The former St. Matthew Church at S. 19th and Mary streets, South Side. Photos courtesy Desmone Architects.

A former Catholic church in the South Side, shuttered for a quarter-century after parishioners moved to the suburbs, could soon welcome residents inside its red brick walls with its conversion to loft-style condominiums.

Tom Sabol and Scott Wolkowitz with The AM Group in New York will ask the Zoning Board of Adjustment on Feb. 8 for a multifamily variance in the South Side Flats neighborhood zoned for single-family residences, to build six condos in St. Matthew Church.

“We’re hoping to breathe life into this beautiful structure with new residents and allow it to remain in the neighborhood,” says Sabol, who grew up in New Castle and landed in New York after obtaining his architectural engineering degree from Penn State. “We want to repurpose it and we want it to be a successful project, so we can do more in Pittsburgh. It’s exciting right now — there’s so much new industry and a lot of cool things.”

Once largely a parish for Slovak immigrants who worked in the city’s mills, the church cornerstone was laid in 1905 and the building at South 19th and Mary streets was dedicated in 1906. It closed in 1992, when population losses led the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to consolidate its South Side parishes into Prince of Peace Parish. The diocese removed the pews and most stained-glass windows, though a large, round stained-glass window at the front remains.

“If you walk inside, it’s a pretty open space,” says Sabol, whose company bought the church from ACTION-Housing Inc. two weeks ago for $200,000. It’s too early to gauge the total project cost, he says. “There is some selective demo and cleanup work we need to do. But on the inside, it can be fit out, as far as separating the units.”

The window and the church bell tower will make unique features for the condos, he says.

One remaining stained-glass window could become a cool feature of a condo.

It can be challenging to remodel a church, but the rectangular building easily could be divided into six units with living space on two floors, says Jim Ambrose, director of business development for Desmone Architects, which is assisting with the project. The first floor would have a common area and the basement would be converted into a garage for residents.

“My favorite part is how unique the units are going to be  they’re all going to celebrate the original architecture of the church while creating modern living spaces,” Ambrose says. “It’s going to raise the bar of residential living spaces in Pittsburgh.”

Though parts of the South Side have gained a reputation as noisy for its bar scene, this tucked away residential neighborhood is quiet, Ambrose says. The church was the one Councilman Bruce Kraus attended as a child.

At 7,000 square feet, the project is small, says Ambrose. A rectory and another adjacent building previously were converted into condos, but the church remained vacant and a previous developer abandoned plans to renovate it.

“Even though it’s a small project, it’s something the community has been looking at for a while, thinking, ‘Eventually, this thing is going to fall over, so who’s going to come save it?’” he says. The South Side “is striving to attract young professionals who will become more permanent residents, and this project allows them to do that.”

Inside the former St. Matthew Church, pews and windows are gone but the building remains solid.

Desmone hasn’t sketched designs yet; the architect and developer will hold a design meeting after the Zoning Board hearing, Sabol says. He envisions taking advantage of the double-height space for “a dramatic feel when you walk into the living areas.”

Sabol is eager to start the project. “It’s our first in Pittsburgh and our first as a developer, so that’s exciting for us as well,” he says of The AM Group, which formed two years ago and has done construction projects in New York. The church, Sabol says, “has good bones. It was built really well; it just needs new life breathed into it.”

He sees a market for condos among people who no longer want to rent.

“We think these will be a nice, unique living space,” he says.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.