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South Side church converting to condos

Wednesday, February 14, 2001

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

While retaining its historic character, one of the South Side’s most beloved old Catholic churches and its rectory will be converted into high-end, residential condominiums.

St. Michael Church on Pius Street on the South Side Slopes, was closed in 1992 as part of a reorganization by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. At that time, the diocese “desanctified” the church, removing the altar and other religious items from inside.

“The interior is completely gutted,” said Jennifer McCarthy, an architect with Hanson Design Group Ltd., the South Side firm that is designing the proposed condominiums for Thomas Tripoli, a South Side developer.

She said some residents have stopped by to see what is going on at the old church and expressed concern that the church they attended for so many years was being measured and studied for possible renovation.

McCarthy said most of the stained glass was removed from the church five or six years ago. “The altar was ripped out. Anything that had a cross or any sort of religious symbol is gone.”

Yesterday, Pittsburgh City Council gave its final approval to a resolution giving historic designation to the church and rectory. Mayor Tom Murphy now has to sign off on that resolution.

With the historic designation, the two buildings officially come under the purview of the city’s Historic Review Commission, which already has approved plans for renovating them.

Tripoli, who plans to live in one of the condominiums, is proposing to convert the buildings into about 25 condominiums, ranging in area from 1,000 to 2,000 or 3,000 square feet. He said the units will be priced from $150,000 to $250,000.

McCarthy said the first phase of the project will be renovation of the rectory. Once one of the largest in the city, it was the first home in the United States for the Passionist order of priests who staffed the parish from 1853 to 1973.

She said the church renovation will be more involved since new floors and an elevator will be added. She said window sills will be lowered on the Pius Street side of the church to allow more light to get inside. On the side of the church that faces Downtown, she said, “we are going to lower the window sills, put in French doors and small wrought iron terraces.”

The church, which was constructed in a German Romanesque style, has a basilica with a prominent center tower and a clerestory. It was designed by Pittsburgh architect Charles S. Bartberger, who later designed the Passionists’ St. Paul of the Cross Monastery on Monastery Avenue on the South Side.

Walter Kidney, architectural historian for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, nominated the St. Michael buildings for the historic designation. Neighborhood groups, including the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association, favor the designation.

“The building has been part of the social fabric of the South Side Slopes for almost 150 years,” wrote Edward F. Jacob, president of the neighborhood association.

Built between 1858 and 1860, St. Michael Church became Pittsburgh’s first Catholic church south of the Monongahela River and the third church built for a German congregation.

Two St. Michael parish traditions have been retained, even though the church is closed.

One is the presentation of “Veronica’s Veil,” the passion play written by a priest from St. Michael in 1913 that has been staged every year since during Lent. “Veronica’s Veil” is now performed in the auditorium at 18th and Pius streets, a building that used to be part of the St. Michael parochial school.

The second is Cholera Day, the feast day of St. Roch, patron saint of plagues, who was credited with sparing parishioners from the cholera attack of 1849. That traditional day began at St. Michael, but was moved to Prince of Peace, the reorganized parish.

In the fall, the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese objected to historic designation for the church and rectory, saying it would prolong the diocese’s efforts to sell the buildings. Last week, Tripoli closed the real estate deal on the buildings before City Council held the final hearing on that designation.

The sale price has not yet been recorded in the Allegheny County recorder of deeds office. The property has a market value of $350,000, according to county records.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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