It’s a pierogi-making partnership to best foodie rivals.
Teaming up are two Ukrainian Catholic churches: St. Vladimir in Arnold and St. John the Baptist in Pittsburgh’s South Side, whose iconic Byzantine domes often are photographed against the city’s skyline.
The union of these two ethnic food powerhouses is for good reason: To help raise $500,000 to shore up a leaky roof and other repairs needed at St. John’s, the oldest surviving Ukrainian Catholic church in the country. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a landmark by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
The two churches share the same priest and, not surprisingly, the tradition of making homemade pierogi for decades. They also are among the few churches left in the region to offer freshly made pierogi to the public weekly, September until Easter.
What does this new pierogi partnership mean to you?
More church-made pierogi in new venues in the region. Kick-starting the effort, St. John is offering two new fillings for the famous Eastern European dumplings available at St. Vlad’s — the rare cottage cheese variety and another, unusual breed: the sauerkraut with kielbasa pierogi.
Given the lofty goal of raising $500,000, one might wonder if anyone can make that many pierogi.
But the Rev. Yaroslav Koval believes his volunteers at St. John’s can double their production.
And the product, “church pierogi,” is unbeatable, he says.
“The Ukraine is the bread basket of Europe, and we know how to make many things from flour,” Koval said.
“Our people grew up with the old recipes. It’s something we inherited from our parents. It’s something no one else can do. It’s like gold,” he said.
Indeed, the ethnic delicacies have been bringing in the dough for both churches, paying for a number of expenses over the years. It’s become essential for St. Vlad’s, whose parish has dwindled to about 34 members.
Volunteers from other churches fill the ranks of cooks who show up weekly Wednesdays through Fridays at Vlad’s, where pierogi has been made since 1938.
Marlene Browoski, 85, of Plum is a member of Mt. St. Peter church in New Kensington. She has been volunteering for about five years, following a friend who volunteered.
“I love to cook, and the people here are nice,” she said. “It’s that simple.”
Another nonparishioner, Michelle Jackson, 46, of New Kensington volunteered to get closer to the pierogi, which she calls “a treasure.”
Along with other alumni of H.D. Berkey Elementary School in Arnold, Jackson became a fan in the sixth grade, when the older students were allowed to “run down to St. Vlad’s during lunch,” she said. “And you just hoped there were some pierogi left.”
Patrons are repeat customers.
Christopher Slosky, 49, of Lower Burrell has been coming since he was in the fourth grade. On a recent Friday, he picked up three dozen, although, admittedly, not all were for him. “I’m turning my buddies at work onto these.”
The aroma of butter and onions is telltale in both kitchens. The scent lingers in warm air created by boiling off all of the dumplings over the course of a few hours.
Only the seasoned hands of veteran pierogi pinchers pull off the culinary feat of dumplings by the dozen.
The pierogi are challenging to make, according to St. John’s volunteers on a recent Thursday.
There’s pinching, and then there’s pinching.
“I’m not a good pincher,” Margaret Klimko, 71, of Brentwood admits. “My pierogi turn out looking like bananas.”
Although Klimko is known for her skill at “pysanky,” the traditional Ukrainian Easter egg painting, that skill, apparently, doesn’t translate to pierogi making.
Mary Kozikowski, 74, of the South Side has been a pincher for 40 years.
“The cottage cheese is sticky and mushy and the sauerkraut and kielbasa are the worst to handle,” she said. “They can fall apart easy.” A commanding woman in the kitchen, Kozikowski is among the veteran cooks who can slay any dumpling filling.
Michele Myers, 65, of Mt. Lebanon explains the special talent: “Each one is pinched with love.”
Myers’ grandmother, the late Mary Bohonek, was among the first women to start pierogi making at St. John’s in 1960. “As a child, we took it for granted, your aunts and grandmothers made it. Now, you know the effort.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary Ann at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.