(Tube City Almanac file photo from 2007.)
The owner of a popular pro wrestling federation that's celebrating its 25th anniversary this year is looking to grow in McKeesport.
Pro Wrestling eXpress, or PWX, is planning to move into digital media education and training aspiring wrestlers, said owner and co-founder Jim Miller.
Along with the city, PWX is seeking an Allegheny County Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund grant to demolish the abandoned St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church on Beacon Street. PWX has its studio, headquarters and ring in the former Catholic school --- now dubbed "The Battleground" --- adjoining the church.
"It’s been such a blight and I’ve done nothing but chase out squatters and druggies," Miller said.
St. Stephen's, a Hungarian church, merged with the former St. Pius V parish in 1994. It closed in 2002 following the death of its longtime pastor, the Rev. Stephen Kato.
It was sold by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to a corporation controlled by an Italian playboy millionaire, Raffaello Follieri, who bought empty Catholic churches throughout the United States. But federal prosecutors indicted Follieri for swindling his investors, including former President Bill Clinton, in what was called the "Vati-Con Scandal," and he was deported to Italy after serving more than four years in federal prison.
The former St. Stephen's --- not to be confused with the Episcopal church on Walnut Street --- deteriorated severely during Follieri's ownership and large holes developed in its roof.
Miller, who wanted the old St. Stephen's school, purchased the entire site in 2011, originally under the condition that the church be demolished first.
The church "was part of a big package that I didn’t want," he said. "I tried to get it torn down before I bought it."
But Miller was concerned that if he insisted on that, the entire property would have been tied up in court for years, he said, "and that wasn't going to help anyone, either."
Founded in 1994 at the former Eastland Mall in North Versailles Twp., PWX has grown into one of the region's largest independent pro wrestling federations and holds two events per month.
Both male and female wrestlers compete in shows that are broadcast from the McKeesport facility over the Internet and cable TV channels throughout Western Pennsylvania.
Miller has created a non-profit arm called SAVE --- Sports Arts Video Education --- and he wants to use the equipment at the Wrestleplex to help train young people in digital media.
"We've had a ton of parents who have come to us, who said their kids wanted to learn how to wrestle, but we want them to have fun and be creative but be safe," Miller said. "And if you can’t wrestle and you’re not athletic, we'd like to be able to teach some video production work."
But the derelict church has been a barrier to expansion, he said, because parents and other visitors don't feel safe with it looming over the facility.
"I’d like to make over a portion of it with green grass, and maybe some extra parking," Miller said. "It’ll make it look much better. A lot of people from the hospital have told me they’d like to park up there, but they’re afraid to walk past it."
On March 6, McKeesport City Council voted 7-0 to apply for a CITF grant in the amount of $90,000 to demolish the church. A city spokeswoman said they don't have a timeframe on when the CITF grant application might be approved.
"When they came in, I was extremely happy — I’d never be able to afford to do it by myself," Miller said.
Tickets are on sale now for "Fight Society: Casualties of War," at 7 p.m. April 13 at The Battlegrounds, 2125 Beacon St. For more information, visit pwxfightsociety.com.
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published March 21, 2019.