- A Monument to Catholic Social Justice:The Maxo Vanka Murals of St. Nicholas Croatian Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
On a hill in the Pittsburgh working-class neighborhood of Millvale, overlooking Route 28 and several sets of railroad tracks on the banks of the Allegheny River, sits St. Nicholas Croatian Church. No doubt few of the thousands who drive by each day going to and from the business district of Pennsylvania's second largest city, notice the dull, yellowish-tan building, since its exterior is small and unimpressive. Yet this Catholic church houses what is probably Pittsburgh's least known treasure — the murals of Maxo Vanka.
Vanka was born in Croatia in 1889. He was the illegitimate son of parents who were members of two of the most prominent noble families in the Hapsburg Empire. When his maternal grandmother found out that his mother was pregnant, she sent her daughter away from her home in Moravia to Zagreb to avoid scandal. When Maxo was born and baptized he was turned over to a poor peasant woman, Dora Yug, who raised him with great care and affection until he was eight years old. It was at that time that Maxo's maternal grandfather learned of his existence. He reclaimed him from Dora and placed him in a castle in Croatia, with the understanding that he be raised in an environment more suitable to his aristocratic lineage. Maxo, however, never forgot the love he had received in his early years from Yug and her family, and consequently he would forever hold Croatian peasant family life in great esteem. Once he was settled in his new home, [End Page 101] Maxo never saw his grandfather again. 1
When he began his schooling Maxo was given the surname "Vanka," and when he was in his early teens he was sent to Zagreb to study art. Gifted in languages, it was at this time that he learned to speak German, French, English, Hungarian, and Italian. 2 When he was eighteen, his birth mother came to visit him for the first and last time. It was around this time that he learned the truth about his birth, as well as the name of his father whom he never met. 3 Devastated by this revelation, he left Zagreb for Brussels, where he graduated in 1914 from the Royal Academy of Beaux Arts, earning a first-place prize for his self-portrait and a gold medal for his overall achievement in art. 4 By the time World War I broke out in 1914 he had already become a pacifist. Rather than serve in the military, he volunteered for service in the Belgian Red Cross, where he witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. 5 He eventually returned to Croatia where, following the war, he accepted a professorship in art at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he had earlier studied.
In 1931 he married Margaret Stetten, a Jewish-American whom he had met while she was traveling through the Balkans on vacation with her wealthy parents. In 1934 he resigned his position at the Zagreb Academy and fled with his Jewish wife and two-year-old daughter as the Nazis advanced on his homeland. 6 The family went to New York City, where his friend Louis Adamic tells us that almost immediately "he seemed inevitably to gravitate towards the lowly, dirty, degenerate, and neglected" losers in the American capitalist system. He talked with and sketched the "substrata of American society" — the unemployed living in "Hoovervilles," the alcoholics on skid row, prostitutes, and both black and white factory laborers. 7 He exhibited his paintings, most of which were of urban skyscrapers and the down-and-out, at galleries in New York City, but they did not attract the attention he had hoped for. Thus, in December 1934 he decided to travel to Pittsburgh, the steel capital of the world, for a showing of his work. It was this exhibition that introduced Father [End Page 102] Albert Zagar, the Croatian-born pastor of St. Nicholas Church, to his work. 8 He next traveled with Adamic across the United States, mixing all along the way with immigrant workers and Native Americans...