Earlier I wrote about a little-known local Pittsburgh gem called St. Anthony's. Certainly this collection of relics housed in the Troy Hill neighborhood is like no other in the world. But it's not the only unparalleled experience you can have at a church around these parts. In nearby Millvale sits another form of unimagined treasure. St. Nicholas Catholic Church ministers to the needs of a local community of refugees from war-torn Croatia and Bosnia-Herzogevina, as well as the historically entrenched populations from these countries that have lived in Pittsburgh for decades. There are actually two St. Nicholas locations within the parish- a situation that has been a source of confusion for many years. One of these physical structures is no longer in service, as it lies along a well-traveled corridor dominated by Route 28. Planned roadwork has sealed the fate of this church, and the building itself is most likely not long for this world.
Meanwhile the Millvale location of St. Nicholas is a regional (and perhaps international) treasure. The outward appearance and construction of this house of worship offer no clues to its exceptionality. Yet if you manage to gain entry inside, you will quickly become aware that nothing like it exists anywhere else. For on the inner walls of the church are painted striking murals, complete with social commentary and unique spiritual resonance. They were painted in the 1930's and 40's by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka. As the official church website points out-
"They represent the struggles of the Croatian people in the face of war and poverty in their homeland and as immigrants in post-industrial America." They are the artist's emotionally- drenched and troublesome gift to this nation's people. And they serve both as a reminder of the importance of faith, and as a warning of what humanity is capable of.
Vanka's personal belief in the futility of war and his sadness at seeing his homeland destroyed are made patently obvious through his work. After being commissioned by Father Albert Zagar to paint the murals in 1937, Vanka completed two cycles of paintings (20 altogether)- the first in an eight-week span that spring, and the second group in 1941. The latter works clearly demonstrate his anguish over the war in Europe. He set for himself grueling shifts of up to 16-18 hours a day, and sustained his energy with multiple doses of Coca-Cola. Zagar gave the internationally-renowned artist a freehand to depict whatever imagery he so chose. In doing so, Zagar empowered Vanka to create timeless works mixing secular and spiritual concerns in a manner wholly original.
The content of these murals is truly unforgettable. There are mournful peasants entreating God for support in their difficult struggles in the Croatian countryside. An angel in a gas mask looms over the congregation from high upon one wall. An anguished, crucified Christ separates two war-crazed soldiers. In a similar scene, the Virgin Mary desperately tries her hand at a peaceful resolution. On another wall an industrial robber baron sits at dinner and is served a cleansing course of fiery retribution by a skeletal hand. These are not the placid reassuring scenes of sanctification that a regular churchgoer becomes acclimated to. They challenge the viewer to seek the holy in the most trying of times.
Had these paintings been completed for a museum, they would inspire a constant stream of tourists from all over the world. As it is, they await the few who become aware of their existence through word-of-mouth. Since my initial exposure to them, I have tried periodically to see them again. But it's no use showing up on church property, hoping for the random chance. You must call ahead of time to see the murals. Fortunately the woman in charge of tours is accomodating, and will show you around for nothing but a freely-offered donation. If you happen to be in the Pittsburgh area, I am scheduling a group tour for either this coming Monday or Tuesday. Contact me if you want to be included. The experience will leave an indelible mark upon you.