Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.

On the left wall, a 100-square-foot mural depicts women huddling around a casket, a rural landscape stretched behind them. On the right, a complementary painting shows women huddling around a muscular man’s lifeless body, factory smokestacks as their backdrop. 

The murals’ titles are “Croatian mother raises her son for war” and “Immigrant mother gives her sons for American industry.”

So how did these murals — with their poignant commentary on motherhood, the costs of war and the fate of Croatian immigrants in the so-called land of opportunity — end up on the back walls of the St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Millvale? And why?

The story is shaped in part by a chance encounter. In the late 1930s, the priest at St. Nicholas, Father Albert Zagar, saw Croatian artist Maxo Vanka’s work at a local Croatian art show. 

Zagar was looking for something to spruce up the walls of his church; after a fire in the early 1920s, they had been painted stark white. He hired Vanka for the job.

Croatian artist Maxo Vanka painted the church’s 25 murals in two short bursts in 1937 and 1941. (Photo courtesy of the Vanka Family)

As to what happened next, “it’s oral history,” said Anna Doering, executive director of a nonprofit society committed to cleaning, preserving and restoring the 25 murals that cover the church’s walls. Thanks to decades of parishioners lighting votive candles and opening the windows to polluted outside air for ventilation, it’s no easy task. 

As the story goes, Zagar instructed Vanka to keep things religious at the front of the church around the altar. Beyond that, Vanka was free to paint whatever he wished. The only stipulation: the two men agreed the murals should tell a story and honor the people in the pews. 

The result was a floor-to-ceiling picture of how, for Pittsburgh Catholics, religious life, industry and ethnic heritage all went hand in hand. 

Father Albert Zagar, the priest who hired Maxo Vanka, told him that the murals around the altar should be religious in nature. The rest should tell stories honoring the Croatian congregation. (Photos by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

By the turn of the twentieth century, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Croatian immigrants were working in the Pittsburgh region, drawn to job opportunities in the area’s mills and mines.

That influx of immigrants gave rise to not one but two St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic churches. (The other St. Nicholas Church, which was in Troy Hill, was closed in 2004 and demolished in 2013.) 

The St. Nicholas Church of this story was built atop a hill in 1900, a quick walk across the river from the Lawrenceville mills where many Croatian immigrants worked. 

The parish provided the local Croatian immigrant community with churches, yes, but also schools and social outlets. It was a safe haven and a safety net in an era when being a Catholic immigrant meant you were doubly marginalized in U.S. society. Although anti-Catholic sentiments among American Protestants peaked in the mid-1800s — a result of religious prejudice and a fear of immigrants — the discrimination continued into the 20th century.

“There are still members of the church who were alive and sitting in the church as children when Vanka was painting.”

anna doering
Anna Doering is executive director of the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, a nonprofit committed to cleaning, preserving and restoring the 25 murals that cover the walls of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Millvale. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

And while the area was significantly Croatian — St. Nicholas Parish was the first Croatian Catholic parish in the United States — there were many other immigrant enclaves there, too. Similar dynamics fueled the rise of German, Italian, Polish and Irish Catholic churches in the area.

There could easily be “four churches in two blocks,” said Father Nicholas S. Vaskov, director of the Shrines of Pittsburgh for the Catholic Diocese. Catholic immigrants wanted to attend churches “where their language was spoken and where their traditions were celebrated.” It was a way they could “feel that they had a home.”

Today, few parishioners at St. Nicholas are first-generation Croatian immigrants. Still the cultural connections “run deep,” Doering said. The church hosts Croatian-language Masses a few times a year as well as festivals and other events. 

Some other churches in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh have had a harder time celebrating their ethnic heritage while adapting to the area’s changing demographics. 

Father Nicholas S. Vaskov is director of the Shrines of Pittsburgh for the Catholic Diocese. At the turn of the 20th century, ethnic Catholic churches helped immigrants to Pittsburgh “feel that they had a home,” he said. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Take the historically ethnic churches in and around Braddock, for example. In 1985, six of the area’s Catholic churches merged into Good Shepherd Parish: two Irish, one Italian, one Slovak, one Lithuanian and one German. All the buildings but St. Michael’s, the Slovak church, were closed and sold to other denominations or organizations. 

The churches’ distinct ethnic identities weren’t incorporated into the new parish, recalled long-time parishioner Jerry Fitzgibbon. “They didn’t have ethnic festivals,” he said. “They didn’t have anything. They kind of lost it, you know, pretty bad.”

Now, 35 years later, Good Shepherd Parish is once again part of a merger. In July 2020, eight parishes, including Good Shepherd, combined to form St. Joseph the Worker Parish. 

Ethnicity is no longer a defining feature of most parish identities. Still, people’s emotional responses to the most recent mergers are sometimes tied up in their sense of that loss, Fitzgibbon said.

Doering sees the Croatian Masses at St. Nicholas Church as a way of honoring the past’s deep connections with the present.

“There are still members of the church who were alive and sitting in the church as children when Vanka was painting,” she said. 

This story was clarified to indicate that the Braddock churches named were not all of those in the Braddock area, only those that merged into Good Shepherd Parish. 

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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Chris Hedlin

Chris Hedlin is a reporter for PublicSource focusing on religion. She comes to PublicSource through the American Council of Learned Societies’ Leading Edge Fellowship program, which pairs scholars of...