By Jim Ritchie
March 25, 2008
The North Side church nearly sold to a Manhattan developer and twice threatened with demolition has another chance at salvation.
Talks began this month over whether the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh would sell the vacant St. Nicholas Church to a Croatian group that wants to preserve the 108-year-old building. It housed the first Croatian ethnic parish in the United States.
Diocesan officials "encouraged" the Croatian American Cultural and Economic Alliance, based in Scott, to submit a proposal to buy the building with the intent of making it a museum and not to revive it as a church, according to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which spoke with the diocese on the matter.
The building along Route 28 closed in December 2004 and the parish was merged with a sister parish, also called St. Nicholas, in Millvale
The diocese raised concerns that the space would be rented for special events where alcohol could be served, the foundation said.
Former parishioners are hopeful they will buy the building but realize it would not return as a functioning part of the diocese.
"The church itself, as a Catholic Church, is not going to come back," said Robert Sladack, a former parishioner from Reserve.
Selling to the Croatian group was not the first choice of the diocese. It chose not to accept the group's initial offer in 2005 of $250,000. It then negotiated with a Manhattan developer, the Follieri Group.
Follieri proposed redeveloping it and several other vacant Catholic buildings in the region. Negotiations fell apart in the fall after an unrelated legal battle involving Follieri publicly unfolded.
The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, referred questions to the Rev. Larry Smith, pastor of the St. Nicholas parish. Smith did not return messages seeking comment.
Messages seeking comment from Marion Vujevich, who represents the Croatian group, were not returned. Vujevich, of Mt. Lebanon, is one of five honorary consuls for Croatia based in the United States, making him a top-ranking representative recognized by the Embassy of the Republic of Croatia to the United States.
Pittsburgh has a strong Croatian presence. The Croatian Fraternal Union in Monroeville is the largest Croatian organization outside of Croatia.
St. Nicholas' recent history has been controversial.
PennDOT initially called for the building to be razed or moved when it designed the reconstruction of East Ohio Street. Outcry from parishioners and historic preservation groups caused PennDOT to modify its plans, ultimately sparing the building.
The building faced a similar threat in 1920 when the city decided to widen East Ohio Street and called on building owners to relocate or move their buildings. The parish opted to move the church, by lifting it on jacks, about 20 feet back to accommodate the road, according to the diocese.
Link to story of St Nicholas Church
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