On a recent Saturday at Millvale's St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, volunteer Mary Petrich leads about 20 people on a tour of murals by artist Maxo Vanka.
"These are real people, who suffered," she explains to the group, indicating the murals covering the church's interior walls and ceiling surfaces in the sanctuary. "These aren't plaster saints."
Painted in the Depression era, the church's murals go well beyond standard religious iconography. Along with traditional Catholic imagery of angels and the Virgin Mary, they include World War I-era soldiers killing Christ, crowned with barbed wire; a worker killed in a mining accident ... and a top-hatted capitalist eating a lavish meal, ignoring the servant placing it before him.
Petrich, 82, tells the tour group that the crucified Christ in one mural was modeled after a local worker. She adds: "I think that's beautiful -- that he used a simple man to paint Christ."
The murals have long been considered one of Pittsburgh's artistic and cultural gems -- as arresting today as when they were painted more than 70 years ago.
But they are also showing signs of age. In several spots, the murals have minor but very visible water damage -- white splotches staining the otherwise blue or black paint. The problem goes back to 2004, Petrich says, when Millvale was pounded by storms spawned by Hurricane Ivan.
And the cost of repairing the murals is too great for the church to shoulder alone.
The church and The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, a nonprofit group, have recently undertaken a fundraising campaign to repair the damage, and to fund publicity efforts. The campaign is on its way to raising $250,000 -- its goal for the first phase, says Diane Novosel, the Society's chairperson.
To succeed, though, Novosel will need the help of visitors like Ronald Gaydos, who stops in while Petrich's Saturday tour is wrapping up. The murals, he says while looking up at the ceiling, are "just one of those things that make Pittsburgh traditionally cutting edge."
Petrich knows her subject. She was baptized at the church in 1927 and attended school there. She remembers when the Croatian-born Vanka painted his murals -- he was hired by the church to paint them in 1937 and 1941 -- and recalls seeing him drinking Cokes and smoking cigarettes.
"This church was built by immigrant workers," Petrich says. "The images reflect that they had faith and hope. I think there is a message for people today ... to continue to work for the common good."
In fact, some progress has already been made on renovations. The building's bell towers, where the water seeped in, have been repaired, Novosel says. But while the cost of that $200,000 project was borne by the church, the murals will need broader support.
"God bless the parishioners," said Father Dan Whalen, the parish's priest. "They are so supportive." But Vanko's work "is art," he says, and as such, "It needs continuous maintenance."
Restoring the murals requires a professional conservator, Novosel says, because "It's a very, very delicate, surgical procedure. It's painstaking."
There are other challenges as well. "Lighting is a problem," Petrich says: Despite the sun streaming through stained-glass windows, parts of the church remain dim. During tours, Novosel wheels a set of lights along the church's main aisle, highlighting various images. Part of the campaign's funds will be used to install better lighting.
Convincing big donors to support the restoration hasn't been easy, says Bill Lase, the consultant hired by the Society as a fundraiser and project manager.
"It's not a typical project that foundations -- even foundations interested in the arts -- would usually support," he says. Part of the problem is that the murals are located in a church rather than a museum. Accordingly, Lase's pitch emphasizes the aesthetic importance of the murals. With the uncommon combination of religious images, the portrayal of workers, Vanka's anti-war message and Croatian themes, "There is probably nothing that even approaches this anywhere else in the U.S.," Lase says.
Barbara McCloskey, an associate professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh, says there is no question about their value. She's volunteered to assess Vanka's work, and in an e-mail calls the murals "one of the best examples of the sort of socially engaged muralism practiced by the best-known muralists of the time, namely Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros."
"It is quite clear that Vanka studied their works, and creatively [blended] their form of muralism with distinctly Croatian decorative motifs and themes," adds McCloskey, who often studies expatriate artists who lived in the United States during and after World War II.
Sylvia Rhor, an assistant professor of art history at Carlow University, is also assisting with the preservation effort. The first time she saw them, she says, she was "blown away."
"These murals are unique not only in Pittsburgh but in the world," she writes in an e-mail. "As a mural historian, I have had the privilege of seeing and studying hundreds of murals in many different countries and I have rarely, if ever, seen a mural cycle like the Vanka murals."
Rhor, who studies early-20th-century mural painting, particularly in the United States, first saw the murals when she attended Mass at St. Nicholas, not knowing how to see the murals otherwise.
"After the Mass, I was particularly moved by the members of the congregation who readily spoke to me about how meaningful these murals are. ... They spoke of the Vanka murals as if they were speaking about family. Clearly, they are a source of pride and identity within the Millvale (and St. Nicholas) community but they should also be regarded as one of Pittsburgh's most significant artistic treasures."
One challenge in holding onto that treasure is that the Millvale church is shrinking. While giving tours, Petrich laments that the church now numbers just over 200 members. And none of them are getting any younger. The parish school was closed long ago, and even Novosel, the preservation-society chair, jokes that "I'm the youth group, and I'm 60 years old."
But given the wave of church closings in recent years -- including another Croatian Catholic church on Route 28, not far away -- things could be worse. During Petrich's tour, visitor Carol Haubach speculates that the church's murals are the only reason the Pittsburgh Diocese hasn't shuttered the Millvale church.
That may be true, Novosel says. Without the murals, she speculates, "I don't know that we would still be here."
Diocesan spokesperson Rev. Ronald P. Lengwin said the previous bishop, Donald Wuerl, wanted to maintain the presence of a Croatian parish within the Diocese. "The murals are very important, but that particular decision [of church closings] was not related to murals," Rev. Lengwin said.
And if the artwork endures, it will be partly because Vanko's art takes hold of people and refuses to let go. Novosel, for one, grew up attending the parish's elementary school, and vividly recalls being scared of some of the darker images surrounding her during Mass.
"I used to tell my mother, 'The murals give me nightmares.' Well, they still keep me awake at night, but now it's for a different reason," she jokes. "They haunted me then, and they haunt me now."
For more information, or to view images from the murals, visit www.vankamurals.org.