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By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

Historic status for church could depend on if it's a church

Disagreement over if St. John Vianney is still a "church" hinders nomination


Last updated 8/17/2020 at 9:26pm

The historic nomination status of the former St. John Vianney Church building has been put on hold by the Historic Review Commission while it is determined whether the building should still be considered a church.

The City of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission's (HRC) virtual hearing August 5 on whether to recommend the former St. George Church building to City Council for historic status ended with the nomination being tabled for 30 days while clarity on the building's status is determined.

Closed and deconsecrated in 2016, the then St. John Vianney Church on Allen Street in Allentown has sat vacant since. Since then, the St. George Church Preservation Society has filed appeals with the Vatican concerning the closure and is waiting on a decision on the latest appeal.

Designed by German architect Herman Lang of Edmund B. Lang and Brother, construction on the church began in 1910 and was completed in 1912.

To begin the hearing, City of Pittsburgh Director of City Planning Andrew Dash said the building was owned by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and there was evidence the building was no longer a religious structure. He said the department attempted to reach out to the diocese multiple times over a 60-day period concerning the nomination and didn't receive a response.

Before opening the floor to testimony, HRC Chair Lucia Aquirre noted there was a lot of public support for the historic designation of the building.

Speaking first, in opposition to the designation, was Christopher Ponticello an attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and St. Mary of the Mount Parish.

Mr. Ponticello explained the Pittsburgh Diocese was not the legal owner of the building. The building is owned by St. Mary of the Mount Parish with Bishop David Zubic in trust for the parish.

He maintained the building is a religious structure as a church and may only gain historic status by the owner of record, St. Mary of the Mount Parish. Mr. Ponticello said due to the appeals filed with the Vatican, the building has not formally closed and could reopen pending a decision.

"This is a church building," he said.

Mr. Ponticello also added it is the parish's right to remove and safeguard religious items within the building.

After discussion, Ms. Aquirre stated the commission was in agreement they couldn't proceed given the information provided. She added if the building is still a church, it is in no danger of being demolished.

Sarah Quinn, a senior planner from the city's Dept. of City Planning, suggested tabling the nomination for a month to get clarity from the city's Law Department.

"I don't think this situation was anticipated in the legislation," she said.

The HRC decided to hear testimony before making a decision on tabling the hearing for a month.

Bob Kress, president of the St. George Church Preservation Society, said the organization assisted with the historic nomination process and that it has already been through the city's Law Department. He added the application was made as a historic building and it does not meet the definition of religious structure "used for worship."

"At this point in time, St. John Vianney is not a religious structure, it's a historic structure, and until that's resolved, we don't know long that will to take to change," Mr. Kress said.

"Today, we have to stand up and say this church cannot be demolished. This is the diocese's plan for the building," testified Mark Whitman, nominator of the building for historic status. "It has to be protected under historic preservation because that is their overall plan to remove the stained-glass windows."

Mr. Whitman claimed the diocese has hired an abatement company to come in to do work in preparation of removing the windows.

"This cannot happen to the church. The church has been cared for over the years by people with meager means. They gave of their time and talents and the little money they had to keep this church up and running," he said.

He added the diocese had a closing ceremony and the building hasn't been used for worship since.

Justin Greenawalt, an architecture Preservation Pittsburgh historian, testified the building meets four criteria to be designated a historic structure:

It is in an example of an important architectural style, true German Romanesque; It was designed by Herman J. Lang, of the architectural firm of Edmund B. Lang and Brother, during the pinnacle of his career; It is an architecturally historic structure; and, It is significant by location or appearance.

It's unlike anything else we have in the city, Mr. Greenawalt said.

"I must stress the sweat equity of generations of German immigrants who through tithing their meager incomes built that church. Whether it may not be perceived legally I'm not here to determine, but morally that building, that church, is a product of generations of the sweat equity of Allentown German immigrants that built that building and that building belongs to them and they wished to see that building preserved and the legacy and history and what the building stands for. They wished to see that preserved for future generations to know what they did and how hard they worked, said Councilman Bruce Kraus, whose district the building is located.

"The church is the skyline of Allentown. You see the church and you know instantly, understanding you are in the neighborhood of Allentown and to have that disappear would be absolutely devastating to Allentown and the Hilltop communities far and wide."

Mr. Kraus said the diocese was disingenuous in saying the building was still a church and could reopen.

Fr. Thomas Kunz, canon lawyer for the diocese, called in to the hearing to disagree with the councilman. The decision of the bishop has been appealed a number of times and by canon law it is still a church building, he said.

"We are maintaining it as a church building as we go along with the Vatican," he added.

Several additional speakers voiced support for the building to receive historic status. Letters of support were also submitted from community members, Preservation Pittsburgh, the Allentown Community Development Corp., and Aaron Sukenik of the Hilltop Alliance.

It was determined the HRC should ask the Law Dept. for an opinion on if the building is considered a church or not. Members of the commission questioned that the property was still classified as tax exempt as a church and if it has not been used as a church it should be taxed.

Ms. Aquirre stated the HRC was being asked to determine by the criteria if the building is historic.

Members of the HRC decided to postpone a decision on the building for 30 days to give them a chance to get more information. The next meeting of the HRC will be on Wednesday, Sept. 2.


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