History of the Church
St. Nicholas Church, North Side is the first Croatian Roman Catholic Parish in North America. St. Nicholas was established in 1894 by a group of concerned Croatian immigrants - Josip Marohnic, Zdravko Muzina, Josip Novakovic, Frank Sepic, Josip Subasic, Nikola Surmic, and others. All of these men pledged their meager fortunes and sacred honor to establish the first Croatian parish in the new world.
Their foresight gave the Croatians of the area a source of religion, culture, and society that would spawn the Croatian Fraternal Union, a fraternal benefit society, five other Croatian churches (Steelton, Millvale, Rankin, McKeesport, and Ambridge, PA), and give strength to the thousands of immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries in their new home.
For the past 118 years, St. Nicholas has seen the rise and fall of nations, sent its young men off to fight in foreign lands, witnessed prohibition, the Great Depression, the baby boom, and the Cold War, and has remained a source of culture, society, and religion for Croatians and Pittsburghers in general.
The parishioners chose a tract of land at 1546 East Ohio Street in Allegheny City, just above the flood plain of the Allegheny River. In August 1894, a young priest named Dobroslav Josip Bozic arrived from Croatia to say his first Mass for the Croatians in America.
His arrival ushered in one of the most unique and wonderful cultures in Pittsburgh, a city of immigrants. The Croatian people in America, emboldened by the strength of their faith and the support of their fellow countrymen, contributed to the success of industrial Pittsburgh.
The people took jobs as stevedores along the river, meat packers at the plants on Herr's Island, steelworkers for Carnegie Steel and U. S. Steel, and canners for the H. J. Heinz Company. They worked the open hearths at Schoenenberg's, operated the brakes for the Pennsylvania Railroad, tanned hides at the McGraw Wool Company, and ministered to the people as doctors and lawyers.
The church was surrounded by a neighborhood that might be recalled from a small village in Croatia. Many of the immigrants hailed from the Jastrebarsko area of Croatia, and their new home became known as "Mala Jaska" or "Little Jastrebarsko."
Many Croatians balanced their adopted customs of America with their old world traditions. In the old world, the village church was the center of life. It would be surrounded by a marketplace of shops, tradesmen, and other businesses. The church would be a landmark for the town and the pride of all who lived in it.
Maps of Mala Jaska displayed street signs in the Croatian language. The homes and tenements of the boarders were full of young men working feverishly to save enough money to send for their wives and children in their homeland. Such was the plight of the immigrant family.
Faced with economic, religious, and political oppression in their native country, Croatian families endured months and sometimes years of separation in order to work toward a better future. These brave immigrants contributed their hard-earned money, their talents and the strength of their backs to construct the church and to keep it operating for their children, grandchildren, friends and visitors. Many people did not even own homes for themselves, but rather built a home for all Croatians in Pittsburgh.
Mala Jaska became an oasis for the Croatian worker in America. It was populated with bars, hotels, and restaurants owned by members of the local Croatian community. Businesses of all sorts provided the neighborhood with services. The iceman would make his deliveries each day, hauling blocks of ice along East Ohio Street from home to home. Men would frequent the Island Hotel (Lambros' hotel and restaurant) near the 31st Street Bridge for a drink after work or to gather for folk music and dancing. The first Croatian newspaper was established in a building along East Ohio Street by Mr. Josip Mahronic.
Croatian culture flourished in Pittsburgh's North Side as well. Many singing and folk dancing groups were established. A Croatian Singing Society was established at the great Croatian National Hall "Javor" on Canal Street. Many tamburitzan (Folk music) groups were established, and performances were plentiful. Eventually, radio shows such as the Croatian Radio Program on WHOD-AM broadcast Croatian folk songs across the city.
St. Nicholas, though located in a bustling American metropolis rather than an idyllic Croatian village, was no exception to the old world style of life. The church was the center of activity for Mala Jaska. Parishioners used it as a meeting place to secure jobs, find wives and husbands, to learn the English language, to read about news from their homeland and to find support for the conduct of their daily lives.
St. Nicholas has kept Croatian traditions alive in the U.S. for more than 100 years. It ranks as one of the most unique structures in Western Pennsylvania and shines as an example of religious freedom in the United States.
Designed by Frederick C. Sauer, the church is built of brick in a modified Romanesque style. A long staircase leads to the main entrance of the church that is pierced by three doorways and surmounted by a mold of Baroque inspiration. Two towers of unequal height, surmounted by onion- shaped, cupolas, stand at either side of the western facade. These towers contain three bells cast by the Shane Bell Foundry of Baltimore, MD and date from the church's erection in 1900-1901.
The body of the church is basilican, although truncated transepts extend slightly from the nave. The nave terminates in an apse. The southwest tower of the facade is pierced at street level by a southern-facing door, also decorated with a high, Baroque molding. Each transept possesses a modified rose window about the nave. The interior of St. Nicholas Church gives the feeling of a cross-in-square plan. This impression is aided by the vaults and placement of four columns at the church's core to support the vaults. Both side aisles terminate apsidal while the nave ends with the sanctuary in the apse. The Films Art and Glass Company of Columbus, OH created the stained glass windows that line the aisles. In 1944, three liturgical altars of Italian marble were installed, and the existing marble altar rail was trimmed with Burgundy rose marble. The interior of the church was walled with Burgundy Rose marble while the sanctuary was faced with white Italian English-vein marble. Loma marble was used in the wainscoting. The concha of the apse was decorated with a religious painting during these restorations.