safeguard those items. We met with the new pastor down there recently and determined what should be removed,” he said.

The action was devastating to Susan Petrick, secretary of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, which had unsuccessfully tried to arrange the building’s purchase as a shrine.

Although church authorities had told her that religious objects would be removed, “I didn’t think they were going to take it down to an empty shell,” she said.

The church sits on a death trap stretch of Route 28 that PennDOT has long wanted to widen. In 1994 the parish merged with another Croatian parish in nearby Millvale, also named St. Nicholas. While leaders of the merged parish and the diocese wanted to sell to PennDOT, people from the North Side church had it declared a historic landmark to protect its exterior. PennDOT developed a plan to widen Route 28 with the church intact. The parish continued to use the building until 2004, when a broken boiler led to its closure.

The Follieri Group is run by Catholics who specialize in renovating churches for purposes that are acceptable to the church, including affordable housing. Father Lengwin said the group has not indicated how it intends to use the St. Nicholas property.

However, canon law requires that all religious objects be removed from churches that are being put to secular use. The diocese has been aggressive about that since a church was sold intact in the 1990s for what is now The Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville.

“We’ve learned from that experience, and are very vigilant,” said the Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, director of the diocesan Department for Canon and Civil Law Services.

The altar must always be removed. If a non-Catholic group plans to use it as a church, many of the items can be left if the buyer plans to use them. But if the building will be used for secular purposes, every religious object must go, he said.

“We would take out the candlesticks and the tabernacle, statues, vestments, chalices, anything that would have been used for sacred purposes. If there are any murals that we can’t take down, they would be painted over. Basically we are selling them a building that has no religious things in it,” he said.

It will be up to St. Nicholas parish to decide what to do with the religious items, Father Lengwin said.

“We redistribute them to parishes that need them. The parish itself will determine which of those items they want to incorporate in their [Millvale] building,” he said.

Some ethnic parishes have sent items from closed churches overseas to parishes in their motherland that are still struggling to emerge from rebuilding after communism. “But that has not been decided yet. It will be up to the parish,” he said.

(Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416. )

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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