Hope of Glory: Glimpses into the past and future of St. Nicholas
Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh.”
Senior Staff Writer
A church in decline?
Its green domes soaring above the urban landscape, Saint Nicholas
Croatian Catholic Church captures the gazes of passersby, calling
attention to Pittsburgh's rich heritage of ethnically-diverse faith
communities. The former church sits along East Ohio Street-Route 28,
just north of the
Allegheny River and below Pittsburgh's
Troy Hill neighborhood. Between dilapidated businesses,
gutted houses, and the remnants of less enduring brick and stone
foundations, the sturdy Saint Nicholas cathedral remains boarded up,
off-limits to visitors. With the recent expansion of Route 28
construction, the question of the church's fate looms in city
sign above the entrance tells of the church's founding: "First
Croatian Catholic Parish in America, established AD 1894, Mother
Croatian Parish," with patriotic letters set in neat red, white and
blue tiles. The present structure's cornerstone dates to the year
1900. It is one of two parishes built to serve Pittsburgh's growing
Croatian community. The church now sits uphill from its original
site, having been moved in 1921 for the widening of the highway.
Designated an historic landmark in 1976, the church also received
the title of City Designated Historic Structure in 2001 before the
building was closed in 2004 due to a failing boiler. As of 2010, the
Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese owned the property and was approaching
sale to Lamar Advertising, Inc.
The church's early members were Croatian immigrants who fled Eastern
Europe's political and economic turmoil near the turn of the
twentieth century. They worked in steel mills and mines and resided
in what was then the city of
Allegheny and nearby communities (including present-day
Etna and Lawrenceville). Wanting to preserve their rich Roman
Catholic tradition and Croatian culture, the early congregants chose
two church locations to make it convenient for most of their members
to worship. Their patron Saint Nicholas (from whom the modern Santa
Claus is derived) is their namesake and is known for his generosity.
Today, the parish remains active at its Millvale site, welcoming
people of all nationalities in the name of Jesus Christ. Masses are
conducted in both Croatian and English. The church preserves Maxo
Vanka's famous murals inside its walls, which depict the early
immigrant experience and beliefs. The Millvale parish has reportedly
spent over $500,000 since 1998 maintaining the now-vacant property
on Route 28. Father Dan Whalen believes the purpose of that
North Side building has passed, with the Millvale church now
accommodating the congregants' needs.
The Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation (PCHF) maintained an
interest in the property following its decline and has partnered
with the Northside Leadership Conference (NSLC) to explore its
potential redevelopment. In December 2009, the groups proposed
designs for a National Immigration Museum that would double the
building's square footage and would connect Northside residents with
Riverfront Trail access. The museum would honor and remember the
experience of the region's immigrants--not just those of Croatian
Integra Realty Resources conducted a feasibility study for the
project and highlighted the potential of the museum to attract
visitors to the Northside. According to the 2009 market report, the
museum would operate on earned and invested income, government
funding, and private donations, totaling about $0.5 million per year
in estimated expenses.
While acknowledging Pittsburgh's "long immigration history,"
Integra's report concludes that renovating St. Nicholas church would
take significant effort: "Although the existing church
building...has a distinct architectural history and style which
compliments the immigration story, the age and layout of the
structure, and functional impairments related to the site and
parking, create a less than ideal redevelopment situation and above
Perhaps these structural challenges explain why the site has not
been redeveloped to date. The church's sale to L
Timeline of events:
1890: Croatian congregants first celebrate mass in a barn, following
permission from their bishop.
1899: The church purchases property on Bennett Hill in Millvale from
William J. Mellon.
1900: Plans are made for two church sites, and members celebrate the
first mass in the new St. Nicholas Church in Millvale.
The St. Nicholas Church in the North Side is completed (along
present-day Route 28).
1921: The North Side church is moved uphill for the widening of East
Ohio Street. That same year, a fire destroys part of the St.
Nicholas church in Millvale.
1937, 1941: Maxo Vanka paints the murals in the Millvale church.
1970s-1980s: The declining population forces both parish's schools
to close and the pastoral staff to be reduced.
1994/5: The Millvale and North Side parishes are united following
the declining population. Around that same time, the
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) proposes
to demolish the property for Route 28 expansion.
2001: The North Side church becomes a City Designated Historic
Structure. PennDOT revises their road plans to preserve the site.
2004: The North Side church closes after a boiler breaks.
2007: The parish prepares for the sale of the North Side property by
removing the altar, church statues and other religious objects. The
Follieri Group (church renovator based in NY) is interested in the
property, but the sale falls through due to suspect business
2008: Follieri pleads guilty to fraud charges. The Catholic Diocese
of Pittsburgh rejects an offer from the Croatian American Cultural
and Economic Alliance ($44,400 plus 10% of generated income).
2009: The PCHF and NSLC present their designs for a National
Immigration Museum, following the completion of a feasibility study.
2010: The church is pending sale to Lamar Advertising, Inc. Leaders
of PCHF and NSLC talk with Lamar about the site. The Croatian
Ambassador to the United States pledges her support.
2011: The property stands.
The controversy over the future of the North Side St. Nicholas
church site reflects a desire for deeper connection to our city's
cultural heritage. At the crux of the matter is the need to adapt to
societal needs while remembering Pittsburgh's past.
Do the changes in the Croatian community and the resulting effects
on the church's organization demonstrate a transience of cultures in
an assimilating nation, or were the shifting economic tides the
Will the needs of urban transportation and development supplant an
educational initiative and cut off a connection with our neighbors'
I first became interested in the fate of the Croatian church around
2009, while riding past the site on Route 28. At that time, "No
Trespassing" signs and chains guarded the entrance. Crumbling steps
are now visible; the present structure seems like a ghost of its
The church building's glory has faded.
But what is the true glory of the Church?
I don't think Jesus meant for his disciples to hold onto one
building as a symbol of faith. Instead, the Bible continually speaks
of the church as living members of Christ's body:
"Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him
who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him, the whole body, joined
and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds
itself up in love, as each part does its work." (Ephesians 4:16,
New International Version, See also Colossians 1:24 for a
specific reference to Christ's body as the church.)
Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 explain how the diverse members of
Christ's body, the church, are indeed one. For example: "So in
Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all
the others." (Romans 12:5, NIV)
Even as Pittsburgh's communities change with different ethnic groups
migrating in and out, all of us contribute to an eternal story, led
by an eternal Priest.
Hebrews 7:23-25 reminds us that Jesus' priesthood does not die out
over time, as Paul references the Levitical priests' transiency:
"Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented
them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he
has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely
those who come to God through him, because he always lives to
intercede for them" (NIV).
Think about it, even the organization of the Church as we know it
today will shift over time, as it has across centuries. But because
we have this hope--that Jesus lives to intercede, to represent us,
to mediate between us and our Holy Father-- we don't need to fear
jobs moving, leadership changing, or friends relocating, however sad
or troublesome these are! Our hope is unshaken when it is rooted
firmly in Christ.
Based on what I have read in the news, I think the leaders of the
modern St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale agree with
this theology. Whether the North Side building stands or falls, the
church and its heritage lives in its people. Their and our hope is
God's very presence through Jesus, as the Apostle Paul writes: "God
wanted his people throughout the world to know the glorious riches
of this mystery- which is Christ living in you, giving you the hope
of glory" (Colossians 1:27, GOD'S WORD Translation).
Photos by Kristen Lippert
For a detailed history of the current Croatian church along with
images of its murals, check out:
To view a rotating image of the church's architecture, visit:
For other local historic designations, reference:
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