The Painter and the Ghost: Maxo Vanka, the St Nicholas Murals, and the Millvale Apparition

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Mary, Queen of Croatians, pray for us, says the three-storey mural behind the altar at St Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania. It was painted in 1937 by Maxo Vanka. Photo courtesy of Plurabilities under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

Ghost stories are everywhere in this world. Many of them involve hauntings of houses, castles, hotels, and other edifices. But a haunted church? St Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania, is said to be haunted. Our eyewitnesses are not one of those teams of paranormal researchers with EMF meters, but an artist and a priest. Renowned painter Maxo Vanka (1889-1963) and Father Zagar had an up-close-and-personal encounter with the Millvale Apparition while Vanka was executing one of the most remarkable mural projects in North America. You shall hear.

St Nicholas Croatian Church

. . .the church stood atop a knoll, overlooking a vast industrial area, which included a street-car barn, an extensive railroad yard, and several factories and mills, with rows of workers' houses.

– Louis Adamic, 'My Friend Maxo Vanka' in My America, 1938

In the early 1900s, there were between 30,000 and 50,000 Croatians in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then a smoky, crowded city where the steel mills lined the banks of the rivers at the Forks of the Ohio. As Croatia even now is a Catholic country, these people wanted a church where they could worship in their language. They got two, both called St Nicholas: the one in Troy Hill (razed in 2013) and the one in nearby Millvale.

Millvale is a borough in the Greater Pittsburgh area, directly across the Allegheny River from the historic Lawrenceville neighbourhood founded by Stephen Foster's father. To call Millvale 'hilly' is an understatement: some of the streets have a 25% incline. People in this area are used to their steep neighbourhoods, with their long outdoor stairways leading up- and downhill. At the top of one of these 'knolls' sits the St Nicholas we want to tell about.

This St Nicholas Church was first built in 1900. It had the usual sort of murals found in a Croatian church. In 1921, a fire destroyed most of the church. The 1922 rebuild gave the congregation a more austere place to worship. By 1937, funds had been raised, and Father Zagar eagerly hired Maxo Vanka to repaint the sanctuary.

Maxo Vanka

Maksimilijan Vanka, known as 'Maxo' to his friends, was born in 1889 in Zagreb, Croatia. His birth was mysterious: his parents, whom he never knew, were young Habsburg nobles in an unsuitable relationship. After giving birth to him in Zagreb, his biological mother turned the baby over to a peasant woman named Dora Jug, who raised him in the village of Putscha Kuplenovo. Maxo loved Dora, his 'real' mother. He cared for her when he was an adult.

When Maxo was eight, an aristocratic grandfather, learning of the child, swooped in and carried the boy off to a castle, where he arranged for tutoring. This relative died shortly after that. As a young man, Maxo went to Brussels to study art. His fellow students nicknamed him 'Inri' because they thought he looked like the Christ figure in religious paintings1. He was a little over five feet (1.5m) tall, slight, bearded, and slender.

When the First World War broke out, Maxo, a pacifist, joined the Red Cross. Then Belgium was invaded, and as a citizen of Austria-Hungary, Maxo returned home to Zagreb. After the war, he became a professor of painting at the Zagreb Academy of Art. He exhibited his art all over Europe. He was acclaimed. He could have lived anywhere, but he preferred Zagreb.

Maxo had no interest in his illustrious ancestors: he was most at home with poor people. He was known for his empathy with humans and animals. He played games with birds – even wild ones would land on him playfully and allow him to hold them. Butterflies congregated in his beard. This led to people in Croatian villages regarding him as some kind of saint.

Louis Adamic observed this remarkable butterfly behaviour at first hand in Zagreb.

One day he observed a black-and-blue butterfly flying awkwardly from stem to stem, a few feet from where we sat. One of its wings was broken. So Maxo picked up the poor, delicate little thing, which then rested on his palm; and he went in back of the house, where a few minutes before he had seen lying amid grape leaves a lately deceased yellow butterfly, whose wings – one undamaged – were about the same size as the black-and-blue one's. Then he got scissors and mucilage, neatly clipped off most of the injured wing of the live butterfly, and pasted in its place the yellow wing of the dead butterfly; and, thus mended, the live one flew off, half black-and-blue and half yellow – one of the funniest, weirdest sights imaginable. Perfectly still while Maxo was working on it with his deft, light fingers, the butterfly had seemed to know he was trying to help it.

– Louis Adamic, 'My Friend Maxo Vanka' in My America, 1938

This was the painter who was about to meet the ghost of Millvale.

Painter Meets Ghost

By 1937, Maxo Vanka was living in New York City with his American wife, Margaret Stetten. Margaret, the daughter of a prominent Jewish surgeon, had fallen madly in love with Maxo when she met him in Zagreb and pursued him relentlessly until he gave in. They had a happy marriage and a daughter, Peggy. The couple moved to the US after Margaret convinced Maxo that he had to share his art with the wider world. Maxo may have 'moved up in the world', but he still loved common people above all. When travelling, he preferred to stay in flophouses so that he could meet more interesting people. He was no stranger to polluted, down-at-heels Pittsburgh. His sketches brought him to the attention of Father Zagar.

