Rediscovering Lost Artwork in Pittsburgh

Jan 16, 2012

The murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale were once well known throughout the United States. Now, one Pittsburgh filmmaker is helping the world rediscover these artworks.

Maxo Vanka's Masterpiece: The Murals at St. Nicholas Church is a new documentary by director Kenneth Love that examines how these murals tell a key part of American history: the story of the immigrant.

"The people represented in these murals are Croatians, but the story is the same for German immigrants, Polish immigrants, English immigrants — all the immigrants came to this area to work," Love said.

Before the murals, the walls of St. Nicholas were barren and plain. No stories, either from the Bible or from the hardships many immigrants faced at the time, were to be found. So the church's pastor Reverend Albert Zagar commissioned Maxo Vanka, a Croatian immigrant, to paint a set of murals in 1937. After these were well received, Vanka was commissioned to make a second set in 1941. This images focused on the horrors he had seen, specifically from war and from industry.

Love says that one of the murals, "The Immigrant Mother Raises Her Son for Industry," really causes the viewer to think. It depicts the 1902 Rolling Mill Mine disaster in Johnstown where workers were sent to retrieve their trapped colleagues. Instead of rescuing anyone, a total of 112 miners were killed.

However, the murals are not well known outside of the Pittsburgh area. Love, an Emmy award-winning documentarian, believes that's because of a shifting sentiment towards immigrants since 1941.

"I think the immigrant story became unfashionable — people were assimilating to America," Love said.

Love hopes that his documentary will cause a change in attitude.

"One of my goals in this project is to make [the murals] a destination where people go and look at the murals and have conversations about faith, about God, about our past, about industry, about social justice," Love said.

Maxo Vanka's Masterpiece: The Murals at St. Nicholas Church, will premiere on Thursday, Jan. 19th, at 4:30 PM in the Power Center Ballroom at Duquesne University. The event is free and open to the public. A reception will follow the screening.