If St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church were in Europe instead of Millvale, it would be on all the bus tours for its culture, its history and its remarkable art.
The modest church perches on a hill across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, protectively overlooking the homes of its parishioners and the once steel-rich valley that drew and employed them. What makes it a unique destination is its interior, covered with imagery, predictably religious but also surprisingly political.
In the documentary "Maxo Vanka's Masterpiece: The Murals at St. Nicholas Church," Pittsburgh filmmaker Kenneth Love tells the story of those images, beginning in 1937. The film will be screened at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Regent Square Theater during the Three Rivers Film Festival. Mr. Love will attend.
St. Nicholas' pastor, the Rev. Albert Zagar (who died in 1966), commissioned Vanka to bring life to the church's bare walls, giving the artist a free hand as long as some of the murals had religious themes. Vanka (1889-1963) had been a successful artist in Croatia but moved to New York City in 1934 with his Jewish-American wife and their daughter when fascism began its march through Europe.
For the church's rededication in June 1937, he completed 11 large murals in just eight weeks, often working from 11 a.m. until 2 the next morning, barely stopping for breaks. The early murals showed the linkage between the parishioners, their homeland and their beliefs, as when Vanka clothed the Virgin Mary in Croatian garb.
By 1941, Croatia had fallen to the Nazis, and the artist returned to finish the commission with a broken heart. A pacifist, he had served with the Red Cross during World War I and had seen the war's savagery firsthand. He poured his grief and anger into images such as Mother Croatia chained to a cross and a soldier bayoneting the crucified Christ.
Mary Petrich, a parishioner and one of the docents who now give tours of the murals, says there are three major themes reflected in Vanka's St. Nicholas work: the grieving mother, the comparison between the old country and the new country, and social justice. Mrs. Petrich is among several parishioners who appear in the film, many of whom as children watched the artist work.
The parish is representative of those founded by countless ethnic communities throughout Pittsburgh, and beyond, that offered immigrant families a place for worship, socializing and solace.
"While [the film] depicts a very particular history in Millvale, and especially of our Croatian sisters and brothers, it is in fact the story of all of our ancestors who have come here from many different parts of the world," said Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik at the film's premiere (and only previous screening) in January at Duquesne University. Bishop Zubik also narrates the film.
The bishop's remarks are a bonus feature on the film's DVD, which will be for sale at Sunday's screening and may be ordered at Mr. Love's website (www.humanitydocs.com; $24.95 plus shipping).
The murals story would have had a different ending had not parishioners, and enlightened local academics and others, banded together to rescue them from deterioration caused by decades of factory smoke and a leaky roof.
Mr. Love updates their status and interviews conservators tending the works. He's present at a baptism and a Christmas service. And he films the 2008 dramatic reading, in situ, of the story of the murals' inception written by the late Carnegie Mellon University professor David Demarest. His camera soars to the ceiling, magnifying the viewer's experience, and hones in on components of individual murals as Mrs. Petrich describes them.
Maxo Vanka referred to his murals as his "gift to America." This film is Mr. Love's gift to the parish and to the perpetuation of Vanka's beloved and moving achievement.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.