Former North Side church, a Croatian enclave, now a memorial site
Officials and parishioners who fought for years to preserve St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church along Route 28 in Troy Hill gathered Saturday for a bittersweet ceremony dedicating a memorial wall where the church once stood.
“The loss of St. Nicholas is devastating to say the least,” said Susan Petrick, a former parishioner and secretary of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation. “It is heart-wrenching for many of us standing here today on the very site where our church once stood, knowing we will never enter its doors again, attend Mass, receive sacraments, have celebrations, witness its beauty, or feel its holiness.
“But we realize that this hillside could now be a barren, weed-infested piece of land, the memory of St. Nicholas swept away in the wind as some preferred.”
The church, built in 1901 as the first Croatian parish in America, became known for its elegant architecture and signature onion domes.
But the parish merged with St. Nicholas in Millvale in 1994 and the church closed in 2004. Despite efforts by the North Side Leadership Conference and the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation to buy the church and turn it into a national immigrant museum, the parish and diocese preferred demolition. Officials deemed the church a safety hazard, and said that it could collapse into Route 28.
St. Nicholas church was demolished in 2013.
But the resentment remains today.
“We all had such high hopes,” said Mark Masterson, executive director of the Northside Community Development Fund. “But we had some very powerful detractors. ... I wish we could have had a better outcome.”
About 100 people stood in a light but steady rain throughout the 75-minute ceremony.
Twenty feet away, cars rushed by on the recently widened Route 28, which carries about 60,000 commuters a day. PennDOT's five-year reconstruction project cost $120 million.
Where homes and businesses once stood, a new bike and walking path leads from Penn Brewery to the church memorial site. Crews installed a Pennsylvania State Historical Society marker, murals of the church and four informational boards describing the history of the corridor as a once-thriving Croatian enclave.
“They built (the church) to be a community, a little part of Croatia that would stay right here in Pittsburgh and be there for their children and their grandchildren,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said. “As long as you keep that in your heart, as long as you are able to say that I'm proud of where I'm from, then you've lived up to their dream. ...”
It was a celebration, of sorts.
But it was decidedly somber.
“That church that stood proudly here has been demolished (and) I'm certainly not happy that happened,” said Josko Paro, Croatian ambassador to the United States. “We fought ... but it was of no avail.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.