When the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic parish merged its congregations in 1994, a rift that began almost 100 years before widened into what one congregant today calls "a Hatfields and McCoys situation."
The rancor has reared its head publicly around the fight over the church building the parish vacated.
The empty St. Nicholas Church on East Ohio Street in Troy Hill sits at the heart of the dismantled congregation and is the bane of the church in Millvale, where the Rev. Dan Whalen has been the parish administrator for three years.
He recently applied to the city's Historic Review Commission to have the Troy Hill church demolished. The commission is expected to vote on the demolition request next month.
The Troy Hill church is part of the first Croatian Roman Catholic parish in North America and was granted historic status in 2001.
At a recent commission hearing, Father Whalen said the Troy Hill church, which the parish shuttered in 2004, was "like a ball and chain."
The commission's charge is to consider only the merit of demolition, not financial hardship, but Father Whalen and others spoke about finances anyway. The parish pays more than $1,800 a month in insurance and taxes for the empty church, he said, adding that it began paying taxes after the church was closed.
The Millvale church -- also a historic structure -- is in the middle of a $500,000 capital campaign to repair damage and make improvements.
The financial issues in Millvale fuel the squabble between the two factions, with North Siders saying they feel as though they and their church were abandoned. A few years ago, the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation and the Northside Leadership Conference proposed to reuse the Troy Hill church as an immigration museum. Mark Fatla, executive director of the leadership conference, said the church has community value as a museum. In 2009, the groups paid for a study that reported the idea was feasible.
"The study shows that the region would support an immigration museum and that would be financial relief for the parish," Jane Sestric, a member of the Croatian foundation, told the commission.
"A museum would not be a bad use for that building," Father Whalen said. "The diocese has no problem with the concept. But the [market report] that a museum would bring 25,000-50,000 people through the building each year? I personally don't believe it. I think it would be in the best interest of parishioners to have closure."
At the commission's hearing, Father Whalen cited a report by DTE Consulting Engineers that stated the building has structural impairments and is a public safety threat.
In a report for the preservation group, structural engineer John Menniti refuted that. A DTE representative was not at the hearing, but Mr. Menniti, architect Rob Pfaffmann and contractor Bronco Brnardic all testified that the building is not a public safety hazard.
"I think there's a long life in it and many wonderful things could happen in the right hands," Mr. Brnardic said.
About five years ago, the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance tried to buy the church but rejected diocesan conditions. The asking price then was $394,000. The parish most recently had an agreement with Lamar Outdoor Advertising, but the conditions changed with the report from the parish's structural engineer, Father Whalen said.
"The immigrant museum has no money and won't take the deed to the building," he said. "They know they need a new retaining wall. And they need at least $15 million."
He said Mr. Fatla has rejected the deed. Mr. Fatla, however, said, "I have never had an offer from Father Whalen. If he's serious, tell him to send me a sales agreement for $1."
The church's North Side loyalists accuse the parish and the diocese of duplicity in dealing with potential buyers, saying they are bent on the church's demolition and don't really want to sell.
"That doesn't make any sense whatsoever," said diocese spokesman the Rev. Ron Lengwyn.
Father Whalen said the diocese would be happy to sell "if we had a buyer with some money," providing the new use for the building was not disrespectful. "To demolish something that's held the sacraments is better than letting it be used" for, say, a brewery, he said. "The diocese has been burned on such transactions in the past."
During commission testimony last week, several people exchanged accusations and slights. Acting chairman Ernie Hogan warned that if more outbursts occurred, he would "clear the room and end this hearing."
The first rift in the group came at the turn of the 20th century when the original congregation outgrew a small building in Troy Hill. The bishop approved the priest's decision to build a church in what is now Millvale.
Congregants who resisted that move raised money to build the church that stands on East Ohio Street, now Route 28.
Mary Petrich, a Lawrenceville resident and Millvale parishioner, said she "first got a smell of the rancor" in 1994, after each congregation evaluated itself and the numbers looked bad for the North Side.
"We had times of peace," she said. "There were some successful efforts to get together."Then the effort to widen Route 28 began and suggestions were made to either demolish or move the Troy Hill church.
"That's when they became very protective" of the church, Ms. Petrich said. "It was understandable."
"We had meetings at each church to make it equal," Ms. Petrich recalls. At one meeting, a financial report was read "and people booed the report. Several people got up and said they would never go to St. Nick's in Millvale, that they would rather go to a Presbyterian church. I stood up and asked, 'Are we not all Croatians? Why don't we get together and make this the best Croatian church we can?'
"They booed me. I walked back to my seat, and I was worn out."
Sandy Koch, who referred to the Hatfield and McCoys situation at the hearing, said the Millvale contingent is beyond frustrated. "Why doesn't this group buy it? What about the $1,800 a month we're paying for an empty building? Any takers in the preservation community?"
"What about our preservation?" Ms. Petrich asked. "If we continue on this track, we're going to lose our church."