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By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

St. George Church is recommended to gain city historic status


Last updated 9/10/2020 at 7:44am

The former St. George Church building in Allentown has been recommended for historic status by the City of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission.

The City of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission (HRC), after a 30-day delay to gain more information, voted to recommend historic status to the former St. John Vianney Church building in Allentown. The nomination now moves on to City Council for approval.

The vote was delayed from the August HRC meeting so the commissioners could get an opinion from the city's Law Department on whether they were able to determine if the building was a religious structure.

Commissioner Andrew Dash, director of the Dept. of City Planning, said the opinion from the Law Department was "that it was our job as the commission to make that determination." He added at the last meeting there was some deliberation among the commissioners as to what constituted a religious structure and it might be a future conversation for the HRC to consider.

"In trying to determine what a religious structure is, that we as commissioners try not to define worship or to get into things relative to internal congregational functions, is the way that it was worded from (the Law Dept.)," Mr. Dash said.

HRC Chair Lucia Aguirre said there were two things they had to consider: If the structure was still a place of worship, without discussing religion; and, if it is no longer a place of worship, does it meet the criteria to be a historic structure.

Mr. Dash said the Law Dept. offered three options for the hearing:

Considering there is still a lawsuit pending in the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican filed by former parishioners to reopen St. John Vianney, the HRC could vote to postpone the vote until the lawsuit is resolved.

The nomination could be withdrawn. If the nomination goes forward and historic status is declined, the structure wouldn't be eligible to be nominated again for five years. However, if it is withdrawn, the building could be nominated again if additional information is available.

The third option is for the HRC to find that it is no longer a religious structure as defined by the City Code and to make a recommendation to City Council based on the nomination criteria and moving the nomination forward.

Ms. Aquirre asked the commissioners at the hearing what their concerns were concerning the nomination.

Commissioner Richard Snipe said he would prefer the nomination be withdrawn.

"I don't think it's for us to determine whether it's a religious structure or not. What would be more clearer for me, if they would withdrawal their nomination at this time and they feel it's not being used for church services then they need to take the route then perhaps having the tax exemption withdrawn because right now the government officials are recognizing it as a church because it's tax exempt. While that tax exemption stands, I'm not comfortable with moving forward with the nomination," he said.

Ms. Aquirre added that they are not trying to determine if it is a place of religion, but a place of worship, if worship takes place at that location.

Commissioner James Hill said the HRC has to make clear to City Council that the ordinance covering religious structures needs amended. "There needs to be some sort of boundaries on what is considered a place of worship."

"In a sense that, to my knowledge or anybody's, there hasn't been a group of people that have gathered in that building to worship weekly, bi-weekly, monthly in five going on six years," he said. Adding there should be a letter to City Council asking for an amendment to the ordinance that would be reasonable about similar situations that would arise.

Mr. Hill also said he wasn't sure City Council would uphold the historic nomination and that would open the building to the winds and will of people and a lot could happen in five years.

Sarah Quinn, a senior planner from the city's Dept. of City Planning, said in her opinion, the best outcome for the hearing would be for Mark Wittman, nominator for the designation, to withdraw the nomination. They would then be able to do the nomination at a later time.

"What we're called to do is protect history," Ms Aquirre said. "And this building is history. It's been there forever."

She said from the testimony heard the previous month, the building qualifies on four or five of the criteria.

Although the HRC wasn't taking any additional testimony, they agreed to hear from Mr. Wittman and the attorney for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Christopher Ponticello as long as only new or additional information was provided.

Mr. Wittman said the building is not being used as a place of worship, that it has been padlocked, boarded up, with fences and chains all around it. "Nobody has been getting in and out of the building since it's last service."

He said within a week of the nomination to the HRC, the Diocese went in and removed all of the religious artifacts. Those artifacts were to remain until a final decision was made in Rome.

Mr. Wittman said there is nothing left in the building except the pews, the altar and the stained-glass windows.

He also stated he would not withdraw his application.

Ms. Aquirre clarified historic status would only prevent changes to the exterior of the building, they have no say over what happens with the contents of the building.

"If they remove everything from the building, they can't hide behind saying it's a religious structure," Mr. Wittman replied.

Speaking for the Diocese, Attorney Ponticello said there has been no decision yet from the Supreme Tribunal at the Vatican concerning the St. John Vianney Church. He added the stated intention of Mr. Wittmann and others is to reopen the building as a Catholic church.

Mr. Ponticello said the decision to close a church begins at the parish level. The parish makes the decision on a local level how many churches it can afford to maintain and keep open. A proposal is then made to the bishop if a church should be closed. The bishop accepted the decision of the parish and issued a decree closing the church.

That decision has been appealed to Rome and it has gone through a series of decisions. Mr. Ponticello added it is possible the Tribunal could determine the building should be reopened and used as a church.

"I've respectfully suggested all along, you do not have jurisdiction for this matter because that issue is still open before church authorities," he said.

The attorney later added the diocese has previously sold many of its closed buildings and would be willing to sell this one once a decision is made by the Supreme Tribunal.

"This process has tied our hands with regards to the disposition of this building or the ultimate closure of the building, it something that has to allowed to run its course. Once that process is completed, if the decision of the local bishop is upheld, there would be willingness to sell the structure," Mr. Ponticello said.

After discussion, it was determined the structure met the criteria for historic status. The HRC commissioner voted in favor of sending the recommendation to City Council. There was one abstention and one no vote.


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