As demolition crews complete their work over the next several days, the former St. Nicholas Church -- its onion domes keeping watch high above the traffic on Route 28 -- will vanish from the prominent Troy Hill spot it has held for more than 100 years.
The start of demolition means the church's fate -- long a topic of debate among St. Nicholas Parish, preservation groups and the city of Pittsburgh -- is now known, but it's not yet clear what lies ahead for the East Ohio Street property.
"We don't know," the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said today. "There will be an effort to try to sell it, of course,"
He said decisions about when to sell the property, and to whom, are the responsibility of St. Nicholas Parish in Millvale, which merged with the Troy Hill church in 1994. The Rev. Dan Whalen, the parish's administrator, deferred comment to Father Lengwin.
The church is the last remaining intact structure along a stretch of Route 28 being expanded by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Allegheny Auto Body, an auto repair shop that was next to St. Nicholas, was demolished last month to allow the Route 28 expansion project to proceed.
The Route 28 expansion originally included the church property, and in 2000 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Pittsburgh diocese planned to sell the church to PennDOT so it could be razed.
Yet St. Nicholas, the first Croatian Catholic church in North America, had strong support from some parishioners and other preservationists who wanted to see the church remain intact, and perhaps turned into a museum.
In 2001, the city granted the church historic status. Ten years ago, PennDOT redesigned its Route 28 project to avoid the church property, designing a section of Route 28 with narrower shoulders to accommodate a narrow corridor between the church and railroad tracks across the road.
The diocese on Tuesday said the parish had made the decision to tear down St. Nicholas, which has been vacant since 2004, because the structure posed a safety hazard.
"There are no discussions with PennDOT at this point," Father Lengwin said.
Jim Struzzi, a spokesman for PennDOT, said he could not comment when asked whether PennDOT may try to acquire the property or widen Route 28 in the area. Work on the section of Route 28 fronting the church is not scheduled to begin until spring 2014.