St. Nicholas Church site to get historical marker

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St. Nicholas Church is gone, but the landmark building along Route 28 will be commemorated with one of 21 new state historical markers.

The marker will become part of a memorial plaza that will pay tribute to the Croatian community that developed on Pittsburgh's North Side starting in the 1890s.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission recently approved the St. Nicholas plaque as well as markers honoring commercial radium production in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood and the birthplace of children's TV host Fred Rogers.

St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church was home to the first such ethnic parish anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, said Susan Petrick, corresponding secretary for the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation. That nonprofit organization, which nominated the church site for a historical marker, spent more than a dozen years in an unsuccessful effort to save the onion-domed church from demolition.

The original Croatian parish was created in 1894 and members worshipped in another building on East Ohio Street. Within a few years the growing congregation had relocated to a new church and rectory that was completed in 1901.

North Side and Millvale Croatian parishes, both named after St. Nicholas, were merged in 1994, and the last services were held in St. Nicholas North Side in 2004. The building was demolished in January 2013.

Plans call for the new state marker to be erected late this fall as PennDOT completes its multiyear improvements to busy Route 28. Part of the project is a new walking and biking path between the Penn Brewery parking lot, near Vinial Street and Troy Hill Road, and the 31st Street Bridge.

That wider sidewalk, set back about 30 yards from the highway, will include a small plaza at the site of St. Nicholas Church. The small park will feature seating for pedestrians and a stone panel with sand-blasted silhouette images of buildings that once stood in that area.

The state approval of the marker was a bittersweet victory, Mrs. Petrick said.

"When you lose a church that has been a big part of your life, it is like losing a family member," she said.

The good news was the announcement from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that the Route 28 improvement work would include a parklet at the site of the demolished church. "We thought we would end up with a weed-infested hillside, but we are going to have a memorial that reflects the historic value of our church," she said.

While the state maintains historical markers, it is up to local organizations to raise the initial $1,400 to $1,800 to pay for their fabrication.

A second new marker will be put up in Oakland at Forbes Avenue and Meyran Street where in 1913 James and Joseph Flannery's Standard Chemical Co. began the first commercial production of radium in the United States.

In 1921, the company produced one gram of radium that was presented to Marie Curie, discoverer of the element, during her visit to Pittsburgh.

The marker honoring Fred Rogers will be placed in the park named for him in his hometown of Latrobe. Mr. Rogers created and served as longtime host of the children's public television program, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He died in 2003.

Other markers will honor George W. Crawford, a native of Emlenton, Venango County, and the founder of Columbia Gas & Electric Corp.; Byberry Hall, in Philadelphia, which African-American abolitionist Robert Purvis built as a meeting place and arena for discussion of anti-slavery topics; and the Ross Leffler School of Conservation, in Brockway, Jefferson County, the site of the state Game Commission's original training center for Game Protectors and Wildlife Conservation Officers.

Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.

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