My ancestors came to this country from Eastern Europe. They settled in Ambridge. Both of my Slovak grandparents, my Baba and Dzedo, emigrated from Czechoslovakia. My Polish grandfather, my Dzadza, emigrated and met my grandmother, who was born in Everson, Pa. They married. Alongside other Polish faithful, they built St. Stanislaus Church, rectory, convent and school.
At St. Stanislaus, I was baptized, made my first confession, received my first Holy Communion and was confirmed. I celebrated my first Mass as a newly ordained priest there. My paternal grandparents were laid to their eternal rest from that church. Many wonderful memories of God's grace are contained within that building for me and for many.
I also celebrated the final Mass of St. Stanislaus Parish in 1994. Because of the significant changes in Ambridge over the years, the building that was the home of my parish no longer functions as a Catholic church. But the memories are forever in my heart.
I do understand the love and devotion that we have for our churches. I do understand the pain and profound sense of loss that is being felt by those who loved the old St. Nicholas Church building on East Ohio Street. But in recent years, a thought had kept me awake at night. What if that old building collapsed onto Route 28 and killed a couple of drivers during rush hour before it could be torn down safely?
It was not an impossible scenario. In the spring of 2011, DTE Consulting conducted a thorough engineering study of the structures and retaining walls of the church. DTE found that the retaining walls were failing and "could cause the entire church to fail (domino effect) and create a catastrophic situation for traffic on State Route 28." The report concluded that the building posed "a serious safety threat to the traffic on Route 28" and that "demolition is the most logical and desirable option at the present time."
As a result, St. Nicholas Parish, the owner of the church building and the property on which it stood, moved ahead to act as a responsible citizen. Citing public safety concerns and the drain on the parish's limited financial resources to maintain the building, the parish appealed to the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission for a Certificate of Appropriateness and then for a Certificate of Economic Hardship that would allow it to apply for a demolition permit. The parish was twice turned down.
I won't repeat all the history, except to state that when two St. Nicholas parishes were merged into one ethnic Croatian parish in 1994, the parish was left with two church buildings -- one on East Ohio Street and one in Millvale. With a declining population, the parish petitioned the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2000 for permission to close the church on East Ohio Street, which had seen Sunday Mass attendance dwindle over the years to 181 in a building that could seat nearly 500.
Some members of the Croatian community did not support the merger and cooperated with the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission to designate the former church building as a local historic landmark against the wishes of the parish. Historic designation resulted in restrictions on use of the property that made its sale virtually impossible. The commission had effectively taken the land from the parish.
In November 2004, a routine inspection of a boiler discovered carbon monoxide leaks. At that point, the building was permanently closed for safety reasons.
Let's be clear. It is St. Nicholas Parish in Millvale that owns the building on East Ohio Street. It doesn't belong to the diocese. It doesn't belong to the city of Pittsburgh. It doesn't belong to the Historic Review Commission. The building is the responsibility of the parish.
St. Nicholas Parish has been solely responsible for the costs associated with a building that has been closed for eight years. This has cost the parish at least $360,000 in maintenance and insurance. The ongoing monthly expense of $1,800 consumes 17 percent of the parish's income.
The parish attempted to negotiate the sale of the property prior to 2012 but was unable to do so, primarily because of the condition of the building, restrictions placed on alterations to its exterior because of its historical designation and limitations under church law for the use of a former church.
Considering the engineer's alarming report and the Historic Review Commission's failure to provide relief, the parish had no choice but to appeal to the courts.
Last summer, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville ordered that the commission allow the parish to apply for a demolition permit to tear down the building. Judge Colville recognized exactly what the parish argued for years:
• that there was no viable use for, or value to, the building;
• that historical designation in 2001 had effectively resulted in "a taking" of the parish property by restricting its future use; and
• that St. Nicholas Parish has been saddled with "increased economic liability" that threatened the very existence of the parish.
The judge's decision meant that the old building could be demolished safely and without harming innocent rush-hour commuters.
While I recognize the attachment some may have to the former church building on East Ohio Street, I would ask them to consider that St. Nicholas Parish in Millvale is still quite a parish. The Millvale church building is on the National Historic Registry (at its own request). St. Nicholas Parish is home to the Croatian Catholic community of Pittsburgh, a treasured part of this diocese. St. Nicholas church features the world-famous murals of artist Maxo Vanka celebrating the American laborer.
The unused, deteriorating and dangerous East Ohio Street church building threatened the existence of the Croatian parish through financial drain on its limited resources. It also threatened lives through the risk of a collapse on a very busy Pittsburgh thoroughfare. Even the demolition contractor shared these safety concerns and had to adjust his plans due to the compromised structural integrity of the building. The first step last week was to lower the tower bells manually, but the structure was too unstable to risk sending a worker up to retrieve them.
While the parish received an offer to purchase the property after the completion of asbestos abatement and the execution of a demolition contract, the parish declined in the interest of the safety and welfare of the community-at-large and the stability of St. Nicholas Parish as a whole.
A teetering old building is not worth more than a parish. A teetering old building is not worth more than a human life.
Although it is difficult, I invite all who mourn the loss of the old St. Nicholas church building to join me in giving thanks to God for what was. And to be hopeful for what will be.
The Most Rev. David A. Zubik is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. First Published January 13, 2013 5:00 AM