SAINT NICHOLAS CHURCH BUILDING, EAST OHIO STREET

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Love and loss

My ancestors came to this country from Eastern Europe. They settled in Ambridge. Both of my Slovak grandparents, my Baba and Dzedo, emigrated from Czechoslovakia. My Polish grandfather, my Dzadza, emigrated and met my grandmother, who was born in Everson, Pa. They married. Alongside other Polish faithful, they built St. Stanislaus Church, rectory, convent and school.

At St. Stanislaus, I was baptized, made my first confession, received my first holy Communion and was confirmed. I celebrated my first Mass as a newly ordained priest there. My paternal grandparents were laid to their eternal rest from that church. Many wonderful memories of God’s grace are contained within that building for me and for many.

I also celebrated the final Mass of St. Stanislaus Parish in 1994. Because of the significant changes in Ambridge over the years, the building that was my parish no longer functions as a Catholic church. But the memories are forever in my heart.

I do understand the love and devotion that we have for our churches. I do understand the pain and profound sense of loss that is being felt by those who loved the old St. Nicholas church building on East Ohio Street.

But in recent years, a thought had kept me awake at night. What if that old church building collapsed on to Route 28 and killed a couple of drivers during rush hour before it could be torn down safely?

It was not an impossible scenario. In the spring of 2011, DTE Consulting, LLC conducted a thorough engineering study of the structures and retaining walls of the East Ohio Street property.

The DTE study pointed to failing walls on the property that (and I quote directly from the report), “could cause the entire church to fail (domino effect) and create a catastrophic situation for traffic on State Route 28.” The report concluded that the building posed “a serious safety threat to the traffic on Route 28” and that “demolition is the most logical and desirable option at the present time.”

 

Economichardship

As a result, St. Nicholas Parish, the owner of the old church building and the property on which it stood, moved ahead once again to act as a responsible citizen.

Citing public safety concerns and the drain on the parish’s limited financial resources, the parish appealed to the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission first for a Certificate of Appropriateness and then for a Certificate of Economic Hardship that would allow it to apply for a demolition permit for the safety and welfare of the community.

The parish was twice turned down.

I won’t repeat all the history, except to state that when two St. Nicholas parishes were merged into one ethnic Croatian parish in 1994, the parish was left with two church buildings — one on East Ohio Street and one in Millvale.

With declining populations, the parish petitioned the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2000 for permission to close the church building on East Ohio Street, which had seen Sunday Mass attendance rates dwindle over the years to 181 people in a church that could seat nearly 500.

Some members of the Croatian community were not supportive of the merger and cooperated with the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission to designate the former church building as a local historic landmark against the wishes of the parish.

Historic designation resulted in restrictions on future use of the property that made sale of the building and land virtually impossible. The Historic Review Commission had effectively taken the land from the parish.

In November 2004, a routine inspection of a boiler discovered carbon monoxide leaks. At that point, the church building was permanently closed for safety reasons.

Let’s be clear. It is St. Nicholas Parish in Millvale that owns the building. It doesn’t belong to the diocese. It doesn’t belong to the city. It doesn’t belong to the Historic Review Commission. The building is the responsibility of the parish.

As the owner, St. Nicholas Parish has been solely responsible for the costs associated with the building that has been closed these past eight years. The unused and unnecessary building has cost the parish at least $360,000 in maintenance and insurance since that time. The ongoing monthly expense of $1,800 consumes 17 percent of the parish’s income.

The parish attempted to negotiate the sale of the property prior to 2012 but was unable to do so, primarily because of the condition of the failing building, restrictions placed on alterations to the exterior of the building because of historical designation and limitations under church law for the use of a former church building.

Considering the engineer’s alarming report and the Historic Review Commission’s failure to provide relief, the parish had no choice but to appeal to the courts.

Last summer, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville ordered that the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission allow the parish to apply for a demolition permit to tear down the building. Judge Colville correctly recognized exactly what the parish argued for years:

• That there was no viable use for, or value to, the building;

• That actions of the Historic Review Commission through historical designation in 2001 had effectively resulted in “a taking” of the parish property by restricting future use; and

• That St. Nicholas Parish has been saddled with “increased economic liability” that threatened the very existence of the parish.

The judge’s decision meant that the old building could be demolished safely and without harming innocent rush-hour commuters.

