ON THIS DAY: September 5, 2000, Diocese agrees to sell St. Nicholas Church to PennDOT

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — At a late-night meeting of church officials on Sept. 5, 2000, the parish priest of St. Nicholas Church, the Rev. Gabriel Badurina, recommended the sale of the property to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, setting in motion a path the “Croatian Cathedral” eventually proved unable to escape. The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh released no statement, but the long-debated fate of the church took its first turn toward destruction that evening.

The congregation had long opposed the sale of the building, citing the cultural and architectural significance of the property. Galvanized in their resolve after church leaders agreed to sell the building to PennDOT for its ultimate demolition, despite the congregation’s documented opposition in an internal survey, led to a vigorous fight to have the building protected by any means.

Earlier in 2000, PennDOT announced it would spend $90 million to improve Route 28. The plan to widen Route 28 was developed after numerous fatal accidents. The stretch in front of St. Nicholas Church was particularly prone to crashes but the building’s proximity to the road made it a barrier to any attempt to widen the road. Many modern commuters are blissfully unaware of the massive church that used to stand just feet from rushing traffic.

The diocese told the congregation that they would have to raise $1.8 million to maintain the building if it were moved, then decided against parishioners’ wishes and sold it for demolition instead, without giving the congregation the option of raising the money. PennDOT responded to the diocese’s decision to sell the church by saying that an offer would be made by 2003 after a fair market value assessment.

St. Nicholas Church was founded by Croatian immigrants in 1894. The congregation worshipped in another location until 1900, when a church was built along East Ohio Street.

The church was designed by Pittsburgh architect Frederick Sauer and featured two unequal-height towers topped with onion domes on its western facade and a third steeple that faced East Ohio Street. Italian marble and lavish carvings and bright murals filled the interior.

It was the first Croatian church in America, and served as a hub in the large immigrant community of workers in the area’s growing factories and steel industries.

The church had already moved once for the widening of the roadway. In 1921, the entire structure was jacked up eight feet and moved 20 feet farther into the hillside. Despite the monumental engineering going on underneath, services continued without interruption.

With PennDOT’s path to demolition opened, a group of parishioners joined forces with preservationists to save the church. They formed the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation (PCHF) and devised a new plan that allowed for the widening of Route 28 without the destruction of the church.

PennDOT initially agreed to the plan and the PCHF succeeded in having the church designated as a City Historic Structure on Dec. 6, 2004, the feast day of the church, further protecting the future of the building. The Historic Review Commission found that the church met four of the 10 criteria for designation, of which only one is required.

Unfortunately for the congregation, the diocese abruptly closed the building under the direction of Bishop Donald Wuerl. The congregation would never get the opportunity to have a final service in the “Croatian Cathedral.”

With the church closed by the diocese, the PCHF continued its lengthy battle to save the building. By 2012, the City Historic Review Commission joined the fight and proposed plans to turn the building into a National Immigrant Museum briefly held back the wrecking ball, but last-minute appeals were made by the diocese to permit the demolition, and the administration of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dropped the case and allowed it to move forward.

A week before the scheduled demolition, the Urban Redevelopment Authority made an offer to purchase the property, but it too was rejected by the diocese, under the direction of Bishop David Zubic.

Late on the evening of Jan. 13, 2013, after its bells were removed, St. Nicholas Church finally met its fate head-on. The resentment of many former members towards the diocese still lingers.

After the Route 28 widening project was completed, a memorial wall and seating area with historic interpretive panels was constructed in 2015 at the former site of the church.