John Francona of the architecture firm Astorino talks about structural changes to convert St. Nicholas into the future National Immigrant Museum.(Photo/Kelly Thomas)

The ball for a National Immigration Museum in the closed St. Nicholas Church building is rolling, but it still has a long way to go, and it will take at least five years to get there.

At a press conference on Dec. 4, the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation and the Northside Leadership Conference unveiled the positive results of a design and feasibility study that explored turning the building into a museum and adding a trail system.

Integra Realty Resources, the consulting firm hired to do the study, predicted that the region could, in fact, support the museum. It would draw about 25,000 visitors per year and operate at a cost between $500,000 and $600,000 per year.

The Foundation has been working to save St. Nicholas for over 10 years, said President Bill Vergot. It brought the Leadership Conference in as a project manager after it developed the museum idea.

Vergot said “We’ve had our highs, we’ve had our lows … but never did we stop thinking we would save the church.”

Another important part of the plan is connecting area neighborhoods, including Troy Hill and East Deustchtown, to the Riverfront Trail system by means of new trails around the museum that would utilize the pedestrian bridge by the Sarah Heinz House and the 31st Street Bridge.

Leadership Conference Executive Director Mark Fatla said that the church was uniquely poised to tell the Pittsburgh immigrant story, even though it is a Croatian church. “That’s emblematic of every immigrant community. [They] all went through the same experience.”

Astorino Architecture, which designed the museum, came up with five different plans, all of which preserve the church and grotto area and some of which preserve the rectory building. Each of the plans would cost about $7 million to execute.

All of the plans require that the church be expanded from 10,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet. The extra square footage will come either from new construction over the current church parking lot or by building on top of the current rectory site.

In all of the plans, the new trail system passes by the church at the grotto level. After PennDOT widens Route 28, access to the church from the highway will be impossible, and the trail will also serve to connect the museum to a parking lot in Troy Hill.

The new trail system would accomplish three goals: bring more visitors to the Northside, bring people to the museum and give Northsiders better access to the Riverfront Trail system.

The total cost of starting the museum — including the $7 million for construction and another $3 million for exhibits and other things — would be around $10 million, said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, which is acting as a project manager for the museum.

The groups will mostly likely have to work with Lamar Advertising, Inc., which has a sales agreement with the Pittsburgh Diocese to purchase the lot. Lamar wants to erect billboards on the property, said Fatla.

Fatla spoke with Lamar and is confident the two parties will be able to work out a favorable solution to meet the needs of Lamar and the museum group.

Father Dan Whalen, who administers the Millvale Parish that owns St. Nicholas, said the parish has spent over $500,000 on repairing and maintaining the church. He was aware of the immigration museum plans, but felt that he needed to get the heavy cost of the old building off the parish’s shoulders.

“Lamar offered us a more solid, and I thought, better offer,” Whalen said.

Whalen also believes it would be better for all parties if Lamar were to get permission to demolish the church. “I look at that building as what it was primarily, a church, and that purpose has passed.”

From a theological standpoint, Whalen believes it is detrimental to the parishioners to hold onto a building so ferociously. He used the example of an elderly person who can no longer take care of her home, but refuses to move into assisted living.

“People go to heaven, churches do not go to heaven.”

Even so, Whalen said, once they close the sales agreement with Lamar, the decisions are out of his hands, and his opinion doesn’t matter. He added that they were close to closing the deal.

Provided the museum group and Lamar work out a deal, there is still the problem of funding for the project. Fatla said that they would look for donations from individuals to establish an endowment for yearly operations and for donations from foundations for capital costs.

He reminded the audience that while $10 million sounds high, other museum projects like the National Aviary cost double that, and he is optimistic about the project.