Local Dispatch: It's hard to picture future without shrine like St. Nicholas

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My life flashed before me last March as a man approached me in a secluded spot on East Ohio Street on the North Side, atop the steps of the deserted St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church.

Although he was a good distance away, I had no exit. Was he homeless or maybe a thief? Scruffy and unkempt, he yelled out, "Who are you with?"

I replied, "Just taking pictures." His rough appearance worried me. I had nowhere to go but down, and he was headed right toward me.

I had been to this very location several times, having started a personal project photographing the former church. What ultimate purpose this adventure would hold I wasn't even sure myself.

Standing squarely between the statue of the Virgin Mary looking over my shoulder and the boarded-up entrance to the 110-year old church, I wondered what the outcome would be as he approached. To my quick relief, I learned he was a workman, responsible for checking on the security of the church.

A pair of decorative pedestals that once held statues on the altar were lying outside a doorway. Annoyed that another break-in had occurred, he said he needed to check the inside before boarding it back up.

"Do you care if I come I with you and take a few pictures?"

"There is really nothing to see inside," he replied. But to me, there was everything to be seen.

I had driven past St. Nicholas and the neighborhood more times than I could remember, always amazed that the houses, now gone, were built so close to the road. Who lived here? And why?

Built in 1901, St. Nicholas became home to the first Croatian Catholic parish in the Western Hemisphere, anchoring a neighborhood known as "Mala Jaska," Pittsburgh's Little Croatia. St Nicholas was the centerpiece of Croatian life, complete with a neighborhood school and merchants.

We would all like to think churches and neighborhoods stay the same and last forever, but changing demographics, shrinking congregations and consolidation of ethnic parishes eventually took a toll. The church closed on Dec. 7, 2004, a decade after consolidation with its sister parish in Millvale.

St. Nicholas faced its biggest challenge as plans progressed for the expansion of Route 28. It was clear the neighborhood around it would not survive, as homes were being acquired and demolished.

Some proposals involved moving the structure, but ultimately the highway project was reconfigured to save the building. Receiving local historic status in 2001, it was the last church to be historically protected in Pittsburgh.

Its future remained uncertain, however, and on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in 2004 I stood on the steps outside the church with my girlfriend, Martha, who would later become my wife. She had talked me into going to a midnight candlelight vigil to save the church. We observed the passionately dedicated group praying in Croatian and singing carols.

I returned in late 2009 when a Croatian preservation group held a press conference outlining a proposal to repurpose the church into an immigration museum, to tell the story of all immigrants. That idea remains alive, though it's unclear if agreement to acquire the building from the parish can be reached.

On that day inside the church two years ago, I could see a door was broken, a stained glass window smashed, the downstairs social hall severely damaged. It was shocking to see what vandals had done while in pursuit of copper and other valuable metals.

But as I entered the church with the workman last March, I also saw that though stripped bare of its religious artifacts, the structure remains stunning. Stained glass windows illuminate the interior with a kaleidoscope of hues. Seven different kinds of Italian marble adorn the interior of the sanctuary. It is one of Pittsburgh's most sacred spaces.

St. Nicholas will soon be anchoring a ghost neighborhood. The parking lot is overgrown with weeds. Trees have replaced parking places.

Still, with its green onion domes, it stands like a guardian of the hillside. Its beautiful grotto still speaks to the thousands of motorists who pass by every day on Route 28. Perhaps the statue of Mary is a reminder of hope and faith.

After heated debate, the Historic Review Commission recently denied a demolition permit to level the church, but its time is running out. A savior is needed.

After spending all of five minutes photographing it this year, I left wondering if it would be the last time I would stand in this sacred space.

Stephen Willing of Squirrel Hill, a television news photographer at KDKA-TV, can be reached at stephenwilling@hotmail.com .


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