 

Those who mourn

While I recognize the attachment some may have to the former church building, I ask you to consider that St. Nicholas Parish in Millvale is quite a parish. The Millvale church building is on the National Historic Registry (at its own request, by the way). The parish is home to the Croatian Catholic community of Pittsburgh, a treasured part of this diocese, as are our Croatian faithful. St. Nicholas Church features the world-famous murals of artist Maxo Vanka celebrating the American laborer.

The unused, deteriorating and dangerous East Ohio Street building threatened the existence of the Croatian parish through financial drain on its limited resources. It has also threatened lives through the risk of a collapse on a VERY busy Pittsburgh thoroughfare. Notably, the demolition contractor that has been hired shared these same safety concerns and had to adjust its demolition plans due to the compromised structural integrity of the building. The very first step the past week was to lower bells manually from the church tower. But the structure was simply too unstable and it was too dangerous to risk sending a worker into the tower.

While the parish received an offer to purchase the property after the completion of asbestos abatement and execution of a demolition contract, the parish declined the offer in the interest of the safety and welfare of the community-at-large and the stability of St. Nicholas Parish as a whole.

A teetering old building is NOT worth more than a parish. A teetering old building is certainly NOT worth more than a human life.

Although it is difficult, I invite all who mourn the loss of the old St. Nicholas Church building to join me in giving thanks to God for what was. And to be hopeful for what will be.

This article was first published Jan. 13 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

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Pittsburgh – Demolition has begun on the old Saint Nicholas church building on East Ohio Street that stands over Route 28. The former church building has been closed for the past eight years as a worship site for safety reasons.

The demolition is being conducted by Brayman Construction, based in Saxonburg.

The former church building and the property are owned by Saint Nicholas Parish, Millvale, and are the responsibility of the parish.

As the owner, Saint Nicholas Parish is solely responsible for the costs associated with the building. The parish has spent $360,000 in maintenance and insurance over the last eight years for the abandoned building. The ongoing monthly expense of $1,800 consumes 17 percent of the parish’s income.

The parish repeatedly attempted to negotiate the sale of the property prior to 2012 but was unable to do so.

The major obstacles to selling the property included the buyers’ unwillingness to assume liability for a failing structure and to comply with canonical regulations concerning the use of former church buildings.

The restrictions forced on the parish 11 years ago by the city’s Historic Review Commission when the church building was historically designated against the wishes of the parish have also severely limited its use to any potential buyer.

In the Spring of 2011, DTE Consulting, LLC conducted a thorough engineering study of the structures and retaining walls of the East Ohio Street property.

The DTE engineer identified failing walls, which “could cause [the] entire church to fail (domino effect) and create a catastrophic situation for traffic on State Route 28.”

The DTE study concluded that the building on the East Ohio Street property in its present condition posed “a serious safety threat to the traffic on Route 28” and that “demolition is the most logical and desirable option at the present time.”

Brayman Construction shared these safety concerns and was forced to adjust its demolition plans due to the compromised structural integrity of the building.

Pointing to the drain on the resources of Saint Nicholas Parish, Millvale and citing the dangerous condition of the building, the parish had applied to the Historic Review Commission first for a Certificate of Appropriateness and then for a Certificate of Economic Hardship that would allow the parish to apply for a demolition permit.

The requests were denied, and the parish appealed the final decision.

On July 23, 2012, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Colville reversed the Historic Review Commission’s determination and ordered the commission to issue the parish a Certificate of Economic Hardship that allowed the parish to apply for a demolition permit.

Judge Colville recognized exactly what the parish had argued for years:

  • that there was no viable use or value to the building;
  • that actions of the Historic Review Commission through historical designation had effectively resulted in “a taking” of the parish property by restricting its future use; and
  • that Saint Nicholas Parish, Millvale, had been saddled with “increased economic liability” that threatened the very existence of the parish.

Notably, in his finding, the judge accepted the DTE report that cited the dangerous condition of the building. While some opposed to the demolition claimed to have obtained an engineering study of the building, no other report was prepared by a state-licensed engineer.

Saint Nicholas Church building, located in Millvale, features the famous murals of artist Maxo Vanka celebrating the American laborer and is on the National Historic Registry. It is also home to the Croatian Catholic community in Pittsburgh.

The unused, deteriorating and dangerous East Ohio Street building has threatened not only public safety but the existence of the Croatian parish through ongoing and unnecessary financial drain on its limited resources.

While the parish received an offer to purchase the property after the completion of asbestos abatement and execution of a demolition contract, the parish declined the offer in the interest of the safety and welfare of the community and the stability of the parish.

With the demolition, the parish will be able to move forward and a dangerous threat to traffic on Route 28 will be removed. 

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