For the first time in years, the public got to see inside the former St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church this weekend — through a huge hole knocked in the eastern side of the building.
Demolition crews began tearing down the 112-year-old church last week, removing the semicircular apse that used to hold the altar and exposing the large, empty space where the congregation once gathered for Mass.
“I was going to church this morning in Troy Hill, and I sighed in relief to see that the onion domes (of St. Nicholas) were still there,” said Susan Petrick, 61, of Shaler, a former parishioner at St. Nicholas and secretary of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation.
“Then my eyes moved downward. I was lucky no one was around, because I was just devastated.”
Through the gaping hole in the building, drivers inbound on Route 28 could see straight through the church to the large, circular window at its far end; a few even pulled over so they could take pictures and gawk at the exposed brickwork and rib-like wooden arches.
One of the gawkers was Ray Peitrone, 56, another former parishioner who lives in Troy Hill above the church.
A longtime advocate for preservation, he took issue with the argument from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and St. Nicholas Parish in Millvale that the building had to be demolished because it was unsafe or in danger of collapse.
“Why‘d they have traffic coming by here all these years if the church is ready to fall down?” Peitrone asked. “It could have been sold several times, but the (diocese and parish) wouldn‘t take it.”
Established as a parish for Croatian Catholic immigrants in 1900, the parish was merged with St. Nicholas in Millvale in 1994, closed in 2004, and survived an ongoing PennDOT project to widen Route 28 that was eventually routed around the church.
Over the parish‘s objections, the city designated the building a historic structure in 2001, but the parish convinced a judge this summer that keeping the building was an economic hardship.
The diocese said in court that the parish spent $360,000 to maintain and insure the building during the past eight years as it sat empty.
The monthly expense of $1,800 represents 17 percent of the income for the 225-member parish, the diocese said.
The Rev. Dan Whalen, administrator at St. Nicholas in Millvale, referred questions to the diocese.
A diocesan spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The Northside Leadership Conference and the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation had proposed turning the building into a museum for the history of Pittsburgh‘s immigrant communities, but they could not agree with the parish and diocese over conditions of the sale.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority offered to buy the church and turn it over to the Northside Leadership Conference but was unable to reach an agreement, URA Chairman Yarone Zober said.
For former parishioners such as Peitrone and Petrick, fighting their former parish for the fate of their former church has left their faith shaken.
“I don‘t want anything to do with the Catholic Church any more, not after this,” Peitrone said.