In the summer of 1937, Maxo was working 16-18-hour days trying to complete a daunting task: painting the first set of murals for St Nicholas in two months in order for the church to be ready for a celebration. He worked as much as possible at night, when no one – not even Father Zagar – was around to distract him. After all, this was an assignment every bit as monumental as the Sistine Chapel, even if it is in a less prestigious location.

The painter would start work mid-morning and finish at one or two the following morning. He wasn't best pleased that Father Zagar always welcomed him with coffee, as he hated to keep him awake. But it seemed that nothing would deter the good Father's hospitality.

It was the fourth night when he saw the ghost. He didn't think it was a ghost. He thought it was Father Zagar, walking up and down the aisle of his church, gesticulating. From his perch aboard the scaffolding 38 feet (11.5m) above, he could neither see him clearly nor hear him. Can't he pray enough in the daytime? Maxo thought grumpily. It was not a good time of day to be in the church, anyway: the place was cold and damp in April. Maxo, who was wearing two shirts, was shivering. He painted on, determined to make his Madonna and child a masterpiece (which it is).

This went on for several nights before Maxo surprised Father Zagar in the rectory, sound asleep. Once it was established that the priest was not a sleepwalker, the story came out. Maxo was seeing St Nicholas' resident ghost.

Who Was It?

When they hear a ghost story, most people immediately want to know, 'Who was the ghost?' This is a very odd question, if we stop to think about it. Ghosts aren't people. They don't have mailing addresses or voting rights or driving licences. Somehow, the usual assumption among people willing to accept that there are ghosts is that they must be impressions, or relics, or even spirits of people who used to live here and are now dead. This is what the Croatians of Millvale assumed, too. So, of course, the ghost has to have a backstory.

The usual rumour was that the ghost in the church, who was dressed like a priest, was the spirit of a previous parish priest at St Nicholas. They knew who it was, all right: that priest who neglected his duties. The one who took money for masses for family members, and then didn't say them because he was too lazy. Maybe that was the reason he haunted the church at midnight? To catch up on his contractually-obligated praying? Who knows?

Painter Deals with Ghost

Father Zagar had been staying awake night after night in dread, and lurking outside the church door at midnight, for fear that Maxo Vanka would see the ghost, be frightened, and fall off the scaffolding. Instead, Maxo went down and sketched him as he sat, obligingly, in a pew. The sketch is reproduced in his friend Louis Adamic's book. The priest looks pitiful, with a drawn face, large eyes, and a five-o'clock shadow. This make-up work obviously didn't agree with him.

Everybody at St Nicholas – the two priests, the housekeeper, the nuns at the school next door, and even some of the parishioners – regarded the haunting calmly. They stayed out of the church between 11 p.m. and midnight and let the ghost get on with it. The dogs in the neighbourhood didn't like the ghost and would bark. Maxo Vanka, tired of being interrupted, applied ear plugs (against dogs barking and occasional ghostly organ music) and made blinders out of newspaper to keep the ghost out of his peripheral vision. He painted on.

The ghost did misbehave. Once, it blew out the eternal flame (which is hard to do, as the flame is shielded). Another time, it lit the altar candles. It knocked on the walls of Father Zagar's quarters. He told the ghost to behave itself and he would pray for it. Maxo painted steadily, and his masterpiece was finished in time.

When he heard the story of the ghost, Louis Adamic experienced the sort of mental crisis people have who don't believe in ghosts, and don't want to. Adamic decided to investigate, although nobody asked him to. He found Father Zagar, the housekeeper, the nuns, and a few parishioners forthcoming and in agreement about the ghost. Most of the parishioners told Adamic that there were 'no such things as ghosts', but he soon figured out that they were worried that he, a journalist, would spread the story and make Pittsburgh's Croatians look like superstitious peasants from 'the old country.' Adamic couldn't shake his friend's story. He concluded reluctantly:

The thing intrigues me both by itself and in connection with Maxo, whom – frankly – I do not understand any more than, apparently, he understands himself, but whom I like and whom I instinctively trust a good deal further than I can see him. I can say this: if there was "something" to see and experience, Maxo Vanka, if anyone, would see and experience it.

– Louis Adamic, 'My Friend Maxo Vanka' in My America, 1938

More Information, and How to See the Pictures If Not the Ghost

Louis Adamic wrote for Harper's Monthly. He first wrote about Maxo Vanka in 'The Millvale Apparition', in the April 1938 issue, pp 476-485. You can find it online if you are willing to buy a subscription to Harper's.

Adamic's book My America appeared in 1938. It can be read online through Open Library, free of charge.

Maxo Vanka returned to St Nicholas in 1941 to paint more murals. By this time, he was a Pennsylvania resident, living on the other side of the state in Bucks County. Some of the new paintings are religious, while others celebrate Croatian life and emigration. There's a strong antiwar and anti-capitalist bias in this work. Want to see it? Visit Save the Murals or take the virtual tour at this Youtube location, where you'll learn about the restoration project underway and get to appreciate this unusual art. There is no mention of ghosts in this virtual tour. It's probably best not to mention it if you happen to be in Millvale, either.


Photo courtesy of Plurabilities under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

1'INRI' is the inscription usually drawn over the cross in crucifixion scenes. It stands for 'Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum'.

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